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A Life in Tea

A Life in Tea

James Norwood Pratt's (not so) mad mission
By Julie Beals

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The glass front door is easy to spot—the only one on the block covered by a scroll sporting the Chinese character “cha.”

After climbing (the formidably steep) Russian Hill, I’m taking big gulps of the crisp, salt air. I knock, eager to get out of the cold. I’m greeted by the Southern charm and hospitality of James Norwood Pratt, though he has been a San Francisco-based gentleman for more than 40 years. Stepping down into his milieu, my frozen hands are cupped in warm ones and my shoulders are wrapped in a throw. A kettle is immediately put on, and before the afternoon is out, we’ve sipped great quantities of the most incredible golden-tipped Darjeelings and silver-tipped whites.

I survey the studio while the first pot steeps, where two wine-y wingback chairs flank a great pane at the rear of the space, overlooking the bay. “We see the trade deficit sailing in each day,” he says, as we watch container ships entering port. A marble table on wheels sits between the chairs, a perfect two-by-two stone for holding a warm kettle, two cups, and maybe a bowl of currants or cookies. An altar of sorts on the opposite wall houses figures of the Buddha, Taoist deities and the Baby Jesus, as well as tea ware that dates from the Ming dynasty to 18th-century England. Books on history, poetry and tea with comfortably worn bindings line an entire adjacent wall.

He goes by Norwood (except in professional introductions), and the man is as gracious and distinguished as the name suggests. His knowledge of the best places to get dim sum and fresh pound cake (and of course tea) evidence his time in San Francisco, as does his ability to recite Beat poetry with a cadence a la Philip Whaylen, whom he calls “the Walt Whitman of the last half of the 20th century,” or Lew Welch, “the spiritual core of what [the Beats] were up to, which was nothing less than seeking God, however you want to define it.” After a short time with Norwood, one becomes imbued with the notion of tea as poetry—both being art forms that require reverence and reflection to fully appreciate.

While most tea experts have their own business interests at stake when speaking or writing about tea, Norwood is in a different position as an author and observer. “There is none like him,” according to Devan Shah, CEO of International Tea Importers, who has been a friend and colleague since 1991. “He speaks without any baggage. Norwood’s only interest is promoting tea. His book, ‘The New Tea Lover’s Treasury,’ is like the Bible of Tea. Wherever he speaks he makes a tremendous impression on everybody, and they all love him.”

Norwood’s ability to share and even project his own love of tea makes him the perfect spokesperson for all that is happening in the burgeoning U.S. tea industry. Bruce Richardson, owner of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas (and Fresh Cup columnist), met him in 1994 at the Harney Tea Summit in Salisbury, Conn. It was the early days of the current American tea renaissance, and both men were speaking at the event. “He is truly a wordsmith,” says Richardson. “I remember hearing him talk about tea with a reverence that made the teacup seem as important as the communion chalice. He was voicing what I—and all those present—had experienced about tea’s unique ability to bring people together.” And with more than just tea in common, Richardson and Norwood became fast friends. “We were both Southern boys, he from North Carolina and I from Kentucky,” says Richardson, adding lightheartedly, “Southerners tend to seek each other when surrounded by Yankees.”

And yet it is Norwood’s ability to engage others that keeps him surrounded. “He is a great raconteur,” says Michael Harney of Harney & Sons Fine Teas. “Set in the right direction, Norwood tells a marvelous tale.” Harney remembers him talking once about Russian Caravan tea, and how it was transported across the great deserts on camels. Only he couldn’t remember if they had “one hump or two.” Harney sizes up Norwood’s humor and approach to conversation this way: “He likes to get the two dots close, but allow you to connect them.” Norwood’s mission is indeed to connect with people, be it by common heritage or a funny story, or through tea.

Norwood’s tea laboratory is a small walk-in kitchen. While he prepares another pot, he points me toward an old-fashioned two-sided scale on the counter and tells me how a sample of tea came to be two grams, based on the weight of a British sixpence. “Two grams was a sufficient amount of tea for a single cup, so it was and is the standard for professional tastings at the plantation level, by brokers, and potential buyers,” he says. “All one had to do in the old days was put a sixpence on one side of a scale, and tea on the other at an equal weight, you see.”

My host asks, “Are you getting warmer? Are you drinking your tea?” And he instructs: “Smell that. You might call this a ‘southern Darjeeling’—it’s from Nilgiri, where the mountains smell just the way the tea smells …” As he watches my reaction to the aroma (a look that must reveal my state of heady reverie), his great head of white curls is matched by a broad porcelain grin that almost squeezes his shining eyes shut under its force, giving him the appearance of a mad scientist, one who is mad for all the right reasons.

He was born to a “perfectly respectable ‘old family’ in North Carolina,” as he puts it. The land outside Winston-Salem where Norwood grew up had been in the family since before the American Revolution. He was the opposite of rootless, which apparently is what made him restless. He went to university at Chapel Hill, spent a year in Europe and another in New York and finally in 1965 went to San Francisco.

By age 30, he had published a book on the wines of California titled “The Wine Bibber’s Bible.” It appeared in 1971 and enjoyed considerable success as one of the first books to take California wine seriously. “Subsequently, I became the man of the hour in California wine circles—for years,” he says with the gentle, giddy, slightly wheezy laugh of a man who has seen many good years and possesses a relaxed appreciation of his good fortune. “Invitations and columns and new editions and after-dinner speeches and lots and lots of good wine. … My turn toward tea was partly in self-defense.”

When he began studying tea in the early ’80s, nobody in the United States knew much about it. Recalling his own college days, he says, “When a professor who had me to tea at Chapel Hill asked, ‘Are you a Darjeeling man?’ I immediately replied, ‘Oh no, sir. I’m from Forsyth County.’ All Southerners grow up thinking of iced tea as a major food group, but for generations we believed the only choice was between sweetened and unsweetened.”

“There had not been a serious book on the subject in almost 50 years [since William Ukers’ ‘All About Tea,’ first published in 1935] and the tea bag reigned supreme,” he says. When the first edition of his “Tea Lover’s Treasury” was published in 1982, even the names of teas were unknown. Norwood was drawn to this terra incognito and has never looked back. “The tea world opened to me, and I discovered that the skills I’d needed to deal with wine, the tastes, all the parallels, how it’s cultivated, harvested, its history—all this transferred to tea.”

Upon first moving his focus from wine to tea, Norwood discovered the two parallel each other as “agricultural products which at their best aspire to art,” as the same factors go into creating them and enjoying them. Richardson believes one of Norwood’s lasting contributions to the tea industry will be his blending of wine terminology with that of tea. “He believes, as I do, that tea is more akin to wine than it is coffee,” says Richardson. “No one advocates that better than Norwood. He moved his working vocabulary to tea, and it has been a great marriage.”

The marriage might not have happened had Norwood not found himself in San Francisco in the mid ’60s. At the time, it might have been the only city in the English-speaking world where it was possible to learn so much about tea. “It’s a place where you discover friends from all around the world living next door,” he says, “so it’s possible to take China and Japan and India tea with Chinese and Japanese and Indians, to go no further.” If he’d settled in Milwaukee, the beer industry might have become his beneficiary. But San Francisco, with its traditional carriage trade in fine teas and coffees, as with luxury foods, cigars, spices and wines, allowed one to know “the difference between Italian-roast coffee from Graffeo’s and French roast from Freed, Teller Freed; but Graffeo’s sold only coffee, since Italians know nothing about tea, while for over a century Freeds had supplied aristocratic English, Russian, French and other San Franciscans with the finest teas.”

Norwood made friends with his tea merchants, Karen and Augie Techeira at Freeds, and in time they introduced him to their importer Mike Spillane, of the G.S. Haly Company, a leading U.S. importer of fine teas. “They were my first tea gurus, and I took notes.”

It took three years to sell out the first printing of 15,000 copies of the first “Tea Lover’s Treasury,” by contrast with almost half a million copies of the “Wine Bibber’s Bible” then in print. But Norwood’s interest in tea didn’t waver, and it seemed the impact of the tea book was out of all proportion to its sales. It led the right people to discover tea—people like Alice Waters and Helen Gustafson of Chez Panisse. In time, the editor of a newsletter on tea could write: “In all my dealings with the public about tea, afternoon tea and tea accoutrements, the three most common inquiries I get are: (1) Does tea have more caffeine than coffee? (2) What’s the difference between afternoon and high tea? And (3) Who’s James Norwood Pratt?”

Imperial Tea Court opened for business in San Francisco in 1993, a few blocks from Norwood’s front door, and his education in tea continued. Upon meeting owners Grace and Roy Fong, they showed him classic China teas that until then, he had only read about. “I was amazed to be drinking teas I’d only heard of up until now, and Grace and Roy in turn were amazed to meet a Round-Eye who’d ever heard of the great China teas. We’ve been devoted friends from that hour.”

The Fongs taught Norwood all they could, and he in turn spoke and wrote as much as he could about China teas. “I did all I could to publicize China tea and Imperial Tea Court and was flattered to be termed its ‘Honorary Director.’ We introduced America’s first white tea, pu-erh tea, guywans and many other things commonplace today.”

After the initial upsurge of tea importation to the United States in the ’80s, the early ’90s saw companies like The Republic of Tea breaking price barriers. “Importers and distributors of tea found themselves besieged by people who wanted to buy tea but knew nothing about it, so that each inquiry became a seminar which began, ‘Well, all tea is from the tea plant and how the leaf is processed makes the difference between black and green, and furthermore …’” There were not many Americans who were able to answer these questions, so Norwood recommended to Spillane that a trade association be formed to educate the specialty tea trade as well as consumers.

Norwood doesn’t care for the word “specialty” in reference to tea. “The tea bag business hijacked the very idea of tea,” he says. “As if tea bags were the norm and all else some kind of ‘specialty.’” For this reason, the organization was named the American Premium Tea Institute. “We wanted a trade association to promote the interests of all the small tea businesses ignored by the tea bag companies. They were actually competitors because once people tasted fine tea, they could never really go back to the mass-market brands for good.”

A major accomplishment of APTI was making the Tea Association aware of the burgeoning premium tea market. In time, it responded with the Specialty Tea Registry, with which APTI later merged. “So we do have a trade association doing the basic educational work needed,” says Norwood. “And to this extent you can say our sleepy old tea trade has woken up. Today, more Americans are more interested in tea than ever.”

America’s new tea lovers are the people who have forced the tea trade to wake up,” Norwood says. “Elsewhere, tea has meant a certain way, a certain tradition, for centuries, but this is America! The American tea lover is heir to all the world’s tea drinking traditions, from Japanese tea ceremonies to Russian samovars to English scones in the afternoon. India chai, China green—you name it and we can claim it and make it ours. And that’s just what we are doing. In this respect, ours is the most innovative and exciting tea scene anywhere.”

The first “Tea Lover’s Treasury” listed about a dozen U.S. specialty tea companies; 20 years later, in 2002, there were hundreds, not counting the tearooms that were appearing across the country at a rate of almost one a day. Total U.S. tea sales had grown from under half a billion to around $6 billion per year. “Great oaks from tiny acorns grow, but this growth was phenomenal,” Norwood quips. “In a way, it’s another parallel between wine history and tea history which is occurring today. Thirty-some years ago, the United States was not a wine-consuming society, but now you can get a reasonably good wine at a decent price anywhere from coast to coast.”

This is not yet true of tea, but Norwood is an ardent believer that we’re on the threshold of becoming a true tea-consuming society. “Cabernet sauvignon is French, and it’s just as foreign a word to English-speaking Americans as Yunnan or Darjeeling,” he says. “And now, there’s not a cowboy in California, who doesn’t know what a cabernet is, and if it comes to his table not tasting right, he knows it. There will come a day when the same will go for ordering a Darjeeling.”

Norwood is quick to point out that there is no rivalry between tea and coffee. “If there’s a rivalry in the U.S. beverage market, it’s tea and coffee on one side and soft drinks on the other,” he says. “There is where the great divide happens. Nobody orders tea out at a restaurant. It’s almost always disappointing, so plenty of people drink coffee after dinner.” Living in San Francisco, he’s always had access to great coffee. “There was a time when I drank a lot of coffee like everyone else, espresso, all of it. It wasn’t for a lack of love for it, just that my body doesn’t take it so well anymore. And there are so many teas, so many flavors, that I don’t miss coffee.”

He has been affable all afternoon, even making me feel like I know a thing or two about tea, letting me connect the dots between his musings on world history and its effect on the tea trade. But now he’s on a roll about the future of the tea industry, his voice getting louder, more oratorical and authoritative than before, like a preacher, munificently setting me on the path of righteousness:

“Something like 30 million Americans are tea drinkers, and my dear, there are more than 300 million Americans. We’re not talking about one in every 10 yet! We’re so far below a critical mass—a saturated market—it’s not funny. There are not too many spots on the horizon that are brighter than the tea trade. If we were to struggle up to below average (laughs), we would have to triple current sales. And believe me, it is going to happen, and not because of the efforts of its promoters, but because of the producers, because of the plant itself, because of the appeal of tea, which needs no advertising, no promotion. It’s an attraction. It’s a slower build, but it’s inevitable!”

I’m tempted to utter an “Amen,” and I’m not the only one. John Harney, founder of Harney & Sons, has told me: “Norwood is the number one or number two person in this tea revolution. No one has the knowledge he has, and he’s able to put it in writing, which is magnificent.”

Shah, who has been in the tea business all his life, admits to learning a lot from Norwood. “He has taught me a lot, especially about China teas. He is a highly knowledgeable person and can discuss any topic with authority.”

Shah also believes the U.S. specialty tea market is thriving in large part due to Norwood’s efforts, that he has inspired tea lovers, some of whom have started their own tea businesses. “Norwood is the best thing that has happened to tea in the U.S.,” says Shah. “He is the only unselfish and influential spokesperson for tea anywhere in the world. His passion for tea and his desire to promote tea drinking is exceptional.”

Though there is agreement that Norwood is a driving force for premium tea consumption in the United States, he modestly offers that the leaf is making it on its own merits, inevitably the result of all kinds of forces. “For two generations we were cut off from China, and you’re not talking about the world of tea when you exclude China,” he says. “So it’s only been since the 1970s that we’ve had China tea available in America. Another factor is the aging of baby boomers. [Many people] lose their appetite for coffee with age. Can’t explain it, but it seems commonly true, that people in their 50s and 60s don’t consume as much coffee as in their 30s and 40s. It doesn’t agree with you; you don’t want as much.”

Tea’s rise might be inevitable, but Norwood is not one to stop breaking ground. He has been in a unique position to bear witness to “the tale of the tribe,” the story of how tea came to the United States in our time. “Loving tea and having this expertise—few have had the opportunities I’ve had to find this stuff out. I like to show it and share it, writing and speaking.”

He will soon publish his next book, “All About Black Tea,” which he describes as “the first part of what I think of as a consumer’s edition of my ‘Tea Dictionary.’ I want to address a readership outside the fold, one that’s given tea a thought but not yet given it a try.” The project is ongoing, with further parts planned. Also in progress is the first edition of his “Tea Dictionary,” which he plans to make available in print and also on the Internet, with the online version a Wikipedia-like reference, where people can add to the base. The main languages of the tea trade are English and Chinese, he points out, “and amongst much else, we better learn some of those characters, same as you need a smattering of French or Italian to understand a restaurant menu.”

Even with so much to publish, to make the knowledge of tea commonplace with the “All About Tea” series (to include volumes on green tea and oolong tea in the future), Norwood considers himself more of a teacher than a writer. “Writing is hard! I would do more of it but it’s so hard! (laughs) I would love to be a fairly competent teacher and a great writer.” (Laughs, still harder.)

And teach he will, with a mission to connect the dots that could prove revolutionary. While everyone in each of the world’s tea producing regions knows what is going on in their locales, they know little outside of it. They know what the labor is costing the guy two plantations down. They know what the fuel bill is for other plantations, how much they got at auction and what they’re doing with their replanting program. They’re talking to each other, swapping news and advice, just like wheat farmers in Kansas or in the vineyards of Napa. “But with tea,” says Norwood, “producers in China have no idea what’s going on in India, and the south of India knows nothing of what’s going on in Assam [northern India], much less China.”

Teas of the world being his daily work, always tasting samples and discussing them with importers, Norwood has friends and colleagues in most tea cultures. He is a nexus between tea producers, and he will soon utilize this role by taking Roy Fong to Darjeeling on what he calls his Oolong Project. “The Indians don’t know how to produce oolong very well, because it is quite difficult,” he says. “What they need is not just the Chinese machines (which they have), but the Chinese tea expert to come and show them how to get the oolong out that is hiding inside their leaf. Roy Fong, who took me with him to China, has been my principal teacher. When you talk about making an oolong, you’re talking about something that goes back at least to the 1400s and 1500s, so it involves not just tea plants but Buddhism.”

Norwood is as interested in spiritual practices and ceremonies as he is in tea. “You might think me something of an Anglo-Buddhist if I were to say the secret of tea is the Spirit that inhabits the plant,” he says. “This is the Tea Spirit which enters us and becomes one with us whenever we imbibe it.”

The Oolong Project could influence the international tea trade, and it would come as no surprise to his colleagues. Says Michael Harney, “Norwood is a great influence on budding tea men, always pushing for quality.” And Norwood knows that all things happen on an individual level, spiritually or otherwise. “And you see, there is so much value in all of this cultural exchange,” he almost whispers. “I find it endlessly beautiful.”

After an afternoon spent hearing, seeing and drinking the past and present of tea from one of its keenest observers, I gather my things. Before I can leave, he offers still more. (Norwood knows by now my enthusiasm for his historical anecdotes, having had my eager attention for all his accounts of tea’s connection to Buddhism, Holland’s role in bringing it to Europe, origins of Meissen tea ware, etc.) His encyclopedic knowledge can’t help but spill forth, and he tells me that in ancient China, before formal currency was adopted, brick tea was traded to people beyond the Great Wall, which is why bricks of tea are still scored as they were then, for easy breaking to “make change.”

With that factoid, a nugget for cocktail (or tea) party chats, I step back onto the street. The parrots of Telegraph Hill holler and flap overhead while sea lions bellow and cable cars clack on the pier below. It’s colder now, so cold that the sidewalk rings when I step on it. But I’m warmed by the tea taken behind the glass door, in front of the picture window, and I’m richer for the day’s conversation—a fitting combination, now knowing that currency in its earliest form was tea, and that even amidst a tea revolution, some things don’t change.

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