A True Tea Field TripFuture tearoom owner talks about traveling to Taiwan to find inspiration at the source
By Chris Ryan
For Darlene Perry, falling in love with the leaf didn’t happen over a hot cup of tea. Rather, it grew organically—literally—through working in the garden. “I had a garden, and I would pick lavender and chamomile and just start to do blends of different tisanes and infusions,” she says. “And I just became intrigued with the whole thing.” She began collecting tea books (she has now amassed 150 titles) and visiting cafés in her free time. About a year ago, she decided to take it to the next level and try to open her own tea business. She became a regular at trade shows and enrolled in educational courses through Specialty Tea Institute (STI) and other associations. With plans in the works to launch her business in 2011, she recently completed another key step in the educational process: a trip to origin. After spending two weeks in fields and tea cafés throughout Taiwan, Perry talked to Fresh Cup about what she saw, how it affected her and how she may use it in her new business.
Q: How did this trip to origin come about?
A: It all happened after I became friendly with several people I met during STI in Charleston last year. One of my friends told me there was this tea tour given by the Floating Leaves, which is out of Seattle. The owner, Shiuwen Tai, is from Taiwan, and she plans a tea tour every year. I had become so in love with oolong tea that when I heard about this tour I thought, Taiwan is where the most famous oolongs come from, so sign me up.
Q: What were some of the highlights of the trip?
A: It was an amazing trip. It was a very busy trip, too; we were on the move every day for two weeks. We stayed on a tea farm with farmers for three days, up in Alishan in the mountains. We went out into the tea fields and picked tea leaves, and our group was pretty poor at it—we had barely a basket full of leaves. So God bless those tea pickers because it’s really hard work. But we had the opportunity to see how the leaves are spread out to wither, and just the process that tea goes through.
We also had the opportunity to visit tea farms up in Muzha. We had to take cable cars up into the mountains into this tea oasis there, just little tea cafés all through the mountains. It was really beautiful and breathtaking. It was so interesting to see how every few miles there was a nook that had a little tea café.
We also went to Pinglin, which I have to say, out of every place that we had the opportunity to visit, that literally took my breath away. The most amazing sights that you ever want to see in a lifetime. It’s like a little piece of heaven. We crossed the river there on one of those old-fashioned bridges made out of wood planks and ropes. And it had just rained, so it was a little misty and cloudy. And it was just beautiful.
Q: Do you have a sense yet of what you’ll take from the trip and apply to your business?
A: I think that what really sticks with me is how there are these basic tea cafés placed all over, and people go there to just hang out, relax and have some solitude away from their busy lives. And it just seems to be the norm. The tea draws people in and takes them out of their fast-paced lifestyle. And that was something that I brought back with me because that’s what I want to create. I want to create a place, first of all, that will educate people about the art of tea. But I also want people to begin to understand that they can enjoy it if they just sit down and take the time to drink the cup of tea and let it pour out whatever it has to share with them. It’s really the whole idea of just enjoying the experience that comes along with every cup.