Growing up in Mexico City, Pedro Villalon was surrounded by all kinds of drinks. Coffee started the morning, and as the sun headed west, wine, beer, tequila, whiskey, and other spirits took over. But the one beverage that would transform his life was nowhere on the scene.
As he matter-of-factly puts it, “Mine was a non-tea background.”
That changed dramatically halfway up a mountain in China when Villalon met a man carrying an axe. If that sounds like a horror story, relax. It has a fairy-tale ending. But we have to back up a bit before telling it.
For it wasn’t tea that brought Villalon to China, it was shampoo.
A chemical engineer by training, Villalon worked in advertising for a number of years in the U.S. before being sent to Guangzhou in 2007 to handle the Pantene shampoo account.
Then one day, while hiking through the mountains near Ban Bo Lao Zhai village in Nannuo Shan in Yunnan Province, he met the man with the axe. “He asked me if I had eaten,” recalls Villalon, who was intrigued by the man’s features, which seemed more Mexican than Chinese. “He looked different, had darker skin. It turned out that he belonged to an ethnic minority, the Hani People. He invited me to his home to eat, and I followed him.”
Villalon had planned to stay for lunch. “But I ended up staying for a few days,” he says with a laugh. “Because the mountains with the morning mist and the old way of living reminded me so much of Mexico—it was beautiful. You cook around the fire, sit around, eat, and talk. Now they have running water, but at the time, there was no chimney, nothing.”
A lot of talking happened over those three days, despite Mandarin being his host’s second language and Villalon’s fourth. He followed enough to learn that his new friend, Yang Si, was a tea maker with 20 kilograms of tea in his house.
“I bought it all,” he says. “They were big sacks, really beautiful leaves of green pu’er. Not at all like ordinary green tea—this was something quite special.”
And in that impulsive moment, Pedro Villalon the ad man turned into a tea hunter.
Travelling to the cup that cheers
Obsessive, impassioned, and bubbling with recommendations, Villalon has spent the last decade sourcing rare, small-batch teas from different parts of the world for his boutique tea bar in Vancouver, O5 Rare Tea Bar. Evangelical about tea, he is a mine of information, not just on rare varieties, but on what he calls the “terroir of tea”: the soil, climate, ecology, and culture in which different cultivars are grown and brewed.
Of the many hundred tea gardens Villalon has travelled to, some stand out. One of them is in Qiao Ban village in the province of Zhejiang, close to Yellow Mountain. Cars cannot reach this tranquil mountain village, so one has to hike up to it by foot. Villalon recalls with amazement how his friend Zhan Zhifang’s father-in-law, who was well into his 80s, managed the climb without any trouble. He was not the only one.
“I met other elderly villagers who smoke, drink, and have no teeth, but are super fast going up the mountain,” he says with admiration. “The reward for climbing up, of course, is the tea—a delicious brew with notes of cacao and oak. And there’s no point in asking if it’s organic—everything there is clean and natural.”
In ChangXing, he met the “stylish and cultured” Lily Wenhua Zhang, owner of two scenic mountains of protected forests. For tea devotees, ChangXing—a popular lakeside county close to Shanghai—is a pilgrimage site, thanks to its connection to the great tea master, Lu Yu (733–804), who wrote his definitive guide to tea, The Classic of Tea, while he lived here. Lily Zhang has built a museum dedicated to the great man’s memory.
“She can craft tea that almost nobody makes in China, tea consumed by the Tang Dynasty,” says Villalon. “Zisun (purple bamboo shoot tea) was a cultivar Lu Yu researched, grew, and loved, and Lily makes this tea. It has a beautiful aftertaste of honey and sugar peas, and is handcrafted in the shape of coins. It’s brewed via a technique similar to Korean ddok cha or teok cha.”
On a spring trip to China, Villalon got a chance to participate in the unique Water-Splashing Festival (Poshui Jie) in Yunnan. A huge tourist attraction, this April festival, which marks the beginning of the Dai New Year, is celebrated with boat races, gorgeous flying lanterns, and gallons of water that people splash on one another with great gusto. For Villalon, the trip was made extra special by the presence of one of his heroes, tea master Lu Zhi Ming, who, Villalon says, has “a complete knowledge about everything related to pu’er.”
Driving through the countryside of Laos was a different kind of adventure. In Phongsaly Province, in Laos, just south of China, Villalon plucked tea leaves from trees much taller than him. “Laos shares a border with China, and they make pu’er too, but you can’t call it that because the name is origin-protected. But theirs is a beautiful ancient tea too,” he says.
He drove from Menghai to Phongsaly in his friend Chen’s pickup truck. “It was a 24-hour journey, and the roads were terrible, but it’s a real National Geographic kind of place,” he says enthusiastically. “We saw an old granny having a shower on the side of the road. And they have cold beer, which was great, because oftentimes in China, beer is served warm.”
As tea destinations go, one of the most unexpected is Villarrica in Chile. Few know that this long coastal country, famous for its fine wines, is home to the southernmost tea plantation in the world—though if one thinks about it, Chile’s slender shape recalls an unfurled tea leaf. The plantation, located near the snow-capped Villarrica volcano, a popular skiing destination, has a fascinating origin story. Its owners, a large German pharmaceutical company, bought agricultural land in Chile after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear leak in order to grow herbs and other crops in uncontaminated soil. Though tea had not been cultivated there before, the company decided to experiment, encouraged by the sloping landscape and cool weather conditions. The result is Salus Chile, a tea garden with plants that are “lush, beautiful, and organic,” says Villalon.
Always on the move, Villalon’s latest venture has taken him to Japan, where he has opened a pop-up in Tokyo’s trendy Shibuya district, known for “shopping malls, fancy girls, and Louis Vuitton.”
“Our tea has stories,” he says. “It’s like buying craft beer from a guy with cool tattoos.”
Whether on the slopes of an Andean plantation, a car-free mountain village in China, or a bumpy road in Laos, the tea hunter is never happier than when he’s chasing a rare tea, sharing a meal with families who have grown tea for over 300 years, or making new friends—especially if the friend comes bearing an axe.