Q&A: Chinese Tea Masters Connect Farmers and Ceramicists

Q&A: Chinese Tea Masters Connect Farmers and Ceramicists
Courtesy of Qi Fine Teas

Portland-based tea company Qi Fine Teas works with Chinese farmers and ceramicists to bring China to the US in an authentic way. All the ceramicists are from Jingdezhen, which is the birthplace of porcelain.

Tea company Qi Fine Teas continues bringing hand-picked teas and beautiful ceramic objects from China to the US with hopes of opening its first restaurant in LA and Portland within a few years. The ceramic artists from Jingdezhen use traditional and nearly lost techniques, while the farmers hand-pick and hand-finish their teas.

The team behind Qi Fine Teas in Portland, Oregon, has extensive experience understanding the Chinese culture of food and teas with encounters of countless chefs, tea growers, street food vendors, farmers, fishermen and home cooks. They will very soon be tea growers themselves with the plan of entering into a joint venture with one of their current growers to secure a 30-year lease on the land to increase quality and improve the hand-finishing tea facilities.

Courtesy of Qi Fine Teas

The rich story of how American organic chemist and chef James Nozel packed a bag for China, leading him to form an alliance with Chinese senior tea masters and judges Ivy Xu and her twin sister BB, is adventurous and exciting.

They began with domestic tea sales in China a few years ago, then opened a retail store in the Pearl District of Portland, Oregon, US, in 2018. The list of teas they sell is limited to high-valued and impressively priced teas, working mostly with growers who uphold or exceed an organic standard, partnering with the same growers on a yearly basis. They travel to Chaozhou, Yunnan, Guizhou and Fujian to inspect the year’s harvest and to select the season’s best.

According to the team, all of their tea is hand-picked and hand-finished, usually by the family themselves. Most are from the first spring harvest on the high rural mountains. High mountain tea is slower growing than lower mountain tea and slower-growing means more nutrient, fragrance and flavor molecules in the tea.

Ivy Xu is in China to look things over while James Nozel is currently in South Korea, checking out the spring harvest and investigating tea cooperation possibilities with growers there.

Here’s our interview with James Nozel. For all images: Courtesy of Qi Fine Teas.

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ArchiExpo e-Magazine: Can you give us more information about your background? 

James Nozel: Ivy’s love of tea and appreciation of traditional Chinese practices was passed to her at a very young age from her grandfather in China. As an adult, she devoted herself to studying tea to earn her Senior Tea Master and Senior Tea Quality Judge certifications. These three-tiered systems start with junior, then step up to middle and culminate with senior. Transitioning from one level to the next requires academic study, working with growers on the tea mountains as well as extended time to ensure overall qualifications are met.

I was a research organic chemist and microbiologist trapped in the heart of a chef. When my passion for cooking shadowed all else in the 90s, I packed up, moved to LA, and found work at what are now Michelin-starred French restaurants. Through a long chain of improbable events, I later switched kitchens to a highly rated Cantonese restaurant in LA’s San Gabriel Valley. My eyes caught their first glimpse of traditional Chinese food. Again I packed up everything and moved to China for more than 17 years. During that time I traveled to 214 cities, over 400 villages and over 50 tea mountains. This culinary love guided the rest of my life to pursue and gain competence in regional Chinese food. Along the way I trained hundreds of Chinese chefs in western food techniques and they reciprocated with Chinese food techniques.I helped many develop standardized recipes for their small family restaurants that lowered food waste, increased consistency and improved business as well. I learned traditional recipes inside over 4200 Chinese restaurant kitchens and 450 home kitchens which eventually led to executive chef jobs at Chinese restaurants in China.

Walking to tea mountain. Courtesy of Qi Fine Teas.

ArchiExpo e-Magazine: Does all of your tea come from farms in China and South Korea, then? Can you give us a little history of the farms? 

James Nozel: All of our tea currently comes from China. I am in South Korea now to see the spring harvest and further investigate tea cooperation with growers. One of our favorite growers is from China’s Aini ethnic group and makes some of the finest tea we have tasted. A mutual friend that owns an Aini ethnic group restaurant introduced us to her. She is fanatical about following time-honored methods.  She upholds the strictest environmental controls we have ever witnessed. She won’t allow any motorized vehicles within 1 kilometer of the trees. That means she and her family members walk the tea all the way down the mountain to their hand finishing location. We suggested a small scooter could ease the burden, but she wouldn’t even hear of it. Fertilizer is also banned. The only thing she will allow is hand turning the grass growing near the trees into the soil. I helped them do this one autumn and found the soil quite hard and dry. Hard work indeed as they repeatedly commented my efforts were slow and clumsy.

ArchiExpo e-Magazine: It’s incredible that you will be entering the tea-growing business as well. Does this mean you will be partaking in tasks at the farm? Where is it located?

James Nozel: We are forming a joint venture together with the current grower in Guizhou Province–the least developed in China. Positive results will be a larger land area containing more wild trees and a new hand-finishing facility. Ivy, BB and I will be there during the spring harvest to help with daily tasks on the farm. We only pick 1 time per year allowing the trees a full year’s rest until the next spring’s leaves burst forth with complex antioxidants for the highest possible tea quality. 

ArchiExpo e-Magazine: Can you tell us about the tea strainer made from a real mulberry tree leaf? Do you make other strainers out of different tree leaves? How does this work actually?

James Nozel: The real mulberry tree leaf strainer is the only one we use as it is so darned beautiful and efficient. Every single square inch of it operates as a strainer and properly handled will last for years. The leaf is first baked in a ceramic kiln, then soaked and scrubbed a few times to get rid of all the chlorophyll, leaving only the fibrous leaf veins behind.

Courtesy of Qi Fine Teas

ArchiExpo e-Magazine: On your website, you’ve mentioned that you work with ceramicists. Where are they located and how does this collaboration function?

James Nozel: All of our ceramists are living and working in Jingdezhen, which is the birthplace of porcelain. That city was responsible for all the imperial teaware made during the Ming Dynasty and forward. They are blessed with mountains full of low iron kaolin–the most essential ingredient for porcelain. Low iron kaolin keeps the colors pure, whereas high iron kaolin leaves a rusty hue that taints the colors and decreases the translucent properties of porcelain.

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ArchiExpo e-Magazine: Can you give us more information about the ceramic side of your business?

James Nozel: We work with 12 ceramic artists who each have beautiful and unique styles. One is the most famous living creator of traditional blue and white pieces (青花) which characterized imperial pottery during the Ming Dynasty. He is that style’s department chairman in China’s only ceramic university, rightly located in Jingdezhen. One couple does a yearly Autumn forage collecting Mulberry leaves and stems to grind and ferment with local spring water. This paste forms the base for their lovely signature gold-hued glaze. One does a nearly lost technique called ‘Wedged Clay.’ The clay itself is pigmented so no glaze is needed. Another one creates highly prized blue and gold colors with a vibrant sheen using wood as the fuel and to form the sheen itself. This Song Dynasty technique requires multiple firings each at a different temperature with the highest reaching nearly 2400F.

We have been working with each artist for a number of years developing strong relationships that afford us the opportunity to either commission pieces or choose from their latest works.

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