Thursday, August 10, 2017

Interview: Tyas Huybrechts of The Tea Crane

Photo courtesy of Tyas Huybrechts

Tyas Huybrechts is not just someone that sells tea. He is a Belgian ex-pat living in Japan, teaching Japanese tea culture, and living the beautiful tea life. He also sells tea at The Tea Crane but, as he says, "I don’t actually consider myself a tea vendor, but rather something closer to a missionary spreading the value that tea can bring to our lives." These are the wise words of Tyas.

I'm excited to bring you our interview below. He explains the beauty of Japanese tea culture quite poetically. Find out what teas he recommends for Japanese tea newbies, the challenges of teaching the Japanese tea ceremony, and many more beautiful facts about his tea adventure.

How did your tea journey begin?
I encountered Japanese tea when I was still a student of Japanology in Belgium. I grew an interest in Japan through the practice of Japanese martial arts, Kendo in specific, and searched for things that had a relation to Japan as part of my education. A sencha I purchased from a local tea vendor in Belgium was among those dearly obtained items.
I still remember that not only it’s relation to Japan, but also its flavor strongly appealed to me. From that moment forward, I began drinking sencha on a daily basis, in the morning, during study, etc.
When I voiced my aspirations to my family to first study, and then seek to live in Japan, righteously the first question they asked me was “what will you do to make a living there?” Ignorant and stubborn as I was, not yet knowing very much about Japanese tea and its cultural value, I bluntly responded, “I’ll just work for or open a little tea store.” This expression was not in the least representative of my actual goals. I just didn’t have anything better to say.
That was about 12 years ago, and looking back on this instant now, I couldn’t have dreamed that I now not only run a tea brand, I also worked for a 160 year old tea shop in Japan’s most renown tea area, Uji, and have obtained certifications in tea ceremony and as a nihoncha instructor.

Photo courtesy of Tyas Huybrechts

How does Japanese tea and tea culture inspire you?
How does it not inspire me? The rite of tea is in fact a condensed form of everyday life, in which the core values important to our lives and interpersonal interactions are embodied. It inspires me to be more thoughtful of our environment by being less wasteful and less consumption oriented, it teaches me to be more considerate of the needs of other people, and has taught me the beauty of imperfection and the wealth in scarcity. In short, I believe that through practice in the rite of tea, and by engaging with Japanese tea in general, we can discover an alternative way of life that is less focused on overconsumption, tight schedules, and social boundaries.

What tea do you recommend for those interested in Japanese teas, but unsure of where to start?
The only really valuable piece of advice I can give here, is to advise a newcomer not start with a cheaper version of the same tea. If you are looking to understand what Japanese tea truly tastes like and are looking to receive an authentic experience of the tea, then I suggest to buy a higher grade first. Lower grades generally tend to be less impressive flavor wise, and are commonly more bitter and astringent.

In the case of matcha for example, a lot of cheap products have become available on the western markets. Consumers who tried this lower grade tea, may have found it to be unappealing because of the bitterness or astringency, and as a result, they often impose this image on the whole available range of that same tea. In the end, they never try the tea again. By trying a higher grade first, and in doing so experience what the tea is supposed to taste like, then successively you can choose how far you are prepared to lower your standards. When a tea you tried then was unappealing to your taste, you at least know that this lower grade is not in the least representative of that range of tea in general.

How has the Japanese tea ceremony shaped your life?
It has become my life. The rite of tea, as we call it, has affected the way I see things, the way I handle things, the way I interact with people, and much more. It is the guiding thread and philosophy that inspires me to live an emotionally rewarding life. The rite of tea is an attitude to [OR a stance towards] being alive.

What are the challenges of introducing the Tea Ceremony to those that are unfamiliar with it?
It is perhaps the language that is the greatest challenge. When introducing the rite of tea to a foreign guest, as we do with our tea ceremony workshops that can be reserved and attended by any visitor of Kyoto, it is explaining the concepts in English, for which in Japanese it would be sufficient to use one single expression or word. The Japanese language is filled with words and short expressions that embody an entire cultural concept. Most of those concepts are usually not recognized in Western culture, and thus simply aren’t translatable. A full explanation of the concept is required, which not only is time consuming, but also requires full understanding of the concept and its surrounding cultural elements in order to be able to provide a comprehensible explanation to a novice in the rite.
I believe that because we (me and my tutor) are both non-Japanese born nationals, we both understand Western culture on which we can rely for examples that Westerners can relate to, and have had to learn Japanese culture and the rite of tea from clean slate. This made us pure and eager in our approach to learning, and helped us ask many questions, many of which similar to the ones our novice guests often ask too. Japanese learners commonly don’t have the same attitude, and often learn (and in effect teach) the ritual procedures for the sake of mimicking rather than understanding them fully. And even when a practitioner was fortunate to have received proper guidance in the why and how of the rite, it remains a question whether or not this person is capable of explaining these deeply embedded national concepts in educated English.

Why did you decide to sell tea?
It’s the most efficient way to share my vision on the way I perceive Japanese tea. I don’t actually consider myself a tea vendor, but rather something closer to a missionary spreading the value that tea can bring to our lives. I felt that the best way of expressing this message was to select teas that are in line with my story, and then the tea would to the rest. It is almost as if the tea tells its own story. For me as a decisive factor in opening a tea store, it was to allow people to listen to the tea first, and in succession get to understand the message I am endeavoring to convey. Words only say so much. Without drinking the tea, you’ll never fully be able to understand what it has to offer.

What do you love most about selling and teaching tea?
I greatly enjoy the interaction and tasting sessions with fellow tea people. This can be in any form. It can be a formal tea gathering, a sincere comparing and assessment of teas, or an informal get together with a refreshing cup of tea. Most of all it is the way tea connects persons, and each and every time again provides for a warm and compassionate atmosphere that truly touches my heart.

How do you source the teas that you sell?
I source directly with the producer. I don’t need to have the organic label, but the tea must be produced according to natural or organic standards. This is what I confirm with the producer directly, and it also interests me what practices they use to fertilize or protect their crops. This is the base line.
Ideally, I look for native cultivars, because I want to present teas that are rich in regional diversity and carry the taste of the tradition and the area they were grown.
I have also started looking more into black teas and Japanese grown oolong teas. I don’t think that we can actually compare a Japanese oolong to a Taiwanese oolong, in that the processing of these teas is largely different. For lack of other terminology however, I must call these lightly oxidized teas ‘oolong’ in unfortunate analogy with their mainland lookalike.
Before the advent of machinery, it took longer for tea to be carried from farm to factory, and commonly also had to wait before being processed. During this time, the leaf would already start to oxidize lightly. With machinery, production is accelerated, and a greener leaf can be maintained. I look to Japanese lightly oxidized tea from a mainly traditional point of view, in search for a taste of what a tea traditionally would have tasted like. In addition, I also find these teas to contain an enhanced amount of aroma and scent, imbuing it with a pleasant variation of fragrances, making it a satisfying alternative to the more generic sencha.

Can you tell us a little bit about one of your personal tea rituals?
It may sound surprising, but other than at formal gatherings or practices in the rite of tea, I hardly ever engage in similar (personal or not) tea rituals. I enjoy drinking tea in an informal setting, and I usually take some time during the day to set myself aside and enjoy a cup of tea, but this is usually very rough. I however believe that tea doesn’t have to be complex or very elaborate to be relaxing. It is sufficient to pour hot water onto the leaf, wait, pour the tea in a cup and savor the brew, as long as our heart and soul is present in the moment, then that moment is meaningful.

What I do first thing in the morning is perhaps a better example of a personal ritual, of which tea is but one aspect. It is a sequence of Yoga, followed by Zen meditation, intuitive writing, and finally several servings of sencha to take a final breath and set the mood for the day. This practice has proven to have a huge positive effect on the way I feel and see things throughout the day. It eliminates the cloudy daze of the morning, and helps to empty, clear and focus the mind before starting the day.

Thank you so much Tyas for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed it as much as I did. To learn more about Tyas, be sure to visit his blog, and his online tea store.


  1. It's very nice to learn about Tyas Huybrechts.
    Indeed he is missionary spreading values of tea in life. There are definitely so many Health Benefits of tea.

  2. This interview is really inspiring, I think he has my dream job!

    1. So glad you enjoyed it! I agree, definitely a dream job!