I recently sat down for an interview with Jihai (季海), the owner and creator of the Hai Lang Hao brand of Pu-erh tea. He enthusiastically shared his views on tea drinking and the tea business in general:
Interviewer: When did you first get interested in tea and why?
Jihai: I first got involved with tea in 1996, but at that time it was mainly a business interest rather than a personal interest. I had always enjoyed tea while growing up, and because my parents worked in agriculture, I developed a love for naturally grown produce. However, I hadn’t gained a true appreciation for tea, especially Pu-erh tea, until 1999. Up until 1999, I had primarily dealt with and drank Yunnan green teas, but the International Horticultural Expo held in Kunming in 1999 brought in numerous visitors from all around China, and from all over the world, who expressed a very high interest in Yunnan Pu-erh tea. This in turn caused many of us in Kunming to become interested in Pu-erh as well. Before the Expo, people in Kunming knew very little about Pu-erh tea, but the Expo sparked a renewed interest among the people of Kunming.
Interviewer: What is your personal favorite tea and why?
Jihai: My favorite tea is raw Pu-erh tea, among which Yi Wu and Bu Lang mountain teas are my favorite, and also ancient arbor gu shu (古树) teas like Lao Ban Zhang. I believe these best represent Yunnan Pu-erh tea because they are grown in extremely good environments with no pollution, and they also have a brilliant mouth-feel (kou gan 口感). Drinking these teas can help you understand more about the essence of nature. Really, the most important thing about drinking any tea is the pleasant feeling you experience in your mouth and throughout your body. The appearance of the tea is not so important, rather what is important is the taste and the fine qualities and characteristics of the tea. In the Chinese language we have the saying ren bu ke mao xiang (人不可貌相) which means not to judge people by their appearances, and this same line of thinking should be applied to tea as well.
Interviewer: You originally sold tea under the brand Ming Xiang Ya Yuan and then later changed it to Hai Lang Hao. What is the reason for this change?
Jihai: In 2003 I tried to officially register the label Ming Xiang Ya Yuan, which rolls off the tongue and invokes an image of a fragrant tea garden. However, this name had already been registered by someone else in a small teahouse in Beijing. I then tried lengthening the name to Ming Xiang Ya Yuan, but this too was already registered elsewhere. So I tried the name Hai Lang Hao, which is my internet name, but this turned out to be registered by another company as well, even though I still use this name regularly. Actually, the official brand-name that my tea is currently registered under is Xiang Sui (香随) which I believe fits the characteristics of my tea the best. It means that the fragrance, taste and feeling given off by the tea tends to linger and follow you everywhere you go.
Interviewer: What makes your brand of tea unique from other tea brands?
Jihai: These teas are like my children so I have a lot of affection for each and every one of them. They will always be with me and will follow me just as the name of my label suggests. Every tea brand is unique. It is like artwork and the creators of every brand are able to express themselves through their tea. A person who drinks my tea and who is able to understand my tea will also be able to understand me. They will be able to understand my hope for the future of tea and my true appreciation for tea. Everyone has their own personal beliefs and interpretations of everything, and feelings about tea are the same: there are no right or wrong answers, only personal tastes.
Interviewer: What do you think the future of tea-drinking is in China?
Jihai: It will be similar to that of jade, calligraphy, and other Chinese cultural traditions. It will become increasingly important to the Chinese people as more come to appreciate Pu’er tea and Pu’er tea culture. Because it is healthy and natural, more people will be drawn to its qualities. We will do everything we can to promote this understanding of tea.
Interviewer: What tips can you give to tea drinkers to enjoy their tea to the fullest?
Jihai: The only true purpose of drinking tea is to pay attention to and enjoy its innate characteristics rather than its outward appearance. The simpler the experience is, the better. There is no need to place too much emphasis on variations in the weather, the water, ceremonies, etc. All that is needed are the leaves, a cup, and a pot of water. Tea is very simple actually, but many people try to make it overly complicated, such as by caring too much about the age of the tree and other factors like that. The most important thing is the feeling that the tea gives you rather than its origins, who made it, etc.
Interviewer: What do you think are the biggest benefits of drinking tea?
Jihai: Tea has the ability to cleanse your mind and your inner being and to allow the drinker to return to the essence of nature (回归自然). This is the biggest benefit. My dream is to not only figuratively, but to literally return to nature one day by becoming a simple tea farmer. As for now, I am fully focused on my business, and it is necessary to completely and correctly finish this first task before moving on to the next task.
Interviewer: How do you decide which loose teas to press into your cakes?
Jihai: This is a bit difficult to express in words. My only real requirement is that it satisfies me, like I said earlier, by providing a pleasant feeling in the mouth and throughout the body. My goal is to simply produce good tea which is satisfying to the customer, so If I am able to do this successfully, that is enough for me.
Interviewer: Any words of advice to a customer who would like to try your tea for the first time and who is unsure of which tea to start with?
Jihai: If a customer is fairly new to raw Pu-erh, then I would recommend that they start by drinking plantation tea for awhile (tai di cha 台地茶), then move on to drinking Pu-erh tea blends (pin pei cha 拼配茶), before finally progressing to ancient arbor gu shu Pu-erh teas (gu she cha 古树茶). There needs to be a gradual progression of understanding, like going from elementary to high school. Only by building this foundation will one be able to truly understand and appreciate ancient arbor gu shu teas such as Yi Wu teas. Those who dive straight into drinking ancient arbor gu shu teas, without first getting aquatinted with a wide range of other teas, will fail to fully appreciate why gu shu teas are so good. This is all very similar to wine tasting.
Interviewer: Thank you very much for your time and for your wonderful tea!
Interview conducted and translated from Chinese into English by Steve of Yunnan Sourcing