Call me Rishmael: Finding my White Whale — A Relentless Quest for Tea

In 2013, I was inspired by a passage in Moby-Dick to journey into the world in search of something to give my life to: my personal white whale. I bought a plane ticket to China with the intention of meeting tea farmers and tea masters. I didn’t speak a word of Chinese then, so I asked a friendly bartender in the city of Kunming to translate a note for me to use.

I showed this note to every person I met to help me find tea. It carried me 4000 miles from Burma to Beijing via eleven cities, from train stations to noodle shops, from local buses to hitching rides with friendly villagers. I visited dozens of rural farms, sleeping on kitchen floors and park benches when I had nowhere to go, always relying on the kindness of strangers. I was perpetually confused and rarely even knew the name of the villages I was in. A train conductor in central China tried to stop me from leaving the train. Her eyes said: “What business could you possibly have in Hubei? Stay on the train, it will take you Shanghai.”

Rifle-armed police harassed me, suspecting me for a terrorist from Xinjiang, a province in Northwest China. They were incredulous that a brown skinned man could have an American passport. At Lao Zhen Ai, the Golden Triangle’s largest club, I was first treated to bottle service of overpriced Bud Ice before being threatened (in broken English) by my Couchsurfing host who I seriously offended due to a Google translate error. With nowhere else to go when the club closed, I had to get on his motorbike for a thirty minute journey meandering through unlit roads praying our final destination wasn’t going to be a ditch. Luckily, we ended up back in his home, neighboring a pristine Pu-er tea farm.

No matter what happened, the note got me through it, and every stop on my trip ended with a new cup of tea. And I returned to America with a backpack bursting with the best teas I could find.

Rishi climbing a 500 year old tree to pick Pu-er tea leaves in Menglian, Yunnan

The note saved my life many times over, but it wouldn’t be enough for me to fully understand tea culture, so I began studying Chinese.

Two years later, I had conversational Mandarin under my belt and I ventured back to China to learn more about tea culture. I learned that Chinese tea has a defined pecking order, known as the “Ten Teas of China.” Over the course of Chinese history, emperors cherished individual teas as their favorites. These prized teas boast grand names: Jade Iron Goddess, Yellow Mountain Fur Peak, and Big Red Robe. Emperors had taste. I visited many of these farms and found the teas delightful. However, these teas are prohibitively expensive due less to their taste than to their vast brand recognition. The most expensive teas in China are rarely drunk and instead gifted to high ranking government officials and businessmen to commence formal meetings. Depressingly, the teas eventually become stale dressed in ornate packaging. In China, tea is currency. These famous teas are rarely exported, and the teas that bear their names in America are typically counterfeit.

I didn’t want to sell teas that only the rich could afford, and I certainly didn’t want be another American company selling counterfeit tea. So I got on my mountain bike and got back to exploring. I found that the emperors missed a whole bunch of excellent teas. In Yunnan, I encountered the Hani ethnic minority who have been growing tea since the beginning of time. In my opinion, their teas are even better than many of the “Ten Teas of China.”

Hani farmer picking tea from the spring harvest

But no government official or Chinese businessmen would even consider gifting Hani tea because these teas lack an emperor’s endorsement. These teas never reached the markets of Beijing or Shanghai, much less America. Lacking markets for their teas, the farmers remain in poverty. While a farmer in Hangzhou (birthplace of Longjing Dragonwell, one of the Ten Teas of China) drove me to his factory in his BMW 3-series, many Hani farmers don’t even have access to running water. Rural Chinese farmers are increasingly choosing to leave their farms in search of grueling migrant worker jobs. If I didn’t bring their teas to America, they may one day become lost forever. The relationships that I formed on that trip marked the birth of Lost Tea.

By leaving the safe harbors of my life in New York and getting lost in China, I found my passion, my white whale. I wouldn’t have been writing this if it hadn’t been for every farmer, Chinese teacher, stranger, bus driver, and kind friend who has supported me along this journey. If you’re based in Seattle, I would be delighted to host you for a tea tasting. And for any reader, I hope that you consider supporting the Hani people whose beautiful tea may otherwise have been lost, so that these teas may inspire you and keep you company as you embark on personal quests of your own.

Rishi Reddy is Founder and CEO of Lost Tea.

www.losttea.co

He can be reached at contact@losttea.co