The vendor profile for Tea Urchin is a part of our Pu’erh Tea Vendor Series, covering a number of Pu’erh-centric vendors that sell to the west. This interview was conducted with Eugene & Belle of Tea Urchin.
Based in Shanghai, Tea Urchin was created in 2011 by the husband/wife team, Eugene & Belle. Eugene had previously run a blog, titled The Tea Urchin, and the online store adopted the same moniker. When first created Tea Urchin’s selection was predominantly composed of their own pu’erh productions, principally higher-end, small-production gushu. Eugene & Belle still travel to Yunnan yearly to press their own branded cakes but have also branched out into other tea genres, specifically Wuyi Yancha, Dancongs, and most recently Taiwanese Oolongs. Their spring lineup of pu’erh pressings typically consists of ~10 teas, the majority from Xishuangbanna but also including several other pu’erh regions (Jingmai, Xigui, etc.). Tea Urchin’s overall tea selection has also slowly broadened to include many teas from other pu’erh producers as well as a few older teas.
ABOUT TEA URCHIN
How did you get your start into tea? How about as a vendor?
Belle and I both grew up drinking Chinese tea but we only started studying tea after being gifted a Dayi 8592 ripe pu’erh cake by Belle’s godfather. That modest cake ignited our interest in pu’erh and we began regularly visiting the tea markets in Shanghai. Around this time I quit my job and started the Tea Urchin blog. Tea quickly became an all-consuming passion, that led us to new friends, and deeper into Chinese culture. Like many new pu’erh devotees we built up quite a hoard, especially after we visited Yunnan to make pu’erh ourselves. I’m only half joking when I say we started the tea business to support my pu’erh addiction!
TeaUrchin.com is a gorgeous site with loads of eye candy for tea fanatics. The photos of tea and teaware are top-notch and the wrappers are extremely appealing. Who is responsible for this? What is Tea Urchin’s design philosophy?
It’s a team effort. Belle takes all the beautiful photos on our website. We work with family and friends on the wrapper artwork. We use wrappers to tell personal stories & share discoveries made on our tea journey. Tea appreciation is very much about history & craft, yet it’s also about engaging all the senses in the moment. So each year we introduce new design themes, a happy, eclectic blend of east meets west, new and old. That pretty much reflects our marriage, and also Shanghai’s dynamism!
You are one of a few husband/wife teams in the online tea world. Do you travel and source together? Does it have any affect on how you approach the business?
Yes, we do everything together. Whilst it was originally my pu’erh obsession that got us into the tea business, it’s now very much a shared passion. Belle has been studying at the Government Tea Institute for 3 years now, so she has a very sensitive, trained palate. When sourcing, I’m the enthusiastic explorer & collector, and Belle is the level headed business manager.
CURATING & SOURCING TEA
Since Tea Urchin was launched in 2011, your selection has expanded to include a number of tea genres, most recently Taiwanese Oolongs. What is your philosophy as a vendor/curator? Is it difficult to source teas from dramatically different tea genres whilst maintaining quality?
It takes time to get a deep understanding of each type of tea. Also during spring harvest there’s only so much ground you can cover, so many cups of tea you can drink a day. Focusing on fewer varieties ensures higher quality. pu’erh and wulong work well together because pu’erh is made in April, and oolong from May onwards.
You’ve written on the Tea Urchin blog on the topic of pesticide use in pu’erh, specifically gushu. Do you believe that pesticides are a major problem with higher-end/gushu pu’erh? How about the pu’erh scene more generally?
Gushu is relatively organic compared to other teas, and much of the food we eat. Naturally, rising tea prices incentivise farmers to plant more intensively & increase yield using fertilizers and herbicide. It’s easy to find examples of this, but also easy to find farmers who grow organic. Overall, I’m optimistic the gushu farmers in Yunnan will follow the example of Taiwan in pursuing a more organic path for the high end of the market.
20 years ago people never really consumed young raw pu’erh. Now there’s an increasing demand for raw pu’erh to be consumed immediately. Some people seem to want drink-now pu’erh, while others are more focused on pu’erh’s aging potential (many also want both!). When you are sourcing mao cha and pressing pu’erh, how do you balance these two desires? Do some of your cakes cater towards one end of the spectrum vs. the other?
I think most people want both! For aging, we look for gushu with strong flavor, aroma, full body and aftertaste. Our Gua Feng Zhai is a good example of this, and it also tastes good today. But such tea is relatively expensive. For those who want a more affordable pu’erh to drink young, we source maocha from less famous sources. Our Peacock blend and Bulang Secret are good examples of this. We also keep some maocha for blending, to create cakes like our Bulang Beauty.
If someone had $80 to spend (excluding shipping) on their first pu’erh order from Tea Urchin. What recommendations would you give them? Any specific advice you would give this friend?
Build a tasting set that combines pu’erh from each region (Yiwu, Menghai, Bulang, Simao, Lincang etc), and include some ripe and aged teas for comparison. Buy samples. Do side by side comparisons. Take notes. Develop your palate. Blind tastings especially, help you to keep an open mind and discover what you like.
Here is a recommended list:
- 2014 Bulang Beauty
- 2013 Bao Tang (Menghai)
- 2014 Yiwu Beauty
- 2014 Nahan (Lincang)
- 2013 Jingmai Reserve (Simao)
- 2006 Shunshi Yiwu (aged)
- 2010 LangHe YuPin (ripe)
Tea Urchin is based in Shanghai. This is a somewhat unusual spot for a tea vendor that focuses on pu’erh. What teas are commonly consumed in Shanghai? What is the tea culture like in Shanghai? How about the attitude towards pu’erh?
Shanghai was traditionally more of a green tea market, but over the past few years pu’er has become very popular, and now roughly 50% of the stores in the tea markets sell pu’er. They prefer dry storage here, Guangzhou or Hongkong storage is derided as “moldy”.
Shanghai has over 10 major tea markets. On average each one has about a hundred tea specialist stores. There are also lots of independent tea houses scattered throughout the city. Tea is everywhere you look, it’s very much part of the fabric of daily life. If you sit down at a restaurant you’ll be served tea. Office workers keep mini gongfu cha sets at their desk. Taxi drivers carry a jar of tea with them. Shop keepers throw their spent leaves on the pavement. You can literally step on someone’s tea if you’re not careful!