A Tale of Tea – Glen Joffe Discovers Tea is Just Like Everything Else at PRIMITIVE

PRIMITIVE - Thursday, June 07, 2007

It might as well be 1920 and I have just finished an excruciatingly exhausting day in the field, in search of great things to present at Primitive. I feel like I am on the Orient Express, which I have just rushed to catch, slumped in my compartment, wearing a wrinkled linen suit, my Pandora, the most reliable sunshield I know, swaying on a hat hook as the train begins to chug along. Loosening my tie, I catch the scent of a cup of oolong tea, which the porter has graciously placed in front of me, perhaps because he has seen how disheveled I’ve become in my rush to make the train. It is not the day’s events that stick in my mind, but the porter’s courtesy, and curiosity, which he displayed as he examined my sorry appearance and brought me that glorious cup of tea.

But I am not on the Orient Express. I am at the Baiyun Airport in Guangzhou, China, a sparkling new facility opened only a couple of years ago. It is another piece of evidence of China’s modernization, its rise to first world status. But some things, no matter how fast China grows, will not be left behind, and tea is one of them. China is the birthplace of tea. It is a tea culture.

On the lower level of Baiyun Airport is a shopping mall. Like many other modern airports, Baiyun too has become a shopping mecca. I have often wondered if locals shop at these airport malls, or if they are just for the benefit of travelers? But regardless of the answer, this mall, unlike others, is dotted with tea shops, each selling tea in a fashion similar to American coffee shops. It’s the Starbucks model, only each shop is different.

I am not sure why I chose the shop I did. It might have been because there was a very enthusiastic girl outside wearing an aquamarine colored silk dress and extolling the virtues of the tea inside. It might have been because I saw other travelers sitting inside, some having conversations or listening to music or working on their computers, two at least playing Chinese Chess. Or it might have been because this was the first shop I saw.

Once inside, however, my choice was vindicated. The atmosphere was made inviting by the staff, more girls in silk dresses, and the aroma of freshly brewed tea. I settled into a chair at a table in the center of the room and ordered what the menu called “the very best oolong,” a high mountain blend from Taiwan. I know the tea. It grows at altitudes of 3000 feet or more. Its scent is memorable, like perfume.

It wasn’t long before three of the hostesses began chatting with me. Where was I from? Where was I going? What do I do? Their smiles were infectious. They spoke to me in broken English and I spoke to them in broken Chinese. In no time I was getting a Chinese lesson from the girls with the chess players enthusiastically chiming in to be helpful. There were lots of laughs. I left relaxed and energized at the same time, rushing to catch my plane because I had become lost in my lesson.

Once on-board, I took a moment to examine the day’s activities. I remembered some of the great things I found for Primitive, among them a collection of 41 antique pewter tea caddies from Fujian Province. But most of all I remembered the tea room at the airport – my encounter with the hostesses and the patrons, and of course, the tea itself. Today was about tea, and then I realized that among its attributes tea is intensely social, whether you drink it alone or in a group.

At PRIMITIVE, we have been tinkering with tea for a long time. Each year, we import a wide variety of teas from various estates and regions in China and India, the two main tea growing areas of the world. And then we serve them in the store, all with the ultimate idea of establishing an exclusive group of teas to be private labeled under the Primitive brand name. The ultimate arbiter of our final choices will be you.

If you have been to the store, you may have noticed a pot of tea sitting on the serving counter in the Five Elements library. One day it’s white tea, the next day it’s black. We’ve served green tea, monkey picked tea, and a host of floral teas. Along the way we have discovered that tea is like everything else at Primitive. It connects us to other people, places and times whether we serve it individually or to a group.