Cultivate sources tea from small producers who continue to find ways of maintaining traditional methods of harvesting and making tea throughout China. I opened Cultivate in Vancouver in 2014, as a place where people could come to appreciate these special teas and take time to enjoy their preparation. If I consider how Cultivate was started, and why it continues, I must mention that I was not always a tea drinker – I wandered into a tea shop in Beijing in 2010, and in doing so, I wandered into my appreciation for tea. It is fitting that, in opening Cultivate, I should come to hold the door of a tea shop open to others – especially to those who may have not yet met tea.
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Nanluoguxiang Alley is a notoriously busy place in Beijing. This narrow street swarms with residents, tourists, and the activity of the shops and cafes that densely line it. In the context of Beijing, Nanluoguxiang Alley is meaningful; it is a gathering place for traditional festivals, exchanges, and political demonstrations. In the summer of 2011 I was on this teeming, notorious street and spilled off into one of its arteries, Beiluoguxiang, attracted by its, what seemed to be, very unlikely peace.
In this unusually quiet alley I saw a small sliding glass door set into a tiny concrete building. There was no sign to indicate whether or not it was a shop, or what kind of shop it may have been. However, the vibrant green plants that covered its glass door held me there. After a pause, I felt like I could enter.
Inside, the walls were lined with wooden shelves. My eyes moved across them like I was reading a three dimensional text: tea sets, next to porcelain vases, next to small gourds, celadon tea cups, pu’erh cakes, stones, wooden packages. I could see someone’s handwritten calligraphy on small boxes of tea, dispersed among the other objects. Everything seemed to stand on its own on the shelves, like a single character. Recognizing it was a tea shop I looked for the stacks of metal canisters, and the abundance I am used to seeing presented in these kinds of places – but I only saw the small wooden boxes, and the carefully placed cakes of pu’erh.
This was the first time I saw a pu’erh cake, and perhaps the first time I was given the space to consider it. And the space fed into my impression as it formed: a glass vase sat off to the side, I could hear the sound of constantly running water coming from it – I looked over and saw it contained a few fishes. They swam in and around a Pennywort plant, which stood in the vase with its aquatic roots suspended beneath round, lily-pad like leaves. As I considered the details of the shop, the attention it demonstrated of its owner, and all of the life I was observing here, I was filled with many questions about the pu’erh, about what made it different from other teas, from Japanese tea, from matcha –
Sensing my curiosity, the owner of the shop invited me to the back where I could sit at the table and drink tea. It was very quiet here, and more dimly lit, as though another world had separated me from Nanluoguxiang Alley. The only sound I noticed was the slow, steady water from the vase with the fish in it. A single lamp hung over the table, covered in the same handmade rice paper the pressed tea cakes were wrapped in. She made me pu’erh ripe, in a slow, methodical manner. I noticed how elegantly she held the tea pot, and the steadiness with which water passed between it, the serving vessel, and then into my tiny glass. This was the first time I drank pu’erh tea. I stayed for several hours, attending to the progression of the tea with each infusion, watching it being brewed – the simple action of boiling water, pouring water, pouring tea.
I do not really remember the taste of that tea, however I remember the deep and very particular kind of nourishment I felt when I finally left that tea shop, and I remember the way I carried it with me as I passed back through the other worlds.
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After this encounter my curiosity extended into the origins of the tea itself. I wondered where it came from, what that place was like, both culturally and in the natural world that surrounded it. I wanted to know where the tradition of handling the teas came from, and who the people were that carried these traditions forward. This curiosity came to be the foundation for how I source tea for Cultivate, and has led me to discover incredible instances of care and craftsmanship in relation to nature – practices that produce truly beautiful and unusual teas. As with the small producers I am privileged to meet and work with, I am continually touched by people’s adherence to tradition. Their gestures express values that seem as otherworldly and refreshing to me as that tea shop in Beiluoguxiang Alley did.
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Our Sourcing Philosophy
I. We work with small producers who prioritize sustainability and posterity, meaning their ways of working take into consideration those who have come before and those who will come after.
II. Our teas exhibit masterful traditional craftsmanship, and their making serves to carry the tradition of farming and crafting tea across generations.
III. We taste for terroir, which is to look for specificities of where a tea is from that are evident in what we taste in the glass. Focusing on terroir means that the tea reflects the place – both culturally and geographically – where it comes from. It also means maintaining a historical and regional relationship between tea trees, indigenous to certain areas, and how their leaves are traditionally made into tea.
IV. We value experimentation in varietals and processing methods, that at the same time pays respect to traditional methods. (In fact, part of the tradition of tea making involves great ingenuity and adaptation!).
V. In each region, we seek out teas crafted from wild, indigenous and heirloom cultivars that have not been altered or crossbred for modern farming practices. These areas are usually in the high-mountains, and have not been significantly altered by human purposes.
VI. In sourcing our tea we form and nurture relationships with the artisans, foragers, farmers and families who share their tea with us. These relationships are based on consistent engagement, mutual understanding, and common values.
VII. We ensure that the tea is handled respectfully, from the moment the leaves open to the moment it is in the cup. And we ensure that when it is in the cup the tea is satisfying, clean, and makes us feel good.
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