Interview with Peter Luong of Song Tea

Interview with Peter Luong of Song Tea

Though you mostly hear us talking about coffee at Sump, we’re thrilled to be serving Song Tea alongside our coffee. Peter Luong, founder of Song Tea, was kind enough to sit down with me to talk about his unexpected journey into the tea world, fishing out tea scam artists, and what makes an exciting cup of tea.

peter luong ceramicist tea

Peter Luong (left), pictured with a ceramicist commissioned to make tea pots for Song Tea.

Jordan Worthington: Hi Peter, it’d be great if you could start out with a brief history of Song Tea.

Peter Luong: We opened our doors in October 2013, almost 3 years ago. To be ready for a Fall 2013 opening, we had to begin work at the beginning of the year, and be sourcing by spring. The reason for that is, if you’re going to sell tea in October or July or June of that year, you need to purchase that tea in March, April or May of that year. So to do that, I spent spent a little over 2 months, almost 3 months in Taiwan and China, from March through late April, early May. The idea was to begin building a new collection of tea, working with ceramicists, and making sure the product line was ready. In retrospect, it was somewhat stressful because as we were buying tea, but we didn’t have a place to open into, nor for that matter, a place to put product other than my house, and San Francisco apartments are very tiny.

JW: So I’ve heard from all of my friends that live there.

PL: So right before I left at the beginning of 2013, I had started looking for places, but things were beginning to get very expensive in the city because a lot of tech companies started moving in. We found ourselves working with brokers who would present something and then would say that there is a tech company who is vying for the space, and we don’t have the cash to compete with a tech company. I left for China and Taiwan without having secured a space and it wasn’t until my last month in Taiwan that I ended up selecting the space that we found, and we ended up selecting the space off of Craigslist. I returned in May, and from May through October there was a lot of figuring out how we wanted to use the space and the original content written for all the teas. I wish we had opened earlier, but we finally opened in October. It’s been great so far.

JW: And you’ve been in this space the whole time?

PL: We’ve been in this space the whole time. We’ve very, very gradually ramped up over the last three years. Right now, we have 3 employees. We did not initially launch with a website. We only launched our website last year for online sales, with retail and a little bit of wholesale. Our three lines of business are walk-in traffic from our retail location, our web store for retail sales of tea online, and our wholesale program.

JW: I know many people here who are very grateful for your online store. I actually bought some tea from you earlier this year for my sister for her birthday. I’ve also heard amazing things about your space in San Francisco from Scott and Marz. Switching topics, how has growing up with a family that owned and operated a traditional Chinese apothecary informed Song Tea & Ceramics?

PL: So the apothecary was something that was started 30 years ago. Chinese apothecaries in San Francisco’s Chinatown are one of those places that carry a lot of things. My father’s perspective on retail is the more you carry, the more you can sell and the more money you can make. So it not only included some Chinese herbs, we also sold tea. I think when I returned to the family business in 2002 after the dot com crash, we had about 10 or 15 teas and they were all okay teas, they weren’t dramatic or special by any means. What I did when I first joined was to start travelling with my father and through him, I started meeting suppliers and got a better understanding of how to travel and do business in China. I had to figure out how to get teas back. I think the first 4 years or so, was a lot of learning, a lot of soaking things in before I started making changes and to focus the business on tea.

JW: So how did you decide to focus the business on tea and away from the previous model?

PL: Well a couple of things - I don’t know much about Chinese medicine and it’s a very difficult thing to absorb. My dad’s request was that I look at ways of taking the business out of Chinatown. At that point, we were only selling teas to local customers and once in awhile, someone would stumble in who was not a local customer and they’d be impressed with the teas. And that was the part of it that was really interesting and fun for me - to introduce these folks to teas of this type - traditional Chinese tea, versus Earl Grey or English breakfast tea. I saw that as an opportunity that made more sense for me, not only because teas taste good but because I began learning more about Chinese history and culture. Everything rolled into something that, not only if you looked at the business opportunity, but if you looked at it personally, it became a very interesting thing to pursue.

JW: So you travel, and you spent a lot of time gaining experience from your father, and learning how to best navigate business abroad. What do you look for when you go on your sourcing trips? New teas? Variance in the same teas from year to year?

PL: Right, so that was the idea when I started Song. Before Song, I grew the business so it was fairly successful and my parents retired and then my sister and I were left managing the business, we were equal partners and we saw things very differently, which is why I decided to leave and start something a little smaller and a little more focused on the types of teas I was looking for, which is a good segue into the question about what I look for from year to year on my sourcing trips. The idea is to maintain a tight collection of teas. Each tea in that collection needs to make sense in terms of flavor, character - it needs to be good - but I also have to think of the collection as a whole. The entire collection should leave a very good impression of quality, but also leave an impression of the range that’s in traditional Chinese teas. It should also include really great teas that folks wouldn’t normally have access to. The idea is to slowly evolve it, so that we’re keeping a few familiar teas but we’re always having new teas that are very interesting to keep everyone excited about the collection. I think the number I throw out is 30-40% of the collection changes from year to year. Some of those changes are variances in the same tea from year to year. For green teas, for example, in the spring you want to refresh. You don’t want to carry last year’s spring greens. Even if you decide to keep the same tea, you’ll want to have the new crop of that tea. In that case, we’ll call it a refresh. There are other teas that we’ll rotate in and out. There are teas that we can’t get ahold of anymore, or the quality of the tea is not meeting our expectations, it opens up a slot for something new and interesting to step into its place. So it’s a little of both.

JW: One tea that really intrigued us at Sump was the Baozhong from the 1960s. Everyone was very excited to try it. What I was most curious about was how you source a tea that was set aside to age in the 1960s.

PL: I bought that tea originally in 2012 before Song started, when I was still at the family business. It was one of the teas I took with me when I started Song. If you were to go back today in 2016 - and I did a couple of years ago when I asked if any of that tea was available - the quick answer is no. If you were to go back to Taiwan and look for aged teas, you’ll find that it’s near impossible to find them.

JW: Why is that?

PL: Mostly because over the last 10 years, it’s become a thing for people to seek out aged teas and then to buy them up if possible because there’s no other way of getting them. What was somewhat easy to get 5 or 6 years ago is becoming more and more difficult, if not impossible to get. Some of the folks who would otherwise sell aged teas to you have wised up to their value and are hanging onto them. Anything that’s available now has been picked over. Then there’s also a lot of questionable teas out there that claim to be as old as they are but are not. This past spring, I spent some time drinking tea with a tea dealer who specialized in aged tea. He said he had a tea from 1979 and it didn’t taste like a tea from 1979, if that makes sense. It didn’t have those qualities or characteristics of age. I was somewhat doubtful. The questions to ask in that situation are to ask if he has any for wholesale, and he said no. The second question to ask sort of, as a test, is if he has 500 kilos, which is an impossible amount of tea for someone, even with foresight, to have stored. His answer was yes, which makes me question even more whether or not that is indeed a tea that is 40 years old. The way I found the 1960s Baozhong is I had been working with a tea grower and his family in Wenshan in northern Taiwan and the family actually goes back to Fujian. A lot of the tea makers who settled in northern Taiwan came across the strait from Fujian and they brought with them seeds and know-how and planted them initially in northern Taiwan, right outside of Taipei. It’s fairly low elevation, but traditional teas were planted there. It wasn’t until later that tea production spread southward and higher up, so elevation increased with time. Originally, a lot of the tea makers were in northern Taiwan and the family that was making Wenshan Baozhong had stored a small lot of that tea. I asked for it and I bought as much as I could - I bought 2 cartons of it. We’ve used one carton and we have one carton left. At some point for certain aged teas, tea makers and tea dealers will not sell their teas and hold them for 10 more years to re-release a tea. We may or may not decide to go that route with this one.

JW: I was wondering if there are cases in which you keep teas yourself to age.

PL: That is actually the longer term plan. It’s a good way to age your own tea without having to pay market prices for already aged teas, especially in this market where aged teas are quite popular and already in demand. The idea is to buy a lot of tea very exceptional quality and put it away for storage, for aging. The downside of that is it costs a lot of money - and cash is locked up for the foreseeable future, which is a little more difficult for a young company such as ours.

JW: Are there certain climates that are better for aging tea that others?

PL: It depends on the tea. The Baozhong for example is an aged oolong, and aged oolongs are best when stored in a moisture free, air-tight environment, but there’s still air inside. You don’t want a vacuumed environment. It’s as simple as very carefully putting a carton of tea inside food-grade plastic lining and sealing it and letting it sit as long as you can. There are other teas, like pu-erh, which is an aged tea, that is slightly different. It’s a little more of a living tea and it requires air and a natural environment that’s not sealed. In that case, you want to control air and moisture in the environment. Too much moisture and you’ll have mold.

JW: Do pu-erhs continue to ferment as they age?

PL: They do! As do oolongs. Not to the same degree as pu-erhs. There’s an earthiness and a rootiness to the Baozhong. There’s also a slight plum note that you should detect, like an ume or dried plum note. There’s also a slight tartness to the tea. There’s a little bit of acidity to the tea. That tartness comes acetic activity on the surface of the tea as the tea ages. There’s some microbial activity going on.

JW: This talk on setting aside teas and aging them yourself and the evolution of the tea industry is a nice segue into the next question. It sounds like the international industry has changed even within your experience within it in the past few years. What other changes have you seen? Do you have any other thoughts on where the tea industry will go, especially the tea industry in North America, where there’s not as wide of a consumer base right now, but I assume it’s growing.

PL: I think there is a wide consumer base, however the consumer base has a completely different notion of what tea means.

JW: Yes, I think that makes sense.

PL: I think if you looked at our segment in very specialized, very high quality tea, you have a lot of growing interest, but it’s a small segment of the market. On the other hand, the tea market in this country is growing by leaps and bounds and a lot of it has to do with, and you see it when you go to tea conventions - you see a lot of tea companies that are offering a very wide range of teas. A lot it is flavored, a lot of it are blends, and not necessarily pure teas. You have both sides of the tea market growing, it’s just that the specialized market is much smaller.

JW: Do you see that changing at all?

PL: Yes and no. If you looked at the two sides of the market, at some point, we’ll poach more and more tea drinkers and wean them away from flavored teas and introduce them to very high quality teas. That’s more of a possibility than the other way around. It’s rare that someone tries some really good teas and decides to go for a mango-flavored tea. There are a lot of obstacles to how large specialty tea and can grow and how quickly it can grow. The first obstacle is the availability of good quality tea. I buy in very small lots and as we grow, it becomes a little more difficult to get the amount of tea that we’re asking for. And that’s just us - one location with a few wholesale accounts. On the other hand, you have very, very large tea companies that have a lot of buying power, but at this quality level, there isn’t enough stock available. That’s probably one of the largest impediments to growth in the high end tea market. The second impediment to grow is there’s a lot of confusion. There are tea companies that are very comfortable marketing their teas as rare and unusual and hand-crafted, when in truth, the teas they’re buying are not of that quality. There’s a lot of confusion as to what quality tea is. You see the same tea that’s being sold at lower than our cost, we start raising our eyebrows as far as whether or not that tea did indeed come from that particular region or that it was picked at a certain time. The price I’m paying for teas is very proportional to the quality I’m getting in return, so on the flip side, if the tea is about half the price, I worry about the quality and price points that some of these places are buying tea at.

JW: I suppose though, for a lot of American consumers, if it costs anything more than a pack of English breakfast tea that you buy at the grocery store in a pack of 70, if you pay $2 for tea, then they’re going to think it’s fancier than what they’re buying at the grocery store.

PL: Right, so that’s the main impediment is perception of what quality tea is. A friend of mine who was in specialty tea in San Diego closed down their specialty tea company and in partnership with someone else, opened a more mainstream tea company. About 6 months in, he gave me a call and said “Peter, you have no idea the margins we’re getting for some of these herbal blends. They’re just buying them up.” You could make a whole lot more money offering flavored and blended teas, margins are much higher, but it’s not as good or as fun.

JW: Or probably not as intellectually rewarding as seeking out the best of the best. There are companies that have slick marketing and offer blends and people pay a lot for it because they think it’s fancy and they use ingredients that they haven’t heard before.

PL: Right, and your perception is that those teas are of high quality. It’s a very difficult thing to convince someone otherwise once they’ve bought into that notion. What I think it the most important way to convert is to have folks taste teas. We’re selling something that people will brew and will drink and enjoy. The idea is that if people taste something really phenomenal, then they’ll understand. But there are some people who will never take that leap.

JW: Thank you for your thoughts on that.

PL: It’s a little negative.

JW: Yeah, I think with time. Maybe for me I’m starting to see it more because I used to work in a totally different industry and I’m now introduced to more consumers who are very informed about tea. There are some people who come to Sump just for your teas. I have one friend who comes in often to have your tea. When you sent your new teas, I brewed them up for him and he was very, very excited. For me, there’s a lot of power in word of mouth.

PL: I think the best way to think about it, and with Sump, with regards to coffee, there’s no need to fight a larger battle or convert the general public because it isn’t going to happen. You’re not going to get everyone who goes into Teavana or whatever mall tea place to drop what it is they like to move toward high end teas. I’m okay with the fact that we’re not going to win everyone over because that’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to offer something really nice and wonderful, and folks who can appreciate that - if they like it, great! That’s all that really matters.

JW: Very similar to how we operate in the coffee space. If you could, would you be willing to share your thoughts on the similarities and differences between high-end tea and specialty coffee?

PL: It depends on what it is you’re comparing. If you’re comparing high end tea and high end coffee, as an industry, we face the same challenges in terms of trying to win folks over and reset expectations for what quality is. As far at the product itself, there are some really stark differences between coffee and tea. When it comes to having the tea in the cafe, it’s very similar. The idea is to treat it the same way - brew it and present it a certain way. Tea is quite complex, in that there’s much more range in tea. Not in a cup of tea, mind you, but it’s a broader market with much more variation than there is in coffee. Which is not necessarily one thing being better than the other. When I’m asked a certain question, I need to know what that question is in context of - whether we’re talking about green tea or about oolong tea or about red tea - the answer depends very much on what type of tea we’re talking about. There are a host of different cultivars for tea, there are a host of different areas where tea is grown. With each step, you’re adding a multiple to it. The number of different outcomes you can have is really staggering. With respect to that, it’s slightly different. It’s a really interesting difference between high end coffee and high end tea. With high end coffee, the final step in defining its quality is done stateside. Green beans are purchased at origin and they are roasted in the US. Tea is very different in that the final step is done at origin. In some cases, we do have influence in how the tea is produced. We also can pick the right tea out of hundreds and thousands of teamakers. The curation and the seeking out and going into a sourcing area with an idea of what kind of tea we’re looking for, that sets us apart from a roaster who has a defined way or methodology of roasting a coffee.

JW: Because we’re not a larger shop, some of our sourcing and sampling depends on the good word of our sourcing companies and importers. And that’s the product, but there’s also the brewing of the product once it leaves your shop. So you have partnerships with coffeeshops and restaurants - what do you look for when you establish these partnerships? Sump is a small coffeeshop in St. Louis.

PL: Well, we don’t necessarily look for volume because more often than not, the larger a coffee company is, the less it makes sense for us to work with that company. The most important aspect of what we look for is how we feel a particular account will take care of the tea and present the tea. That’s very different from companies who say, “Hey we wanna work with you. We’ve heard only good things about you and we think you sound great and you’ll look great on our shelves” kind of thing. It’s not a perfect science and it evolves out of conversations with folks about what their philosophy and approach is, with regards to quality. For lack of anything else, for coffee, it would be their approach to the quality of the coffee they serve, the beans that they buy, the way they roast, and how much care goes into preparing coffee. I think that’s a very clear indication that if we sent tea to them, that they would care as much about the teas they’re working with. Next week, we’re going to add a new account called Narrative Coffee in Washington. It’s a kiosk that will hopefully lead to a brick and mortar location. Initially, without having talked to the person, the thought was that it didn’t make sense for us to pursue, but he sent an email about cows. I need to read you this -

JW: It sounds like an interesting story.

PL: Let me read you this, “I focus on terroir-specific coffees, small herd dairy (63 Guernsey cows)” and that’s what did it. I called him back and we had a great conversation about quality. I was on the phone with him the day before yesterday and I told him that the reason we decided to work with him was because of the line about small herd dairy for milk for their coffee. It’s the little stuff like that, but ultimately it’s working with folks who love our product and who love to work with us and we in turn love to work with them. That’s the core of what a good partnership is. It’s not just a sale, because if it’s a sale, then those are a dime a dozen. Those are a easy to get, but if it’s the right kind of partnership we have to be a little more picky about it.

JW: Well I know that we at Sump are proud to serve your teas. I remember, I moved to St. Louis fairly recently, and the first time I visited Sump, before I even had thought about working there, I heard one of the baristas say, “I was never a tea person until I had this tea.” You know, this is the tea that turns people into tea people. My impression was, “Wow! These are very hardcore coffee people, this tea must be very special if it’s something that people who spend their days drinking and brewing and thinking about coffee, will often take a break from their coffee to brew tea and enjoy that.”

PL: On the flipside, I’ve been drinking more coffee. I’ve been working with coffee producers and it’s been very difficult not to start thinking about what gets people excited about their coffees, and trying to understand and drinking a lot more as a result.

JW: Have there been any coffees that have been very exciting to you?

PL: Several. I got a bag of something from Tokyo once, from a company called Fuglen that was really delicious.The folks at Parlor in Brooklyn - really delicious coffees.  We don’t work with these guys, but we’re friends because we sent them tea and they sent us coffee. At home, I buy Ritual because it’s good and it’s easy to get. So there are a bunch of little events, if you will, that really have evolved my appreciation for good coffee. One of them was Heart, initially. I think when I was first there to talk to relay and we had tasted a bunch of teas, he pulled an espresso shot for me that we really delicious. It was one of these - what are those called, the grinder?

JW: EK43?

PL: Yeah, that! I was one of these long pulled, larger cups of espresso. Really creamy and really delicious. That was another point that I remember in my conversion to the dark side, if you will.

JW: Yeah, tea is kind of like the light side and coffee is the dark side.

PL: They can go hand in hand. There are a lot of folks who take sides and it doesn’t make sense to me because there’s such range in both beverages.

JW: That’s the way I feel. I love tea and I love coffee and I feel about it in a similar way to people who say they’re either cat people or dog people. I love both and I don’t want to choose and I want both in my life.

PL: There’s a really bad Cantonese drink, I think it’s from Hong Kong, called yin yang. It’s awful. It’s bad coffee and bad tea in the same cup with sweetened condensed milk.

JW: That sounds exactly like a very, very sweet version of something that people drink in Thailand. One last question - is there one tea that stands out as the most memorable for you?

PL: There have been so many. I think one of the things I want to say - and I do it at the tea shop if we’re cupping something really good - I would say “Holy shit, this is really good!” I have one instance that stands out not only because it was really good, but also because it was unaffordable. I was in Chaozhou. We’re releasing three oolongs in about a month or so from this area. Chaozhou has a type of oolong that’s sometimes called “phoenix mountain oolong,” it’s called Dan Cong. These oolongs are incredible. The very, very best ones come from older trees and in this instance, I had the chance to try one from a mother tree. So if you were to imagine a coffee cultivar that’s really, really sought after - if you were somehow able to trace back to the mother tree of that cultivar and made some coffee from it, it would be like that experience but with tea. Except that tea was about $1,200 per half a kilo, which is completely unaffordable. I tried to do the math and figure out at what quantity it made sense for me to buy and there wasn’t a breakdown that would have made sense. I just did not have the money for that.

JW: There’s something special about drinking something from it’s source and knowing that you can’t have it.

PL: It was really delicious. What I find is that most really nice teas are subtle. Just because one tea is twice the price of another doesn’t mean that it’s going to smack you over the head with more flavor, it doesn’t work that way. The nicer you get with a tea, a couple of things happen. The texture gets more interesting and the balance is more profound. Every aspect of a particular tea tastes right. Those are not easy to come by. They’re teas that are usually very, very, very expensive.

JW: Thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to speak with me! I really appreciate it.

For more information on Song Tea, check out Song's website and Peter Luong's interview with Sprudge.

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