Crafting the Best Chinese Tea: Meet the Stewards of Ancient Trees
Eastern Leaves takes a wild approach to harvesting its unrivalled teas
Atop a mountain in southern China grows a wild tea forest stewarded by a husband and wife whose love for the land is only exceeded by their love for each other—and maybe their love of tea. This is the true story of Eastern Leaves, a company that harvests its Chinese tea from ancient trees untouched by modern agriculture.
“Our forest has been there for many centuries. We have maybe 50 years left in our lives, and the forest will still be there when we’re gone. We are just passengers of time, and we want to protect the land before passing it on.”
Instead of owning a plantation, Eastern Leaves owns a forest, and instead of calling themselves farmers, the owners consider themselves stewards of the land. The core philosophy of the company is that the forest produces the best tea when left alone. Most of the trees on the property are between 300 and 500 years old, and no chemicals are required.
Vivian and Lorenzo, the cross-cultural duo at the helm of Eastern Leaves, say the secret to their success and delicious teas is simply resisting the urge to mess with nature’s process. The forest provides, and they simply walk and harvest, and share the forest with all the creatures who coexist there.
Wild tea sounds exciting, but is it really as good as the strains that have been carefully cultivated through generations of farming? If you ask us, it just might be the best cup you’ve ever had. Lorenzo and Vivian’s wild tea forest offers only a few strains, but the flavours within these dried leaves are full and vibrant, with an aroma that conjures the history of the land and the people who love it.
It all starts with love
Before they were stewards of the forest, Lorenzo and Vivian worked in offices close to one another in the bustling metropolis of Beijing. An Italian romantic, Lorenzo couldn’t help but fall in love with the beautiful Vivian, whose appreciation for Chinese tea and ancestry opened him up to a new world.
As their love blossomed, the winds of fate blew the couple to Yunnan for a holiday. As they hiked through the ancient forests, something spoke to their young, romantic hearts, and they felt a connection to the land, even though neither of them had ever been there before.
When they discovered that the local people were looking to burn the forest and redevelop it, they did what lovers do best and took a leap of faith. The couple pooled their money and bought a mountaintop in the southern province in China.
Lorenzo says, “It was not an investment. It would be crazy to think of it that way. At first it was only fourteen acres. We spent six months there. It was a holiday location.” It wasn’t until later that they saw the potential for business and bought more of the land.
Vivian says, “We’re not business people. We actually did this very stupidly. From a business perspective, you should find the clients first and strive to satisfy them. We did things the opposite way.”
But as the saying goes, God favours a fool. Sometimes the heart is right no matter what the mind is thinking.
Wilding and rewilding land while still cultivating it for food and profit is not a new idea, but it is certainly having a new moment in history.
The book Wilding by Isabella Tree tells the story of a woman who turned 1,400 hectares of British agricultural land into a type of Montessori-style farm, replete with horses, deer, and pigs. She documents the return of wild plants and animals to her property—as well as the surrounding region.
Once the fertilizers and pesticides were taken out of the equation, the runoff from what used to be a huge industrial-style agriculture operation ceased as well, allowing the water quality and surrounding lands to heal. Efforts like Isabella Tree’s are happening everywhere in the world, with uplifting results.
For Eastern Leaves, the wildness of the land can be as challenging as it is charming. Yunnan has two major seasons, a rainy one and a dry one. Lorenzo says, “We harvest the tea at the end of the dry season. The trees have had time to rest, and the mineral content of the leaves is richer.” But Yunnan can be treacherous. The rainy season washes out roads, locking people in, and don’t even get them started on the grand swarms of biting insects and snakes. But it’s all part of nature’s process and a self-sustaining system of life.
Lorenzo says, “Every harvest is important. When we had our first experience with hail and frozen trees, we learned how harsh nature can be. This year we had our first drought. It was actually our lowest harvest to date. It turned out not to be such a bad thing because so few dealers were travelling this year. Plus, the quality of the tea turned out much higher. But that’s our connection with the seasons. We’re dependent. It makes us or breaks us.”
The business of best Chinese tea
“Europe has been spoiled by the British dealings with India,” Lorenzo says. “It’s defined by very low prices, and the brand always belongs to the dealers, not the producers.”
Eastern Leaves is shifting that paradigm by producing and branding its own teas. They distribute Eastern Leaves tea to a variety of dealers around the world from their headquarters in Lorenzo’s home of Italy.
Just like the couple themselves, their company is both Chinese and Italian. After buying the land and understanding its potential, Eastern Leaves set up shop in Milan, Italy, which is a wonderful launching point to all of the Western world.
Vivian says, “When I first told other Chinese that I was opening a Chinese tea shop in Milan, they pitied me. Everyone said, ‘They only drink coffee there.’”
So how do you sell Chinese tea to Westerners obsessed with wine and coffee? Eastern Leaves’ largest customer base is in France, followed by Italy and Belgium.
Lorenzo says, “These are countries ready to discover the complexities of pure taste. People in these places are already into wine or whiskey or something, and they are into it deeply. Their palates are already trained, and so they’re ready.”
Lorenzo is open about his shtick. “I bring in some leaves. While I brew in front of them, I invite the tasters to visit the land, and I tell our story while they taste our fine tea. It usually takes a few hours and they’re sold.”
Crafting the best Chinese tea slowly and in smaller batches
Lorenzo says, “The name came last. First we wanted the land to have an identity.” Cultivating Eastern Leaves was a labour of love. Lorenzo and Vivian spent a lot of time on the land, observing and just connecting. The land talked to them, and finally offered them a vision to ensure their stewardship.
Vivian says, “Our forest has been there for many centuries. We have maybe 50 years left in our lives, and the forest will still be there when we’re gone. We are just passengers of time, and we want to protect the land before passing it on.”
By producing smaller batches, Eastern Leaves infuses meaning into every harvest, and even the packaging reflects its values, putting the company’s story at the forefront and illustrating the quality that it has become known for.
Lorenzo says, “The Chinese companies are huge. We’re more European in style.”
The Eastern Leaves mountain tea forest is in South China, near the border of Laos and Myanmar. With dozens of different ethnic groups surrounding their land, Yunnan’s identity is as complex as the flavours of the tea leaves harvested there.
Lorenzo says, “The first connection I have with nature is a romantic one. I say romance because Yunnan is the land of clouds and fog. It’s incredible.”
Vivian, whose Chinese ancestry runs deep, says, “What is the best in China? Not buildings. Not technique. What is the real culture in China? It is Chinese tea, silk, and tea wares. From a historic point of view, it’s unique.”
Eastern Leaves has taken her on a personal discovery of country, culture, and self that was much needed. She loves Europe and her husband, but Vivian was something different. That difference needed to be embraced, not ignored. Fortunately, Lorenzo was excited at the chance to explore Vivian’s Chinese heritage with her, and wound up falling in love with the woman and her roots.
Lorenzo says, “We started with some leaves, from a simple taste, from brewing something. Then we went through the whole process of discovering Vivian’s identity as Chinese, and what that really meant. Chinese modern identity, as I came to understand from Vivian, is very complex and extremely difficult. As a European, I had a grandfather to lead the way. In the case of the Chinese, they had to make a jump. They had their memories erased.”
The Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) was the communist effort to wipe out all traditions and history in China. The idea was to create a blank slate for a modern workers’ utopia. But destroying the spirit of a people and the essence of a culture proved tragic. And the 5,000 or more years of history in China can’t be simply stomped out. The curiosity of a people about their ancestors doesn’t just go away—especially for tea lovers in China.
Tea drinking most likely dates back to prehistory, but Chinese tea culture really developed with Lu Yu. He was a Tang Dynasty icon born in the year 733. The legend of his journey began when he discovered a spring with crystal clear water. He brewed tea with the pure water and immediately noticed the difference from his regular water brews. He began to experiment with different ways to improve the tea, including the rituals in which they were performed.
When asked about the benefits of brewing Chinese tea with the old way, Vivian responds with a question of her own. “What does the ‘old way’ mean?” Apparently there is no old or new way. Lu Yu got the ball rolling, but it has never stopped.
Early in Eastern Leaves’ history, Lorenzo and Vivian went on a journey to find the best brewing methods. Most notably, they went to Taiwan and Japan, both places with reputations for preserving the ancient ways. They learned a few tricks, then travelled around China and discovered that all the provinces have their own ways of making tea.
After millennia of experimentation, the Chinese are still looking for the best way to brew tea. It seems that brewing tea is akin to dancing or other arts, in that there is definitely such a thing as good brewing, just like there is good dancing, and similarly there is bad brewing. But can we say that one style of dance is really better than another? In fact, there can be no best, only favourites.
It turns out that the “old way” is more of a spirit than anything else. It’s really about recognizing the importance of the gestures—the ability to be present for a process of transformation. It’s not a technique on the surface.
Just as with the wild process of growing Chinese tea, there are elements that remain unknown, things we can only appreciate and care for, but never control.