We have been privileged to be working with Hugo Tea for several years now. We got the opportunity to chat about some of the tea experiences and their story.
Do you drink coffee?
I do not.
How did you get into teas?
My passion for tea developed slowly. There wasn’t a eureka moment or experience. Part of it was practical–tea made me feel better than coffee. And tea was significantly cheaper per cup, even ultra premium tea. After I developed a regular tea habit (habit sounds like a negative word here, but it’s not), I started creeping further and further down the rabbit hole. I quickly became frustrated by the opaqueness of the industry and by my inability to get clear and consistent information from suppliers. There seemed to be a load of half-truths, or conflicting information from suppliers and within the tea drinking community. It seemed that all tea companies and tea drinkers had staked themselves out on various hills purporting one thing or another that may or may not have been true. Ultimately, I decided that the best way to truly understand tea was to immerse myself in it. So I started a tea company.
We had a brief conversation in the past about Hugo is one of a few specialty tea importers in the US. What’s different about Hugo tea than other tea companies?
I don’t like to draw direct comparisons with other tea companies–and instead, prefer to talk more broadly about what we do exceptionally well. And that’s two things: building relationships directly with tea farmers/operators at origin and translating tea into streamlined tea programs for specialty cafes. Every decision we make as a team is fashioned after one of these two goals.
And most tea businesses are just distributors?
Our model is based on the premise that 100% of the tea leaves that we buy are purchased directly from the people that make them–that is not the typical way the tea industry operates. Even well-meaning tea companies who proport to buy “from origin” may not in fact be buying from the producer. There are two big steps in making tea, the growing/harvesting and the actual production. These are not typically done by the same operations. We specifically seek out highly specialized farmers who excel at making only one or two styles of tea exceptionally well–and who process and pack their own leaves. Then we build deep relationships with these producers–for example we just bought new packaging equipment for one of our matcha farms–and then we buy directly from them, cutting out all importers, traders, exporters, distributors, etc. The result is that we can control quality and have an extremely high degree of transparency, showing our customers exactly where their tea is grown, down to the latitude and longitude.
My original belief was that this was the natural progression of things: that all industries would be forced to become more and more transparent and socially and environmentally conscious, but that is not necessarily what we’ve seen. In fact, we’ve seen a wave of newer tea companies in the past few years that are indeed selling interesting tea, but are explicitly opaque about the sourcing and rely on marketing and hipness that does hold appeal for some buyers.
After having your teas, we really appreciate the hibiscus tea on a hot summer afternoon and an earl grey on a cold and rainy day in Florida but that doesn’t happen much. Which leads me to my next question. Are you seeing more people switching from coffee to tea?
I don’t have the objective numbers that people are actually changing their drinking habits, but anecdotally we do see a lot more interest in specialty tea from all of our friends in the coffee world. But we’re excited about the future–we still believe specialty tea is relatively undiscovered by the average consumer, when compared to coffee or wine, for example.
At Banyan Coffee we are trying to do more direct trade with coffee but in your industry, we know you have developed some long-term relationships with your farmers. How does that work?
I think the most important difference between direct coffee relationships and direct tea relationships is the power of the seller in the relationship. Coffee buyers are purchasing a commodity that has a spot price that is sensitive to world events and other factors. We often have coffee buyers ask us how we ensure that our tea partners are paid “fairly”. This question belies a big difference between specialty tea and coffee. In the specialty tea world, the farmers/producers are in a better position because they are selling finished, specialty products that have high demand across the world, especially in their domestic markets. In this way, specialty tea farmers are really more like coffee farms and roasters, combined. It’s our job, as tea buyers to find this tea and support the farm and maintain the relationship, but we don’t transform the tea in any way after receiving it (except for some blending that we do).
For someone new to teas, where would you start them if they wanted to try your Tea? What would be a good sampler?
I always recommend high quality white tea for people that are starting out. Nearly all people have had basic black tea and green tea in tea bags before–and regardless of a person’s opinion of these products, specialty white tea is substantially different and will help open the world of tea to them. White tea also tends to be quite agreeable (it’s difficult to steep poorly), so there’s less risk of being turned off at the outset by user error.