At the beginning of October, I went to London and visited one of the most famous tea houses in Europe: Mei leaf. I’ve been there before but I didn’t have a blog back then. I thought it would be interesting and fun to ask Don some questions and that is what I did. We had a fun and interesting talk about tea while sipping some Jin Jun Mei.
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If you are ever in London, make sure you go and visit the Mei Leaf tea house in Camden. Upon arriving there, I was instantly greeted by some friendly tea baristas. I was looking around when Don arrived, which meant it was time for the interview. It was a rather informal talk and didn’t feel like an interview at all. We exchanged thoughts and he shared some knowledge while drinking tea.
This is the location of the tea house in Camden, London. Just take the Northern line to Camden and walk for 5 minutes.
How did you get into the world of tea?
In 1972, my parents opened a bookshop that was mainly focused on sourcing Chinese books and art to contribute to East-West cultural exchange. They slowly shifted their focus towards Chinese medicine, which resulted in them opening the first Chinese medicine centre in Europe. The goal was to make Chinese medicine more mainstream and to educate the medical community and the public in this form of medicine.
Fast forward a few years to 1999 and that is when I got involved in the family business by helping them out. One day, I noticed that we weren’t offering higher quality tea and thought that this was a missed opportunity. So I began researching tea and used our extensive network of herb suppliers to find us tea samples. After tasting some samples and learning more, I fell in love with tea and realised that it was not being represented authentically in the UK. So, in 2003, I started to source teas and started the tea house in 2007. This wasn’t easy because there was a different mentality back then. It was difficult to sell tea to a country with such a fixed idea of tea and a taste for commodity brews. But, over time, and with lots of commitment to True Tea we have managed to contribute to a buzzing tea scene in London and worldwide.
What do you like about tea?
Tea is such a magical plant because the study of tea is endless. I know that I will never stop learning and experiencing. There is so much variety and depth in processing, aroma, taste, beneficial effects, … that it’s impossible to know everything. I love knowing that I am on a journey of tasting and learning that will last a lifetime.
What is the tea that you are most proud of?
This is a difficult question and it’s impossible to pick only one here. The first one is Jade Star. We are now selling Jade Star IV and it is a very sought after tea which takes a lot of work to source. I am proud of it because, when the first one was released, we were one of the first Western sellers of aged white tea.
Another one I’m really proud of is the Psychic Stream Seeker, which is not available anymore. I’m proud because we took a huge risk with this one. We had an idea that had never been done before: roasting raw gushu puer tea. We committed to the idea and found a really expensive Lao Man Er tea which we thought would suit roasting and went for it despite the costs and risks. After a lot of testing we found the right roast and it paid off because the reaction from the community was immense. I love it when a little wild idea is allowed to flourish, eventually realised and becomes a success.
Do you have any advice for people starting their journey into the world of loose leaf tea?
Learn but don’t follow! It has to be your own personal experience. Tea is all about the personal relationship between yourself and the Leaf. All the information that you receive are guidelines and you should experiment to develop and find out what you like. In China, there is a saying that tea is an experience that has to consist of three ingredients: tea, water and you. Without you and your personal touch, it doesn’t exist. Don’t worry too much about the rules, try to find your own way. Also celebrate that you cannot know everything. In the world of tea, nothing is fixed.
Any plans for the future you like to share?
We have a lot of exciting things coming! We have bought a lot of tea this year so we will be releasing some exciting new teas that we’ve never stocked before such as Japanese black tea and pure aged puer. There will also be a follow up to the Gong Fu Guru.
If you are unable to visit the tea house in London, you can take a look at the teas they’re selling by going to the website. You can do so by clicking here.