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EnchanTea Podcast – E02 Bruce Richardson

“Well, patience is one thing. The other is allowing your spirit to move into the world without worrying. To be communal with people, ask them over a cup of tea. “Tell me about yourself,” and get to know them with this communal cup that we carry with us wherever we go. Those are the main things that tea has taught me.”
“Well, patience is one thing. The other is allowing your spirit to move into the world without worrying. To be communal with people, ask them over a cup of tea. “Tell me about yourself,” and get to know them with this communal cup that we carry with us wherever we go. Those are the main things that tea has taught me.”

EnchanTea Podcast E02

Tea Master Bruce Richardson of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas

 

Welcome to the EnchanTea Podcast! Watch below and subscribe on your favorite podcast platforms including Amazon Podcast, iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Deezer, and more.

Story Highlights

2:12 – Beginning My Tea Journey
5:07 – Tea Master for the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum
11:10 – Monkey Picked Tea
17:13 – Anecdote From A Social History Of Tea
20:55 – Catherine of Braganza
30:12 – Darjeeling
44:44 – Becoming A Master Tea Blender

Podcast Transcript

Welcome to EnchanTea, a podcast dedicated to tea lovers.

A cup of humanity tea comes from a mystical realm. Boundless and bottomless.

The EnchanTea podcast celebrates the divine spirit of tea and its miraculous ways.

Camellia sinensis connects all of us. In each episode, you’ll hear stories about tea and the meaningful connections she brings. From tea culture to her art and history.

You’ll be immersed in the boundless joy of the tea spirit.

This podcast is presented by 9 Dragons Tea, an epic documentary unearthing the long-buried secrets and mysteries of the world’s most popular drink after water.

Hi, I’m Christy Hui, your host, fellow tea lover, writer, and director of 9 Dragons Tea.

Sit down, and let’s enjoy this enchanting cup together.

Christy Hui:
What an honor to have you on the show today, Bruce. Well, it’s always a delight to talk to you, another devotee. Yeah. Yes. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing you numerous times on filming 9 Dragons Tea, and what a marvelous experience we had together. I want to take this opportunity to share some of those magical tea moments with our audience. As a tea historian, author of many tea books, including The Social History of Tea and many others, and owner of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas, we have a lot to discuss, so let’s dive in!

Bruce Richardson:
Glad to.

Christy Hui:
Wonderful! Bruce, Tea Master, can you please do me the honor of briefly introducing yourself to our audience?

How did you begin your tea Journey?

Bruce Richardson:
Well, it’s a long tea Journey. It almost has to go back to being raised on a farm here in Kentucky, which gave me roots in the soil. And now, when I go around the world, meaning tea farmers, I would say it’s just two farm boys talking to each other.

We know soil; we know plants. We know terroir. We know all those things, and we know growing seasons. And so that was a great introduction for me. I didn’t know that as a small boy who left the farm at age 11, but that was literally the root of my tea journey starting there and then different things that happened throughout my life that brought me to the world of tea, but first we went through, you know, 22 years of being a classical musician and singer and conductor.

So I did all that, and still, that was part of my tea journey as well because that brought me to England, where I discovered the English ritual of tea, which then we brought back to Kentucky and started a Tea House in 1990 when nobody was doing tea in America, and that was the beginning of the Tea Renaissance, which now has just grown exponentially here in the United States and across the world.

Christy Hui:
Did the Queen of England ever come to Kentucky for our Kentucky Derby?

Bruce Richardson:
Yes. She did. She came twice, and she had horses. She boarded horses here. And so she would come to visit her horses sometimes and once came to the Kentucky Derby and caused, you know, quite an uproar to everybody wants, of course.

Christy Hui:
Now, so did she grace your tea house?

Bruce Richardson:
No. That was not at the time that I had a tea room. So, I never got to welcome her into my tea house, although in 2002, the British Tea Association awarded us with the very first North American Tea Room to be recognized by the British Tea Council. So that was a big honor for us. But you know, we had to put that tea room away in 2004 after 14 years in order to continue our wholesale importing and blending business, and that’s really what drives the ship these days.

Christy Hui:
Now, I’m going to switch gears a little bit, but I’m going to circle back to your tea shop business later on. I’m going to first talk about the Tea Master. You are the Tea Master for the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum. How do you fulfill that role? What do you do?

Bruce Richardson:
Well, we just finished a major production in Boston. We started the museum nearly 12 or 13 years ago. This is the museum that is in the center of Boston, rises out of Boston Harbor, and interprets the event that happened on December 16th, 1773. This past year was the 250th anniversary of that event.

And so we still spent a year preparing for that and even going to London in order to launch the celebration back in the fall. And then, on December 16th in Boston, we had nearly 15,000 people who surrounded the Ships Museum. We had dignitaries here from all over the world, and we had a reenactment with costumed interpreters and lights camera action, all of it to recreate the Boston Tea Party with a thousand pounds of tea going overboard into Boston Harbor that night. So, my main role there is to bring tea to the forefront and say that this is a story of tea.

Christy Hui:
This is how it got here, and that’s how you and I met: We were talking about how the tea came from China to London and then on its way to Boston. A lot of people don’t know that the tea that went into Boston Harbor all came from China because that was the only place really that was exporting tea at the time. Yeah, and I find it fascinating. Until I made the tea movie, I did not know that two-thirds of those teas came from the Wuyi Mountains.

Bruce Richardson:
Yes.

Christy Hui:
Yes, Wuyi and the Sunlo Mountains are both in Fujian.

Bruce Richardson:
Yes.

Christy Hui:
But every chest of tea came from China, right? And so, you know, a lot of people didn’t realize that, and they thought that maybe they came from India. In the early days, all the teas came from China. It is, and that’s one thing that people don’t know. There was no tea in India. Tea wasn’t discovered in India until 1834, up in the song. And then, it was propagated and planted all over India after that.

Bruce Richardson:
There was no tea from Sri Lanka; tea wasn’t even planted in Sri Lanka until after the American Civil War. Japan was not open to export, so it all came from China for hundreds of years. And we tracked down the entire story, thanks to you appearing in the movie and explaining the greatest kept secret.

Christy Hui:
Chinese tea making.

So, you know that I just… What a story. It was quite a story. I was back in Boston three times last year, and I was back in the Old South Meeting House, where you and I filmed that day. Every time I go there, it’s an honor to be in that hallowed hall. Yeah.

You suggested that, so I am forever indebted to you for how that whole thing came together. And again, I think I talked about the magical spirit of tea, and I think tea has… You almost have to be called to be on your tea journey. It’s a vocation.

Bruce Richardson:
Yes vocation.

Christy Hui:
It’s a meaningful connection to tea, and that’s what we have always thought: that it is a calling. You don’t always know it until maybe after you’ve been down the road a while, and you look back and say, oh yes, I’ve been on this road for quite a while.

I didn’t even realize it. Yeah.

Bruce Richardson:
This is the tea trail.

Christy Hui:
Oh, I’ve been on the tea trail, and you know when I was filming at the Tea Party Ships and Museum. It was so nice to be able to taste a cup of Lapsang Souchong, which is the origin of black tea that started to migrate into the West, and you have something to do with it.

Didn’t you, Bruce? What about tasting the different types of Black tea at the museum?

Bruce Richardson:
So I I furnish all the tea to the museum. So when you go to the museum today in Abigail’s Tea Room, you can taste the five teas that were tossed overboard in Boston Harbor. Now, I have to tell you these teas are much better than the original teas that went into Boston Harbor. Yeah, I often say that the great offense that George the Third cast upon our citizenry was trying to offload stale and outdated tea into the colonies. It was just atrocious. And so the teas we have today are fresh. They’re less than a year old, and the quality is so much better than that of what would have been drunk there in Boston or in England in the 1700s.

Christy Hui:
We talked about it in the tea film how Lapsang Souchong was an accidental invention in China. And in Wuyi Shan, we traced that journey. But first of all, it was the tea that the Chinese rejected, right?

Bruce Richardson:
It was tainted. It was too dark. We don’t want it. It was too smoky. Let’s sell it to the Westerners. They don’t know what they’re drinking. Exactly.

Christy Hui:
Another wonderful thing was walking around the museum that day after filming. One of the art panels caught my attention: the mystery of Monkeys Picking Tea. Tell me, Bruce, did monkeys really pick tea?

Bruce Richardson:
Well, one of my favorite stories is that I got a call once from MTV. They were doing some kind of broadcast on tea for some reason, and so they wanted to know if they were trying to do teas that men might want to drink. One of the teas they pointed out was Monkey Picked Tea.

They asked how they make this Monkey Picked tea, and I said, you’re not the first Westerner to have asked that. Because they used to tell the buyers in Canton, both the Dutch and the English: “Well, we’re charging you so much for this tea because we had to train monkeys to go up into the tea trees, pick it, bring it back down, and hand it to us so that we could pack it away for you.” And that just adds a lot of price to the tea they were about to sell to you, and they go, well, we’ll pay whatever you want to ask for this tea. And so they call it, we call it Monkey Picked Tea. And, of course, there was no such thing, but we still use the term Monkey Picked. So if you go into any tea seller in Chinatown and say I want your best Monkey Picked tea. They know, well, you want the best, the very best tea. And so it’s just a term we use now to talk about the very best tea that we might offer.

Christy Hui:
You know, back in those days, there was no advertising, right? I mean, we don’t even… I mean the culture of barriers, the language barrier.

Bruce Richardson:
Yes alone.

Christy Hui:
So, how do you sell all the tea in China? How do you distinguish it? Right. It’s a classic marketing issue, and so, you know, it’s a great ploy.

Bruce Richardson:
Well, the term all the tea in China. Those in the West have no idea what they’re saying when they say that because you’ve been there, and you know that every time you go over a hill, somebody’s making tea in a different way than the person on the other side of the hill. So we’ve cataloged over 2,000 different teas in China, but that’s just a portion of them because every time you meet a new tea maker, they’re making tea in a different fashion or with a different cultivar.

Bruce Richardson appearing in film 9 Dragons Tea
Bruce Richardson appearing in film 9 Dragons Tea

Christy Hui:
And so when you say all the tea in China, It’s unlimited how much you’re talking about.

Bruce Richardson:
Yeah, I mean, even in Wuyi Shan alone where it’s the origin of Lapsang Shouchong, the Black tea and Oolong tea, there are hundreds of varietals of Oolong alone.

So, in that mountain region, as one can imagine, just to track all of that, in the 1500s and 1600s, there was no common language. Nobody was writing this down. When we research tea, the language corruption of the tea terms…

One of my favorite examples was the origin of the tea name “Orange Pekoe.”

I’ve written about that hundreds of times, and still, people have no idea. There’s no orange in my orange Pekoe tea, you know, I want to send this back. The thing is that the word Pekoe is the word for the little cilia on your ear, or it’s also the little cilia on the white tea bud. And that word is Pekoe, and then the word orange is actually the “House of Orange” – the Dutch monarchy. So my conjecture is that the Dutch East India Company bought this tea to bring it home, and they paid a lot for it. And this is a new tea which they just knew the name of it was Pekoe and they said well, how are we going to sell this, and somebody said well, let’s give a chest of it to the king and name it after him and we’ll call it Orange Pekoe.

And so that name Orange Pekoe has stayed with us over the years, of course. It has made a circuitous route to now, where we use it in the grading system. So, all the grades of tea from Sri Lanka, China, and India use the term Orange Pekoe.

F.O.P. is Flowery Orange Pekoe. B.O.P. is Broken Orange Pekoe and so on.

So that’s how we keep it going.

Christy Hui:
Yeah, I find it fascinating because I speak Chinese. So when I first read about Orange Pekoe, I was trying to correlate that to Chinese, so then it was through sound…

Bruce Richardson:
Oh, yes, it’s the house; the Royal house is the Orange in Dutch in the Netherlands. Therefore, naturally, it is the royal tea because back then tea was so expensive that only the royalties and the high class could drink it. So yes, if you stand in front of the Kensington Palace in London, there’s a statue there of William of Orange. His wife was Mary. William and Mary, the king and queen of England. We even have a college here that’s named after named after them.

Christy Hui:
Yeah. I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about your book, A Social History Of Tea. I read that book, and now, as Chinese, we know how to brew and drink tea. Tea is basically in our blood, right? And one of the most fascinating things for me is how early Europeans took to tea drinking. I’m talking about the 15th / 16th centuries early because tea arrived by tea clippers, and there’s no instruction manual. There’s no social media. No one is telling you how to brew tea. So, when I read one of your anecdotes about this aristocratic lady of the house brewing tea leaves for her husband, I just could not stop laughing.

Bruce Richardson:
I’ve heard it from different places, but it’s a great story. It’s probably not true, but it makes a great anecdote that is the tea, you know, Salem, Massachusetts was a great Harbor, and so every day you go down to the port of Salem, and there would be things arriving at that port coming out of ships. Things that you have never seen in your life.

Things coming from the other side of the world. People with different color skin that you never seen before. People wearing clothes you’ve never seen before, and here is tea being unloaded, and so a man comes home with a packet of tea, and he gives it to his wife, and she says, well, how do you make it? And he’s paid a lot of money for it, and he says, I don’t know. I just know you put it in boiling water. And so, of course, she had a big cauldron of hot water in her magnificent fireplace there, so she just took the package of tea and put it into the boiling cauldron water, and after a while, the tea leaves rehydrated. She said this looked familiar. So she had her servants take it out, dump the water into the yard, put the leaves on an ironstone plate with butter and salt and pepper, and served it for dinner as a salad. So that was the demise of some probably pretty good tea at the time for Salem, Massachusetts, in the early 1700s.

Christy Hui:
But it makes a great story.

Bruce Richardson:
Of course, in the early days, say 2000 years ago, the Chinese used to cook tea into tea soup.

Even add salt to it and citrus peel.

Bruce Richardson:
Yes, Lu Yu came out and said you stop that, and he wrote a book about it. What a barbaric way to drink tea. Wasting. So this came up recently, too, and almost every newspaper and even NPR did a story about it a couple of weeks ago about some scientists who said, well, your tea will taste better if you put just a few kernels or pieces of salt into it, and people would go crazy.

Christy Hui:
Yeah. It’s just a tea drinking. Magnificent ways. And I just couldn’t stop laughing when I read that in your book.

Bruce Richardson:
I’m just back from Portugal, and I spent a lot of time in the libraries and archives of the museums. You know, it was the Portuguese who really had the first interaction with China and Japan.

Christy Hui:
I’m going to ask you about the Princess of Braganza.

Bruce Richardson:
Yeah. So, you know, in 1500, you had the Portuguese explorers making their way to China and then to Japan, and you had this interaction. They discovered tea, and even in the museum there in Lisbon, there are tea balls made by the Japanese with Christian crosses on them.

So you see that you have this melding of two cultures through tea in the 1500s until all the Portuguese were kicked out about 100 years later, but it’s just amazing that the Portuguese were the first really to discover and the Portuguese were the first probably to drink tea in Europe. And so then you have in 1658 you have, as often happens, the British Monarchy needs to find a new Queen, and they have to go outside the country to find somebody, and so they brought in this young teenager Catherine of Braganza who came over to marry Charles The Second and brought a huge dowery with her.

The English got Bombay as part of the deal, and she brought with her tea. We don’t know how much tea, maybe just a little packet. But anyhow, she had tea when she was probably the first English Queen to drink tea at the Royal palaces. And so again, you had this influence. Well, if it’s good enough for the king or queen, then maybe we should be drinking that, so it was great publicity for them at that time.

Christy Hui:
I love the fact that when Catherine wanted to have her tea.

Bruce Richardson:
While she was at the court in England, they had to get her tea through the Dutch and not the British East India Company then because exactly because the British East India Company wasn’t importing tea at the time the Dutch were yes, it already started bringing in huge amounts of tea. And so this is why we’d like the English East India Company to say we’d like to give the gift of tea to the new Queen and if anybody knows where to get it. Okay, let’s go to our nemesis, the Dutch East India Company, and buy some. Yeah, it was probably embarrassing for them, but they had to do it.

Christy Hui:
That’s just a great story about how this tea journey started to evolve. Through Baganza from Portugal to England, and then how was it introduced and adopted.

Bruce Richardson:
I remember curating a number of magnificent artworks from the museum in Lisbon, Portugal, and that really helped us put together the missing pieces in the entire jigsaw puzzle of how tea came to the West exactly. Yeah. I love it. Now.

Christy Hui:
I want to talk about some of your work as a tea master. I personally had the pleasure of tasting your magnificent Japanese shaded tea. And I remember that when we moved to Florida here, and all of a sudden, I needed to drink iced tea, and you introduced me. To this really healthy, refreshing Japanese shaded green tea, you tell me the story behind that.

Bruce Richardson:
Well, Gyokuro is in the top 5% of all the tea produced in Japan. It is this shade-grown teen that’s been shade-grown for centuries in America. We drank a lot of Japanese green tea 150 years ago. And as a matter of fact, 40% of the tea we consumed in America was Japanese tea. Now, it’s always Gyokuro because that’s very expensive. But we were drinking Japanese Green tea, Gyokuro, which is just a beautiful work of art.

There’s so much work that goes into it. But it makes one of the softest, most gentle green teas and one of the healthiest green teas that you could possibly drink. Ours comes from a farmer in Kagoshima. It is southwest of Japan, one of the long peninsulas that extends down, pointing towards Okinawa. Again, there is a volcano there, just like Shizuoka does with Mount Fuji. So the volcanic soil helps grow this tea, and he, this is Master Sakamoto, who makes my Gyokuro, and he completely re-engineered the soil. It’s one of the most beautiful organic farms I’ve ever seen in my life. And when I walked into his garden the first time, the plants were almost vibrant, and I could feel almost the energy coming off of them. Then, as before, I heard his story of how he produced this tea, that he plunges it into 95% Darkness for three weeks before they harvest it in the early spring, and that tea is then gently steamed.

Then it’s manufactured into the beautiful tea called Gyokuro, which many of my students cold- steep it rather than using water about 175 degrees. They’ll put it into a cold steeper with filtered water, keep it in the refrigerator, and drink it all day long.

So it’s really healthy, filled with Umami flavors, and also filled with EGCG, a great antioxidant found in Green tea. It is also filled with l-theanine, the amino acid that’s perfect for your brain.

Christy Hui:
Brain Health. Yes, perfect. Let me ask you this, Bruce: Does that method of production, the shaded tea plants, and the gentle way of withering and processing the tea leaves preserve more nutrients in the tea leaves?

Bruce Richardson:
Well, yeah, you see, there’s hardly any oxidation that goes on with it. So, it’s very gently steamed. Then the thing that people don’t understand often is, if you’re going to drink tea like this for its health benefits. You need to drink it probably within 10 months of its manufacturing because, after that, all those properties will start to dissipate. That’s why I always tell people coming to me and saying I tried Green tea. I went to Walmart and bought, you know, 200 teabags for 99 cents, and it’s just ain’t the same. What happened? Well, you can’t do things like that and expect to have a good tea experience.

Christy Hui:
Well, maybe they should boil them and then eat the leaves they would get more nutrition out of it.

Bruce Richardson:
I just wrote an article on, you know, what is good tea? And we talk about good tea all the time. One of my favorite stories is a few years ago when we were in the Georgia O’Keeffe home in Santa Fe. We were going through Georgia O’Keeffe’s house, and we were going on the way to the kitchen on the tour. We passed through the pantry, and I thought, oh, yes, this is Georgia O’Keeffe’s pantry. There were the beans that she had, and there were rice and all these different things. She put them into mason jars and hand-wrote them on little labels. What all these items were, and I came to one jar, and it said tea.

Christy Hui:
Oh well, great.

Bruce Richardson:
George O’Keeffe was a tea drinker, good. But, right next to it was a jar that said good tea. So you see, Georgia O’Keeffe knew the difference between just any old tea and really good tea. And I’m sure there were people who came to her house that she would serve tea to. And there were others who she would serve good tea and this was mainly because she knew who would appreciate the good tea over just a common tea.

Christy Hui:
So, what did her good tea taste like?

Bruce Richardson:
Well, I might not consider it a good tea, but she did have a brand of tea that she enjoyed quite a bit, but she also had a herb garden she went out and made a lot of her own herbal blends as well. Anyhow, I was asked by the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe to design a line of teas based on Georgia O’Keefe. And so, I did that. And the whole line was called Good Teas. So, we designed three or four different teas based on Georgia O’Keefe’s life.

Christy Hui:
And I love the fact that you take good tea. Are they packaged in Mason jars, too?

Bruce Richardson:
No, they’re not. They’re standard steel tin, but that’s a good tea.

Christy Hui:
I also read that you secured your tea importing your teas from Darjeeling.

Bruce Richardson:
Well, Darjeeling has been one of my favorite teas. Yeah, I’ve imported from there, for gosh, for almost 30 years. And it used to all come in big wooden chests but no more because wood is so hard, you know, there’s only about 85 or 86 tea gardens on that mountain. And on a clear day, you can see Mount Everest way back in the background, but that is the Holy Ground of good tea in India, and it’s considered, you know, one of the best, and here we talk about teas that are the first flush, second flush Monsoon teas or then Autumn flush.

So we buy the tea not only by the season but also by the garden sometimes I’ll go to the gardens. For instance, the garden is very healing. So, a garden might have a thousand feet difference in altitude from the top to the bottom. And so, sometimes, in those gardens, we even distinguish between the upper gardens or the lower gardens because they’ll taste different, almost like a Pinot Noir, you know, living in California. What makes great Pinot Noir is that early morning fog that comes in and protects the vineyard, and then the sun comes out, warms up, and gently encourages the grapes to produce their natural, wonderful flavors. And without that fog, there will be no Pinot Noir that we want to drink out of Sonoma or for the central coast, and the same thing with Darjeeling teas. Those hillsides take a while for the sun to hit them, warm them up gently, and then cool them down in the evening, and that makes all the difference in the taste of those teas.

Christy Hui:
Yeah, the terroir you talked about—you know, Darjeeling was very similar in landscape and terroir to Wuyi Shan.

Bruce Richardson:
Exactly.

Christy Hui:
Yes, so that the altitude and elevation and the formation of mountains and the walks, so it is a magnificent region. I can’t wait to one day visit Darjeeling and the English certainly know how to pick their tea planting region.

Bruce Richardson:
Well, it was the Scots that had a lot to do with that as well.

Christy Hui:
So yeah, Scottish planters were going into Darjeeling and Sri Lanka.

Bruce Richardson:
So they had a big part in that.

Christy Hui:
Yes, Ceylon, the old days.

Bruce Richardson:
Well, say that while we’re talking about Ceylon. There are still those old romantic names we continue to use in the tea industry, like Formosa or Ceylon, and it would be today if a lot of people wouldn’t know where Formosa was unless you said, well, it’s Taiwan. That’s what it means. So, and the same thing goes with Sri Lanka being for Ceylon. But we continue to use those romantic names. Yeah, there’s so much more.

There’s this romance, like you talked about—the romance of tea—and to me, using these old names like Formosa is another. That’s how Oolong from Wuyi Shan went to Formosa in the beginning, hence Wuyi Oolong. It was famous, I mean after Wuyi Oolong, so that’s a wonderful story, too.

But that’s another story all in and of itself.

Christy Hui:
I wanted to ask you, Bruce, as a tea person, now you’re living my dream because you get to travel around the world and talk with tea growers, tea farmers, and tea masters and drink tea with them all over. I mean, it is my dream to do that. Have you noticed the common characteristics representing good tea making, and how does that translate into a good cup of tea?

Bruce Richardson:
Well, I think it starts with the tea masters that I met. It’s their passion whether it’s, you know, the man who lives at 2,500 feet on a mountain in Sheswoka outside of Mount Fuji who has won three international Green tea championships and grows, maybe five acres of tea up on this hillside and I walk into his garden. He takes me through and introduces me to his plants like they’re his children, and then every spring, when the plants put out their new shoots, the villagers come up, and then they put on white gloves, and they go out and harvest the tea that he will then enter into that contest, and he shares that tea with me and you know, I don’t speak. I don’t speak Japanese. He doesn’t speak English. People often say well, how do you communicate with each other? I said we’re both people of tea. We don’t need words. We’re beyond that.

So once we start to drink tea, we immediately are communal human beings, and we’re communicating on a different level. It goes back to The Book of Tea with Okakura Kakuzō, whose opening chapter. It’s entitled “The Cup of Humanity.” Tea is that communal cup that brings us together no matter where we go in the world. So in January, I visited tea people all over Portugal, and when I went into their shop or their tea room, you know, let’s have a cup of tea, and we’re immediately brothers and sisters in this magical elixir.

Christy Hui:
So, what is your most memorable experience with tea?

Bruce Richardson:
That’s hard to say because I’ve had, you know, so many, but I told you about the man in Japan, so let’s go now to Taiwan where a few years ago I sat with some of your listeners who might know Wu De, who is a Tea Master in Taiwan, and he has people from all the world come to study with him.

He’s in Zen Buddhism. And so we sat drinking a wonderful tea that had been harvested from thousand-year-old tea trees in China, and we were drinking out of thousand-year-old teacups tea bowls and in this beautiful setting. And we were drinking Gong Fu style. Meaning that he would steep the tea just you know, very softly and gently. And then pour the tea into the cups, and we would drink them just he, one other fellow, and I. And then we would just contemplate what’s going on with the tasting of these, and we infused that tea 16 times.

Sixteen infusions took 45 minutes to go through those 16 different infusions, and we did it all in total silence. We never said a word. And so, after all that, I got lost in this beautiful aura that encloses us, and it was one of the most beautiful tea experiences I’ve ever had in my life. It’s a solitary communal experience.

It is, and we wrote, my wife Shelly and I wrote a book a few years ago based on photographs I had shot in Tea Gardens around the world. It’s called “Looking Deeply Into Tea,” and the purpose of it was to look into your tea cup every time you drink it. Think about the people around the world who have made this tea for you, and get deeply into it. And be very mindful of those people. So then it becomes a part of your meditation, and you appreciate the work that’s gone into this cup, and it binds you to them in a spiritual way.

Christy Hui:
Would you say that your favorite way of tasting tea was by looking into tea and meditating?

Bruce Richardson:
Well, it is in those kind of situations where it’s just so rare. Now. There are, of course, when we go on tea-tasting trips or buying trips. Sometimes you’re sipping tea, you’re sipping, you know, 40 or 50 different teas within two hours just to get notes and evaluate the teas very quickly, but then there are other times where you really pay attention to it and let the tea talk to you and take you where it wants you to go. And see, that’s all part of the tea journey.

Christy Hui offering tea to Bruce Richardson on the set of 9 Dragons Tea
Christy Hui offering tea to Bruce Richardson on the set of 9 Dragons Tea

Christy Hui:
That is, yeah. That’s why we love tea.

Bruce Richardson:
It is a tea that becomes your leader.

Christy Hui:
Yeah, you follow tea.

So, how has tea changed your life, Bruce?

Bruce Richardson:
Well, I have to say it’s pretty much allowed me to take everything that I love to do, whether it’s music, art, conversation, or writing, and put them all into a practice of just allowing me to go through the world and experience these things and then come back enriched and then share those events with people as well.

And I want to tell tea’s story: I did a lecture yesterday with the UK Tea Academy, Jane Pettigrew, and we were talking about the Boston Tea Party and how we celebrated this year, and I said, the thing I’m most proud about that position is that I was able to bring tea to the forefront.

So, this is a museum that not only honors and interprets an event. It honors tea. And so we’re able to tell the story of tea like it’s never been told before. So there are two things I want to put on my tombstone:

He was the Team Master for the Boston Tea Harbor Ships Museum.

The second thing is he taught Americans how to drink good Green tea.

Christy Hui:
Beautifully said, Bruce! And that’s one of the things I admire most about you. And when I first met you. Honestly, that’s what connected me with you.

Bruce Richardson:
Thank you.

Christy Hui:
That’s what connects tea people all over the world.

Yeah, the love, the passion. And when you were tasting the Formosa tea with the 1,000-year-old tea bowls, were you tasting Puer tea or Oolong tea?

Bruce Richardson:
This was an Oolong tea, but I think it was from probably Hunan because, you know, the flavor went on and on and on and on, and we stopped at 16 infusions. It probably could have gone on even more.

Yeah, so then that means that they took the old ancient tea trees, the tea leaves and processed it in the Oolong way.

Christy Hui:
That’s right.

Bruce Richardson:
And I’m you know, I’ve met these farmers in China who, when they come to harvesting those leaves from those thousand-year-old trees. There’s scaffolding that’s built around the tree. They have to go up the scaffolding and you have to get a certificate in order to go and harvest that tea. And it’s it’s so rare. So unique to have something like that that you can taste these days.

Christy Hui:
Yes, so one of the things that I loved was reading Lisa See’s book “The Tea Girl From Hummingbird Lane.” I love it so much that, like these ancient tea groves she was talking about, one of the lines that grabbed me and resonated with me the most was that you have to love tea to make good tea. I just can’t get enough of that. And yes, have you been to Yunan?

Bruce Richardson:
I’ve not. I’ve met a lot of farmers in China who are from there. But I’ve not made it all the way into the interior of Yunan. It’s on my to-do list here.

Christy Hui:
Yes, me too. I love to go, and who knows, maybe our tea journey will crisscross and merge. This is on my bucket list. She did a wonderful job of introducing a lot of Americans and people around the world, too.

Bruce Richardson:
Yes, to Puerh.

Christy Hui:
Yes, and so much that I’m so taken with that book that I’m doing a book club, a tea book club. My first book talk is featuring The Tea Girl From Hummingbird Lane. I was so sad when I read that novel and came to the last chapter. I’m like, oh my goodness, please. Don’t let it end.

Bruce Richardson:
If you look in the back, you will see that she has a credit for a class she attended at the World Tea Expo years ago. Jane Pettigrew and I talked about it, and I’m happy to say I encouraged her along her tea journey.

Christy Hui:
Yes, I love that.

Now, you are a master tea blender. How did you get started with blending tea?

Bruce Richardson:
Well, people ask me that all the time. I have two degrees in music and whether you’re composing music or composing a concert or composing tea, it all comes from the same: the heart, the same spirit. So, one of the things that I am kind of known for is museums around the world will ask me to design teas based on artwork in their collections, and so I do that constantly which is great fun.

For instance, the Cincinnati Museum of Art sent me a Van Gogh last year. We designed a tea based on the colors of that painting, and I had just been to Provence. So, I was all about Van Gogh. So, it was a great infusion of my tea journeys, putting it into a tea blend.

And then for the Yale British Art Collection. I’ve done seven or eight of their teas for them. And these are things that I do all the time. Our biggest Market is in Boston for this Bell Stewart Garden Museum. We’ve designed 12 or 14 teas for them as well. So, to me, it’s a great challenge to get a painting and say, all right. Here’s John Singer Sergeant:

  • Where did he travel his life?
  • What influenced him?
  • What’s his palate?
  • Where did he find all those colors that he uses, and then,
  • let’s move that into tea as well.

So, and the other one I did a few years ago for a project in Shanghai, where I designed 20 teas for a runway show in July. I had a year preparing for that, going back and forth to China, designing all these blends based on the fabrics, colors, and themes for the fashion show. Now, that was great fun.

Bruce Richardson on the set of 9 Dragons Tea
Bruce Richardson on the set of 9 Dragons Tea

Christy Hui:
Wow, what a magnificent way to kind of bring sensory or you know, smell all that into just from a theme. From the colors that you see. I mean, just like bringing the imagination to life.

Bruce Richardson:
It is. I’m like an illustrator.

Christy Hui:
Yeah, creating something just from an inspiration.

It is, and I go in every time not preconceiving anything that I’m going to do. It’s like a jazz musician sitting down at a piano.

You have done all the work. You’ve played all the scales. Now, sit down and let the music begin.

That’s the way I compose a tea plant. And so you kind of feel what tea comes to you. What flavor comes to you? And past experiences as well.

Christy Hui:
Amazing. That’s a dream job. You have to have your nose, too. I mean, a nose for all these different smells, just like a winemaker?

Bruce Richardson:
It is, you know, wherever I go in the world where I’m investigating new wines here in Kentucky, we, of course, make bourbon. And so I have a catalog of a collection of almost 200 different Bourbons that I can go back and say this specific note in this bourbon or this one and this one, so it’s a catalog, an inventory that I keep in my brain all the time.

Christy Hui:
What’s the most popular blend that you sell at the store?

Bruce Richardson:
Well, my son Ben, who now is the manager of our operations, told me last week, He said you know what the number one tea was we sold in our retail section, now, we’re mainly a wholesale company. He said that number one retail on our website last year was the tea we designed for the 250th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, which is a tea that gave a nod to Jefferson because Jefferson had one of the very first peach trees to grow in Monticello. So we designed a tea that had dried peaches in it, and it makes a great tea for either iced tea or hot tea either way. This was the official tin of the 250th anniversary of the Bostin Tea Party, and we sold thousands of those. It was our biggest seller last year.

Christy Hui:
Now he’s a Green tea fan. Was it the peach tree, the peach flavor mixed with Green tea?

Bruce Richardson:
No, we didn’t do with Green tea. He also had Lapsang Souchong (Black tea) as well. Okay, we didn’t put peaches in Lapsang Souchong; it smells like a burnt pie. So we decided to use a good standard Black tea for like a Kingman.

Christy Hui:
Ah, that’s fantastic—Black tea with peach. As a tea shop owner, what experiences do you want your customers to walk away with?

Bruce Richardson:
You know, it’s amazing. I was in my office today and always heard people coming into the shop. You have to realize we’re in a little town in Kentucky. It’s agricultural.

We have 17,000 people living in this town, and I’m hearing what people are coming in. My son or whoever’s working out there will say, “Can we help you? What can we help you find today?”

And the people came in this morning and said, “I’m looking for… I need a pound of milky Oolong tea.” We’ve come a long way that somebody in Kentucky can walk into a tea shop and off the street and ask for a pound of milk Oolong from Taiwan. It’s the real milk Oolong, not flavored milk Oolong, and they know the difference between those. And we have people; I remember a fellow getting out of his pickup truck one morning in the parking lot coming in. He walked in and said, “I need some of that tea that begins with the letter P,” and I said, “You mean Puerh, ” and he said, “Yeah, that’s it. My wife told me that’s the tea. I should be drinking that tea right now.” The world of tea in America has come a long way.

Christy Hui:
It’s amazing, isn’t it? It’s thanks to people like you.

Bruce Richardson:
Well, and that’s why people like Norwood Pratt, Jane Pettigrew, and I keep telling these stories because we have a lot of new people in the tea industry who don’t know this lineage, how far we’ve come in the past 30 years. And we need to be thankful. People are always saying. “Oh, America has such bad tea.” Well, yes, we do. But you should have seen it 30 years ago. There was no tea. So we’re slowly making progress, and now, in a small town in Kentucky, people can pull up and say, I want that milky Oolong.”

Christy Hui:
That’s stunning.

Bruce Richardson:
Yeah, or you know, the New York Times will call and say there’s a guy in Kentucky we need to talk to because we want to know what’s going on in the world of tea in London and New York. Things are changing.

Christy Hui:
Yeah, this tea story, she still has so much to tell.

Bruce Richardson:
You know, as much as we know today, it’s endless. The art of tea now.

Christy Hui:
To wrap up, Bruce, if you have to write down a list of lessons learned that tea taught you, what would be at the top of that list?

Bruce Richardson:
“Well, patience is one thing. The other is allowing your spirit to move into the world without worrying. To be communal with people, ask them over a cup of tea. “Tell me about yourself,” and get to know them with this communal cup that we carry with us wherever we go. Those are the main things that tea has taught me.”

Christy Hui:
I am so humble, yes, and I love how tea is very humbling. Just when you think you know. You find out what you don’t know and how deep and vast this tea realm is.

Bruce Richardson:
It really is, and although I get introduced as a Tea Master, you know, there is no certification for being a Tea Master. You’re just in it, and when you turn so many years old, you’ve been around long enough people come to you for information. So you became the old guy on the block who is the master of knowing this. The other thing to know is you don’t know it all. There’s never a day that goes by I don’t learn something new about tea that I didn’t know the day before.

Christy Hui:
Yeah, I always say that I am a student of tea.

Bruce Richardson:
Oh, yes, exactly.

Christy Hui:
And you know, I just recently realized one thing. The word teacher starts with tea. I mean, yes, we take it for granted, these simple words, and it just suddenly dawned on me. The word “teacher” starts with tea.

Bruce Richardson:
That’s a good bumper sticker to carry with you.

Christy Hui and Bruce Richardson on the set of 9 Dragons Tea
Christy Hui and Bruce Richardson on the set of 9 Dragons Tea

Christy Hui:
And last question, Bruce, What does tea mean to you?

Bruce Richardson:
Well, it is my passport to the world. It has given me entry into the world, and I’m most grateful for that.

Christy Hui:
Yeah.

Well said. It’s amazing.

Thank you, Bruce.

You are always amazing to me.

Bruce Richardson:
Well, thank you.

Marco Solorio, Bruce Richardson, and Christy Hui on the set of 9 Dragons Tea
Marco Solorio Bruce Richardson and Christy Hui on the set of 9 Dragons Tea

That’s all for this episode. I really enjoyed sharing this cup with you. For tea floats between us, bestowing her wisdom in the leaves. Remember, it’s not about the tea you drink, but the spirit you bring to your tea drinking.

Thank you all for listening. Until the next Enchantea. May the tea spirit embrace you.

To join the 9 Dragons Tea Society, visit 9dragonstea.com.

 

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