New York’s Tea Drunk tea house is normally bustling with tea lovers gathered to sip and learn. Since opening in 2013, founder and Tea Master Shunan Teng, an accomplished speaker and tea educator, shared her knowledge by telling stories of her annual buying trips while pouring tea for customers at the shop’s beautiful tea bar. Last March, Shunan, who normally spends three months a year with heritage growers in China, was grounded – worse yet, her thriving business was locked down.
Online Tea Education Club in a Class All its Own
Dan Bolton: Shunan, what inspired you to create the online Educational Tea Club, a $50-per-month subscription service that delivers tea samples to home-bound tea lovers?
Shunan: When the pandemic hit it was mandatory close downs so we couldn’t really share tea with our guests anymore in person. There was this need to somehow stay connected and offer tea lovers this kind of tasting experience. Tea is a shared experience, right?
We always had an educational key club before. What we did was send people extensive ratings on featured teas.
Dan: Since the onset of the pandemic, tea retailers have created many virtual tea experiences. How does your program differ from other online courses?
Shunan: Everybody was, you know, trying to create content virtually.
We decided to create tea courses that bring a lot of essential information about the origin, the cultivar and also the processing of the tea. We supplement that with two virtual tastings that we host each month.
Our club has two tiers. The the first explores true origin Chinese teas that are historically famous. This is a great way for people to get into tea.
We also have a higher tier.
Those teas are to be had once in a lifetime. They represent some amazing vintages.
When I talk about where the tea comes from, I don’t mean ‘I drink Chinese tea’ versus Japanese tea or say, ‘I like teas from Yunnan’. We consider basically all the external environment that might affect the tree itself from the slope and direction of the sun and how the sunlight is actually dispersed which leads to temperature differences.
There’s so many different things, a whole checklist of things — all the external things that affect the tea itself.
Dan: You described a growing level of consumer awareness and appreciation for heritage tea and interest in what you call the “geeky” aspects of cultivation and production of ancient teas.
Shunan: The core competence of Tea Drunk as a company is our tea. We don’t do just any tea.
Gimmicky terms, such as “fair trade,” even organic, and single origin, don’t really apply to the Chinese tea industry. We specialize in historical and historically famous tea.
There is a long history of drinking this tea which means there is so much that we already know and can share. These teas have been highly sought after by generations of connoisseurs.
What we are experiencing is a connection with the past — passed down to us.
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In 2015 I traveled from Australia to learn from Shunan at Tea Drunk. It was the best introduction to tea that I could have ever experienced.