Monday, March 2, 2015

Interview: Joseph Uhl of Joseph Wesley Tea

Photo Courtsey of Joseph Wesley Black Tea
Have you explored the teas from Joseph Wesley Black Tea? The teas offered on the company's site are carefully curated, high quality single-estate black teas. I've had a few of them and I keep going back for more. Founder Joseph Uhl hopes to change Americans' views on tea. He's 'One dude living in Detroit who has a crazy delusional idea that people could greatly benefit from embracing the subtle, complex and often paradoxical nature of tea'. Who wouldn't want to learn more about him after reading that? Joe agreed to answer a few questions for us. He has some very interesting things to say about his experience in the world of tea.

I see you discovered the joys of tea while studying in Malaysia. What specifically sparked your passion for tea?

In 1992 I was an 18 year old malcontent, playing rugby on my college team. Although I was not fully cognizant of the effects between drinking teh tarik with my teammates in Kuala Lumpur’s night markets compared to the keg stands my teammates did in the states, I certainly recognized a difference between how I related to my teammates in Malaysia compared to how I related to my teammates in the States.

Similarly, in 1996 I spent about four months around the horn of Africa, trying to search for the source of coffee. No matter how many times I would talk about coffee or ask questions about coffee in Ethiopia, families would always offer me their local tisanes. I was too young to appreciate what was happening, but I began to really appreciate the time we spent talking, playing, and drinking these tisanes

Similarly, every time I found myself visiting friends in Europe, we would invariably sit around doing nothing other than drinking tea, smoking cigarettes and playing games. It was great. But, still, I didn’t quite understand what made it great.

Although I received incredible exposure to tea and tea culture throughout the 1990’s my real passion for tea wasn't ignited until 2000-2001 when I was on fellowship through Princeton University to teach at a university in Western China. The region, home to the Turkish minority group the Uyghurs, was extremely volatile. Within weeks of my arrival, a bomb exploded downtown and killed over 200 people. Initially I found this political instability extremely interesting. Over the course of the year, however, as winter arrived and the temperatures plummeted to -40 degrees, the political instability became very difficult for me to handle. So I learned to escape the climate (literally and figuratively) by taking the bus downtown and sharing tea with a Taiwanese tea merchant. Fortuitously, this merchant spoke of tea through metaphor, poetry, storytelling, and mythology — just the language I needed to understand the breadth and depth of tea, its history, and its cultures and to start making connections between the moments I cherished in various corners of the world and with tea. From these meetings my OCD kicked in and I never looked back.

Why did you decide to get involved in the world of tea after working in the corporate world for a few years?

I actually had the idea for Joseph Wesley Black Tea while I was in China in 2000-2001. Unfortunately, fifteen years ago I didn't think of myself as a “businessman” and did not have the courage to attempt such a crazy idea. For reasons that are hard to explain in a questionnaire, I ended up going to law school and doing fairly well which opened doors to large law firms. Having no concrete plans after I completed law school, and having an offer at a law firm paying more money than one should reasonable expect, I took the job and shelved my crazy tea ideas. Unfortunately, within a year of starting, the Detroit employment market collapsed and then the country’s employment market collapsed. As I watched my employer lay off colleague after colleague, I realized that the great recession was not a time to leave a paid job. So, I continued to press and starch my shirts and shine my shoes. Finally, I suppose I had a midlife crisis and decided to jump off the legal train and re-explore my old idea for Joseph Wesley Black Tea.

Photo Courtsey of Joseph Wesley Black Tea
How did you decide to focus on black tea?

A lot of my interest for starting Joseph Wesley Black Tea was to see if we could solve the riddle of how to get the people that would normally not be interested in tea interested in tea. That is to say, when I looked at myself (a middle-aged, overweight, guy who enjoys wine, fatty foods, beer, and spirits) I realized that I did not fit the prototypical north American tea persona, but I was immensely interested in tea. So, I knew tea had a narrative that captivated me and, therefore, could captivate others like me.

When I looked at what that narrative was I quickly realized that it had nothing to do with health and well-being. In fact, when I really looked at myself I noticed that the reason I shied away from tea when I was in North America was because in North America the primary language used to sell tea is “health and well-being” and that language felt really threatening to me — it was a constant reminder of my unhealthy life decisions! From this realization I made the assumption that the word “green” is emotionally loaded and triggers certain presumptions whenever we hear it uttered. In other words, I assumed that the term “green" connotes the same health and wellness lifestyles that I found threatening and unappealing. Black, I determined, evoked feelings that are much more mysterious, slightly sinister, and more urbane. So, by deciding to sell only “black” tea I thought we could start talking about tea in ways that we couldn't if we were selling green tea.

More important than my psychological assumptions, however, is the fact that it really makes no sense to sell high-grade green and white tea in North America year around. By the time green and most white teas arrive in North America their shelf lives are virtually extinguished. So, I thought that by focusing on black tea I could tell an important story about tea that was cynically not being discussed in the industry — spoilage!

How have you cultivated relationships with growers? How did you choose where to visit, and who to work with?

It’s a little embarrassing to admit this, but I cultivated my relationships through calling in favors of old friends, colleagues, and students. In China, teachers garner quite a bit of social status and their students will often do whatever they can to help. When I decided to jump into the tea industry, I made some phone calls and started to reconnect the network of growers and producers that I had back in 2000-2001. It’s really hard to explain but a country of 1.6 billion people shrinks rapidly when you start following leads. One friend has an uncle who owns a tea shop in Shanghai who went to school with a guy who comes from the Bai Lin village whose sister is married to the man who is the most awarded Bai Lin Congfu producer etc.

How do you select the teas you decide to sell?

I list the most famous teas. I locate the origin of these teas. I go to that origin and I figure out how to get the best teas from that place back home. [Now that the foundation of our teas has been developed, I actually talk with the producer about what I like and dislike about the teas he is making. From there, he continually sends me samples and we continue to discuss our opinions and reactions]

Do you think Americans are open to not only drinking tea, but adopting tea culture?

We often talk about tea culture as if it denotes a very specific thing. What I learned throughout my various travels is that tea culture comes in as many varieties as there are people drinking tea. For me the more important question is to ask whether Americans are open to the idea that culture can be associated with tea. Once we lost trade with China in the 1900s and the British had huge stakes invested in promoting and selling commodity teas from its old colonial states, the tea industry fell flat on its face. Now we find ourselves in a place in which three generations have lived with the belief that tea is a commodity no different than carrots or rutabaga.

Our challenge is breaking through this financially strong monster and introducing the idea that tea is not just a thing, but that it’s a thing with real power to create feelings and emotions — once we can help someone associate or attach tea to his or her feelings and emotions, then we have helped him or her connect the leaf to humanity and thus have helped them begin to set the foundation for a new tea culture. I’m extremely hopeful that Americans will adopt and form a substantial tea culture because I believe Americans feel disassociated and are desperate to feel and to experience. They might not realize it yet, but tea will make them feel and experience, and it will be grand!

Photo Courtsey of Joseph Wesley Black Tea
I absolutely love your design aesthetic. How did you come up with the unique feel for your brand?

I spent months deconstructing the “language” of tea in North America. Then, I negated that language and developed a design brief that essentially stated ((not language of tea)). I tend to get caught up in ideas so a lot of the design is admittedly too esoteric. But, what drove all the decisions was the desire to have someone touch the brand and ask “what the hell is this?” believing that if someone looked at our brand and thought, “oh, he’s selling tea” we were dead on arrival.

If we start from the premise that most Americans are not tea drinkers then we are implying that “tea” is not aligning with the passions and interest of most Americans. So, we need to change how people relate to and perceive tea. Last fall I conducted a series of tea dens in Detroit in which I asked my growers and producers to send me tea grades that are simply not available to all but a very few select people in China. Then, we offered these teas free of charge from 2:00pm - 6:00pm in Detroit’s old meat packing district on Thursday afternoons.

The first tea den we did was great and we had a lovely turnout. The second one we did we had over 60 people show up throughout the four hours. Most of these peoples stated that they had no idea why they were there but heard they should go. At the end of this tea den an artist friend of mine sipped a Da Hong Pao, took in the scene, and listened to me tell an embellished story about the tea. Before I could finish the story, he put down his cup, looked me in the eye, and said “Joe, you know what your problem is? Your problem is that you have to tell people you sell tea!” What was so insightful about his comment was the fact that the very word “tea” is a buzz kill for most Americans — imagine if I was selling “wine,” or “craft beer” or “fill in the blank of any other high quality food product that is not tea”. With this in mind, I found it essential that our brand never announces that we sell “tea” so that people were free to associate tea as something other than what they previously believed to be tea.

What can we expect from JWT in the future?

Ha! Great question. You can probably expect a heck of a lot more failures and mistakes. The reality is the tea industry is huge and it’s entrenched in our ecosystem. I’m one dude living in Detroit who has a crazy delusional idea that people could greatly benefit from embracing the subtle, complex and often paradoxical nature of tea. But, helping make this connection for people on a budget that could be paid for with the change in your couch is probably not going to happen from us. But, someone will figure it out and I would love to be on the sidelines doing my part to help that someone change the direction of the prevailing winds.

More specifically, I have a book entitle The Art and Craft of Tea set for international publication by Quarto Publishing Group this October.

You’ll also see more limited edition, seasonal teas offered online.

And, we’re starting to work with a local coffee roaster, and a local urban farm, to bottle some of the tea recipes we've featured on our website so that I have something to give to that person simply looking for something delicious, cold, and refreshing on an unbearably hot and humid Midwestern summer day.

What has inspired you lately?

There’s an absolutely sublime magazine that was just released called The Great Discontent. I have absolutely no idea what it’s about but dear lord it is beautiful. I just flip through it and feel better about my day. Also, I’m often alone and, therefore, have been finding a lot of inspiration in music. The band Alt-J is sweet and I can get a little OCD with Arvo Part. Finally, it feels strange making this generalization but I’ve been finding myself really inspired by people over the age of 50. It seems that whenever I do a tasting or encounter this age group they are totally ready for tea. I did a little segment on Cleveland’s Fox television station. The next morning I had a market in Detroit. While I was preparing for the market an older gentlemen walked up to me, shook my hand, and said “I saw you on television in Cleveland yesterday. I’m a retired World War II vet and I decided that I want to surround myself with great things. You seem to know a little bit about tea and have some great teas. So, I drove up to Detroit this morning to meet you and to buy some of your teas.” That was inspiring!! If I could figure out how to live one day out of my year like that gentlemen, then I’ll be in a lot better place.

What are some of your own personal tea rituals?
I only drink tea from a gaiwan, with someone else, via 1 oz chawans. It’s not so much a ritual as it is the best way I know how to connect with friends.

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Thank you so much Joe for sharing your tea story with us! For more information or to purchase teas, visit the Joseph Wesley Tea site.

4 comments:

  1. Very nice, informative article.

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  2. Very nice, informative article.

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  3. Thanks for the thoughtful interview. -joe

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  4. Nicely done....flowing and full of energy...translated well and glad to be connected

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