Pedro Villalon is a professional tea hunter and the co-founder of Kitsilano’s popular O5 Rare Tea Bar. He recently agreed to answer a handful of our questions about tea farming and culture, as well as his own personal experiences and philosophies.
Villalon will be expounding further on his favourite plant at the next Pecha Kucha Vol.49 (June 27th at the Playhouse; tickets are still available here). In the meantime, read on for a taste of what to expect…
Refreshment, stimulant, relaxer, remedy, ritual and ceremonial are the first associations that myself (and I think most people) commonly associate with tea. Obviously, tea comes from a plant though… How have you experienced this disconnect?
I have. Most Western (and to be honest, many Eastern) people think about tea as an ‘industry’: there is some stuff inside little sacks that you can extract in hot water. Its quality is defined as ‘consistency’; if you like a certain product, you can rely on the flavour being consistent year on year. Some guys in some factory have figured out a formula that ensures that this is the case. I prefer to think about tea differently:
– Tea grows on Earth; it is not simply synthesized in some factory.
– Quality means that you enjoy the drinking experience… not that your drink is consistent. I particularly enjoy the variation of flavours every single harvest.
– Better earth and healthy plants yield tastier tea!
In your opinion, why was a tea expert included on this particular plant-themed panel of PechaKucha speakers?
After water, tea is the most popular drink in the world…and it’s made, of course, from a plant. I think that some tea person is relevant at events that look about the Kingdom Plantae from a broad perspective.
What compels you to seek out the origins of your teas? Why should other people get to know about the literal roots of their beverage?
Selfishly speaking, I just love backpacking in some random tea mountains, sharing food and drinks with some cool folks. If I were not doing this job, I’d probably be knocking the doors of National Geographic to see if they would pay me to explore some weird place. Philosophically, perhaps the most important elements involved in mind-blowing tea are the terroir (land, including the surrounding eco system), the tea plants themselves and the people who care for them. Being able to put my hands in the dirt and check out the tea trees helps me to find tea that I like. Learning from the good folks who devote their lives to those tea trees is a huge bonus.
What are the most pertinent and important issues that are unique to tea plants, farms and/or harvesting that we should be aware of?
I. We need to vote with our wallets if we want to preserve micro-farming and handcrafting traditions. Many people are in love with the idea of a cool family growing things ‘old school’… but most people are happy to use their $ to buy mass produced products. Humble opinion: consider beautiful, small batch tea from those stubborn individuals who lovingly grow and handcraft old school tea; your drinking experience may be significantly improved!
II. Expect Change. Every single harvest is different; weather conditions, environmental factors… If you spray those tea leaves with some flavouring oil, you can achieve pretty much the same flavour year on year. Otherwise, you have to live with the idea that every harvest will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. That said: some of the best tea farmers sometimes face a failed crop; it is particularly important to support them when that happens.
III. Drinking better tea may actually be a good financial choice. Apart from the fact that eating and drinking healthy stuff is undeniably good for your health (which can save some healthcare dollars), choosing premium tea enables you to get an insane amount of steeps per serving. 6 grams of PuEr tea will enable you and a few friends to enjoy drinks for perhaps 1/2 hour.
What are the factors that go into a “good” (or exceptional) tea that you seek out when you’re in the field?
The number one factor: does the tea make me happy? The flavour is, of course, very important; but I also focus on how the tea feels in my system after drinking it.
That said, I like to focus on a few factors that usually lead to my favourite tea crops: I. Is the ecosystem healthy? Insects, frogs, birds, weeds… it’s not difficult to see which tea trees are ‘happy’. II. Is the grower proud of his tea? My favourite tea people are complete geeks who invest their heart and soul in their work.
Kombucha took off and became such a huge trend several years ago and O5 has been at its forefront in Vancouver since the beginning. Now the fermented tea drink seems to be as prevalent as Coca-Cola…Do you consider this an anomaly or a breakthrough?
I see kombucha simply as one way to express tea. I would not consider the ubiquity of kombucha in present day Vancouver an anomaly; I believe that, as a community, we simply re-discovered a delicious way to create a feel good drink.
How does a historically Eastern plant theology become relevant in modern Western and West Coast culture? What does modern tea culture look like to you and where do you fit into that?
Both Eastern and Western societies, historically, had strong bonds with the plant kingdom. During the industrial revolution, society (both Western and Eastern) got somehow detached from nature; we somehow ended up eating and drinking sugary stuff that is synthesized in some factory using ingredients that the average Joe can’t name.
I see our West Coast society waking up to this fact not only in terms of tea. My family and a few friends get summer veggies from a cool Co-Op in Richmond; people are drinking craft beer all over the place; the best coffee roasters are training us to seek seasonal, once-in-a-lifetime batches of coffee. Mass produced beer and vanilla flavoured coffee in a tin are by no means dead, but many people are hungry for old-school alternatives.
Tell me one of the most memorable stories you have about getting your hands dirty during one of your famous tea missions.
Before having a tea business, I climbed Nannuo Mountain in the Province of Yunnan; I had heard about some giant tea trees in this province where Chinese people reminded me a lot of my country of origin (Mexico)… so I chose one of the most accessible places to see those trees. Note: the road that goes up Nannuo Mountain is small chicken bus ride away from the city of Jinhong, which is conveniently accessible by flight.
In a village packed with ancient tea trees, a random dude asked me: “Have you eaten?” My reply was negative, so he invited me to his family’s home to eat. I ended up staying a few days, learning from Yang Si (the aforementioned random dude) and his family about PuEr tea. My stay involved cooking and eating around the fire, picking tea and firing up some woks to process PuEr.
A few years later, with Yang Si’s financial situation significantly improved given the sky-rocketing price of PuEr, I stopped by for a couple of days to say hello to the family. Tea was very expensive, I was tight on cash and I said that the purpose of my visit was only social. Yang Si candidly said: “Business has been good; people in fancy cars keep coming from all over China to purchase my old tree PuEr, and I give them some excellent tea. However, I always keep the best stuff for my family and friends; let’s drink it!”