Silk Road Teas - The Tea Squirrel interviews Ned Heagerty
The city glows in the golden afternoon sun behind me as I drive over the Golden Gate bridge. I’m headed to San Rafael, in Marin County. When I arrive at Silk Road Teas, Ned Heagerty greets me with a warm smile.
After a tour of the warehouse, we sit at a large table were a gongfu tea set is neatly arranged on a tray, with traditional-style porcelain tasting cups and a gaiwan. The light slants in the room, it’s intense on the table. It makes everything stand out in a beautiful, mysterious way.
We begin with a Dan Cong, a high-fired high-mountain oolong from Fenghuang in the Yellow Mountains, Guandong Province, China. “It’s very appreciated in China, probably less so in the United States but more so every year it seems. The tea trees, the tea bushes grow at a high elevation. They send their roots quite deep and the soil is very favorable to create great tasting teas”.
We sip, slurp (a perfectly acceptable behavior at the tea tasting table, it helps spread the tea in your mouth and on your palate to better appreciate its flavor notes) and savor every drop.
14 years ago, Ned bought the business from the gentleman who had started it. Prior to that, he had been doing business in Asia. “I was driven by curiosity and fascination with China and being able to go to China and buying tea. I had to continue to work, so you want to pick the most interesting thing you could do. Tea is just a very positive product, there’s nothing wrong with tea. Usually every product seems to have an underbelly of some kind and I guess tea comes close to something like that as far as wages are concerned, that is, people who work on tea farms being compensated fairly. Beyond that, everything about it is good, it makes people happy, it’s healthy, it doesn’t destroy the environment, it’s a renewable plant, it has a great cultural advantage, it has a pretty positive vibe. Also, the trend line on tea is very good, people are drinking it increasingly”.
Silk Road Teas is one of the companies - a handful of companies - that deal in and import specialty high-grade teas.
“A company can decide to travel to China and buy tea like I do or go into China and develop some relationships and then rely on those relationships to supply their annual selections. That’s the way most companies buy tea, through brokerage or through other companies and so the teas they see are usually a group of teas and that’s their universe. The advantage for us by going to China is that we see more tea. I can buy a lot and get only maybe 50 kilos because it’s all there is or 200 kilos if that’s what is made and I feel I have a market for it, right up to maybe a thousand kilos but you only get access to that because you are there. It’s like if you sent a friend to the farmers’ market and said ‘get me lettuce, squash, cucumbers and tomatoes’, you would get what your friend brings back and the vegetables probably taste really good because that’s what’s available at the farmers’ market. But if you went there every week, you would try other vendors and start to realize that these tomatoes are better than those, so you start to buy from a different vendor because you found that out. But you only found that out by tasting both. That’s the theory that we work with”.
Silk Road Teas is known for unusual tea lots that you can’t get anywhere else. These are their rare teas, fresh, minimally processed, local-custom teas that are not made in a factory and are not intended for export. It doesn’t get any more authentic than this.
“It’s not easy to go to China every year for two or three weeks. That’s a big commitment, it’s fatiguing, it costs a lot of money. When I buy tea, we might taste 20 lots before I make a selection. It might be over the course of 4 or 5 days. Tea is coming in each day, they are harvesting, withering, shaping, and processing the tea all within 24 hours and then it’s out in the market. It’s quick and those lots aren’t always big but you can get really great taste. The hardest thing is that you are in a country where there is a huge language barrier, I don’t speak Mandarin, I know enough to be able to negotiate. The Chinese are sellers, they move quickly, their country moves very quickly, and that tests us because we don’t necessarily do things like that. There’s a lot of pressure. The seller wants to sell, regardless if you’re interested or not, they don’t want to spend the whole day with you only to find out that you are not interested. You have to be sensitive that you are in a foreign market and be respectful of whatever the cultural imperatives are”.
Next up is a white tea from Fujian made from the Mei Zhan varietal of camellia sinensis. This is actually the beginning of a tea flight; Ned is showing me what can be achieved when the same Mei Zhan tea leaves are processed into white, green and black tea. Fujian produces a wide range of tea styles, but a characteristic of Fujianese tea is elegance. “They are very respectful of the nuances of the leaves and they love how tea tastes in your mouth and how it makes you feel”. Ned tells me that the best tea is harvested toward the latter part of March. The first pick or first flush makes the Pre Ching Ming teas, the most prized teas in China. “The new tea is just growing so the leaves are tender and they are quite small and the taste is robust because all that energy is moving”. This white tea we are tasting can be considered a Pre Ching Ming tea.
The green-style Mei Zhan tea is called Green Monkey. The first time I tasted it was at the SF International Tea Festival last November and I was instantly hooked. I ask Ned about temperature and steep time.
“The Chinese always serve tea on the higher side, it brings the flavor out more quickly. Usually, when I’m buying tea in China, they use 205 F to boiling and it scalds the tea a little bit but you get the idea. They don’t worry about temperature. A well-made tea, a spring tea has nice little notes and those get blocked off and that’s unfortunate”. He steeps all three Mei Zhan teas at 195 F for 1 minute and a half or 2 minutes. “At that point all the notes of the tea are open and available to taste and as it progresses, some overwhelm others, so by the time you get to 3 or 4 minutes you are getting down to its strongest attributes”.
The black-style Mei Zhan is what Silk Road Teas is known for and it's called black fragrance. It’s a rare lot, all it was made this year is 20 kg (44 lb). It’s made by one farm to local custom and nobody else in the United States has anything similar to it. If you are interested in my detailed tasting notes for this tea flight, I have a separate blog post on them.
I'm curious about Ned's personal preferences. His go-to tea is pu-erh. When he's on the go, he always takes loose-leaf or tuocha. "No matter how bad the water is, you can always have at least a tea that is reminiscent of good tea, because pu-erh would overwhelm that water". To someone who is just starting to discover tea, though, he recommends a good jasmine tea. He stresses the importance of a good first impression, which will keep them coming back for more. "If you’re buying a decent jasmine, you are getting a good green tea which has been scented and if it has been scented well, there’s craftsmanship in that. Jasmine is a difficult thing to do correctly".
Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with Silk Road Teas. I was not asked nor paid to mention or review products, services or businesses that appear in this blog post.