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Teahouses of the Holy 

How David Lee Hoffman stirred China's tea trade

06.24.09


It's hard to imagine that one man's grief over the demise of songbirds led ultimately to a change in China's tea trade. But it did. Back in the 1980s, when David Lee Hoffman learned that the songbirds he loved were not coming back to his west Marin home, he woke up to the fact that pesticide use was unraveling the natural world. Hundreds of species were going extinct every day. He wanted to do something to make a difference, and decided he would have more credibility if he approached the problem as a businessman.

Hoffman is no ornithologist, but he was a tea drinker from his decade-long rambles in Asia, and so he became a tea merchant, searching China's mountain villages for the best teas in the world. While in China during the late 1980s and early 1990s, he used his purchasing muscle to push against government-sanctioned chemical farming. Hoffman worked his way around the business model in use at the time and bought directly from those small farmers and tea artisans who grew and created tea the old way--naturally and by hand.

The gradual result was the start of a new era in China's tea markets. Hoffman diplomatically struck a blow against pesticide farming and helped open the door for small, traditional tea farmers. Those same farmers, decades later, can now market their tea directly and get a good price for it. Hoffman's impact on the China tea trade was documented in the 2007 film All in This Tea, most of the footage for which was shot 12 years ago. Pouring three different kinds of tea on a recent visit to his unfinished hillside teahouse, Hoffman marvels at what has altered since then.

"The country has changed quite a bit since I first started going there,"he says. "China has gotten wealthy, and now they can afford to buy the good stuff."From a diminutive porcelain bowl, he sips "the good stuff,"first a fragrant green, then a vigorous black, and finally a reddish, earthy-tasting tea known as pu-erh. Oxidized and fermented, pu-erh is Hoffman's personal favorite.

As we sit in his teahouse, I taste for the first time the flavors that inspired one British botanist to risk his life sneaking cuttings out of China, the very plants that would supply the British Empire via farms in colonized India. This, indeed, is the good stuff.

Hoffman lives the good life, though not in any conventional fashion. His home is a tactile expression of his maxim to live as simply as possible--chickens, a garden, worm composting and a meeting of Asian tradition, California whimsy and primitive tribal architecture that takes the breath away. I tell him the property feels like a retreat. "It is a retreat,"he affirms, noting that he designed and built the structures with help from others (he is amid building the teahouse alone).

Hoffman sold his tea business five years ago and kept the pu-erh teas. Now these made-to-age teas have dramatically increased in value. "I have perhaps one of the world's finest collections of pu-erhs,"Hoffman explains. When he completes the teahouse--the raw wood walls are still open to afternoon breezes--he will go back into the tea business here from his own home.

Hoffman claims tea selling fits the Buddhist ideal of right livelihood. "It's so simple,"he says. "I can bring in one container and supply 20,000 people with tea for a year. Tea is healthful, relaxing and good for the earth. I use no packaging for my teas, and when you're done, tea leaves make perfect compost."

This man who wandered Asian paths for 10 years, sipped tea with the Dalai Lama and stood up against Chinese officials to revive natural tea farming and crafting looks forward to his new enterprise. Hoffman's business will launch next spring after a buying trip to China. Private, by-appointment tea-tasting sessions will be part of a business he calls the Phoenix Collection, which in Chinese mythology represents both regeneration and excellence.

Ultimately, Hoffman could not bring back the songbirds from extinction. But from the ashes of that loss he seems to be continually serving the world a more comforting cup of tea.



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