Q&A: Katharine P. Burnett, Global Tea Initiative at UC Davis

Katharine P. Burnett, of the Global Tea Initiative. Photo: Courtesy of UC Davis.

Katharine P. Burnett is the Global Tea Initiative’s (GTI) founding director and an associate professor of Art History at UC Davis. Formerly she served as director of the program for East Asian Studies. Today, her tea research includes the investigations into the development of tea cultures as marked by the production and exchange of tea wares, especially between China and its southwestern neighbors, starting with Vietnam and before 1700, when steeped tea became the norm.

In her role as the founding director of GTI, Burnett helps guide the organization in its mission to bring UC Davis’ premier research in agriculture, health, science, humanities and social science to bear on the study of tea.

Since GTI was founded, it’s had tremendous success, including sponsored research projects, student mentoring programs and sponsored student agricultural projects on campus.

GTI also started the International Society for Global Tea Scholars, so experts outside of UC Davis can affiliate with and benefit from GTI, thus advancing opportunities for research and teaching among an even broader group.

GTI has been recognized by government agencies that are active in important tea-producing regions, and it’s also developed the UCD GTI Collection of Tea-Related Art and Material Culture with related exhibitions, among other achievements.

Katharine P. Burnett of the Global Tea Initiative. Photo: Courtesy of UC Davis.

With the 6th Annual GTI Colloquium coming up soon (Jan. 21, 2021), World Tea News spoke with Burnett to learn more about GTI, her research, and to get her insights on top issues in the industry.

Question: Hi, Katharine. Thanks for your time. First off, tell us a little about why the Global Tea Initiative (GTI) was founded in 2015. How did it come about?

The story goes back a bit. In 2012, I was appointed Director of the Program in East Asian Studies [EAS at UC Davis], the same year that UCD announced a one-off grant opportunity to bring the sciences together with the humanities. While I was contemplating how to do my best to lead EAS, I had a chance conversation with award-winning Librarian Axel Borg, then-librarian for Viticulture and Enology on campus, who wanted to bring me together with a local collector of Japanese art, Darrell Corti, who also happens to be a world acclaimed expert in the food and wine industry. One thing led to another, and the three of us ended up at dim sum, where I happened to put a small selection of Yixing teapots and incense burners on the table for conversation. Conversation was plebian at best, as we started to get to know each other.

Midway through lunch, however, Darrell looked down at the tabletop and noticed the teapots. “Where did these come from?” So, I explained that I’d brought them – something I never do – as illustrations to our last conversation at Axel’s award ceremony. He paused. Picked one up, and said in a deeply troubled voice, “What I don’t understand is, why doesn’t UC Davis study tea?” Imagine my stunned expression, being as I had a research project that I’d been wanting to work on for years regarding why teapots suddenly shrank down in size in 17th-century China. “Good question! Why doesn’t UC Davis study tea? UC Davis should study tea!” This would be a perfect lynchpin to the new grant opportunity to apply for the new grant and bring EAS together with the scientists on campus. Axel knew the scientists who should be involved. I knew the EAS faculty. We quickly assembled a dream team of faculty and applied for the grant.

As it happened, we did not get the grant. No doubt, it was so far ahead of its time that it did not make sense to the reviewers. Fair enough. I can certainly appreciate that perspective. Nonetheless, we started moving forward with our goals. Darrell especially was instrumental in introducing me to important figures in the tea industry, especially Wingchi Ip, owner/director of LockCha Teahouse in Hong Kong.

Wingchi invited me to speak at the 2014 Xiamen International Tea Fair, possibly the largest tea exposition in the world. The audience was intrigued by our project and peppered me with questions about how I would move it forward. A banquet dinner afterwards with Wingchi, Darrell and the event organizers advanced the conversation further, with some even interested in donating funds.

When I returned to report to my Deans once back on campus, they quickly connected me with the office of Development, which introduced me to all the affected offices (Grounds Planning, Foundation Planning, Industry Relations,  etc.) who might be involved or affected by this project – people who, in fact, I had already spoken to when pulling together the grant in the first place. They had all been enthusiastic then, but with development by my side, were even more willing to commit to the vision.

A year of these meetings across campus sufficiently readied the project for pitching to the Provost. On Aug. 27, 2015 – my wedding anniversary – we met with the Provost and Deans. Then-Provost Ralph Hexter thought it was a reasonable idea, offered Seed Grant funds from his office and those of the Deans, charged me with holding an annual colloquium to launch the project, and then said, “Make it blossom!”

At the GTI's Annual Colloquium. Photo: Courtesy of UC Davis.

Question: So, when did you initially become seriously interested in tea? Was that through your research into Chinese culture and traditions?

Answer: Yes, actually, I was in Taiwan after I graduated from college, working on my Chinese language skills and interning at the National Palace Museum, when friends started introducing me to Chinese-style teas, and I started being aware of China’s fascinating teapot shapes. Over time, I started to collect teapots informally. My interest in teaware has made me sensitive to tea culture, as I work on my other research projects – e.g., my first book, on the importance of conceptual originality in 17th century China – which lead me to some the tea-related projects that I’m working on now. I’m enjoying building a collection that enables me to teach about Chinese – with the GTI Collection – and Japanese ceramic traditions and tea cultures.

Some of us are fascinated by the science, some of us get hooked by the cultural components of tea. But the more I learn, the more I realize how interconnected the two are. This is one of the reasons that GTI is about the study of tea culture and science. You really do need to understand and appreciate both.

Question: What are you currently researching as it relates to tea?

Answer: A project currently with the working title, “Art History Without the Art: The Curious Case of Sino-Vietnamese Teapots before 1700.” I’m curious about the spread of tea culture from China to SE Asia – and by that, recognizing that there may have been full or partial adoption or rejection – starting with Vietnam. I am focusing on the time when steeped tea became the dominant mode of tea service, and I am indexing the spread through the unique form of the teapot.

Question: What interesting things have you discovered while conducting your tea research?

Answer: Too numerous to state. In random order: That there are so many different ways to enjoy and share tea. That there are so many different types of teas, even from the same site, yet all depend on the site, the farmers ability to care for the plants, the plucker’s ability to choose the best leaves, the processor’s artistry with production, the seller’s ability to care for the leaf and get it to market without taint, and then someone like me who has to learn how to bring the water to the right temperature and let it steep for just the right amount so as not to ruin all the hard work that went into making tea product.

I’m learning much about the health benefits and extraordinary research around health that is proving many of the myths, legends, and anecdotes that surround tea. I’m learning more about global trade in deep history and that is making me sensitive to trade issues today, things that engage with practices of law, labor, business, regulation, etc.  I’m learning that everyone really likes their own tea culture, and that people are often surprised at the varieties of tea cultures out there.

All of this has really made me want to share the great teas that I’ve been able to obtain with others. Like having a great bottle of wine that you really want to share with your friends and see what they think. I’ve got some amazing teas to share, and I want to see what my friends will think about them. The pandemic is really making life frustrating! 

Question: What do you plan to research in the future?

Answer: For my own research: The next project that I would like to complete is the article about why teapots went small in the 17th century. I’ve had to put that on the back burner while I take care of other projects.

For GTI: I’m also working with an academic press about a potential book series on tea research and the speakers for this year’s GTI events have all submitted proposals. And, in fact, there will be a sequel with even more presentations linked to the January 2021 Colloquium! I’m now trying to write the book proposal and convince the press that this year’s theme could easily be the basis for its own series. Cross your fingers! The topics are excellent.

Question: Have many students become more interested in tea as a result of your research and the GTI? Are students seeking out UC Davis because they have a passion for tea?

Yes and yes! Students from California, the United States and internationally are finding out about GTI and asking to study tea on campus. Some at the graduate and undergraduate levels have already come to UC Davis specifically because of GTI. I cannot wait to get the curriculum established so that more students can benefit from our offerings.

Question: GTI also hosts the Global Tea Club at UC Davis, which brings together students and the local community. Can you tell us a little about that?

Answer: GTC is an official ASUCD student club [The Associated Students, University of California, Davis, or ASUCD]. In GTI’s first year, when students discovered GTI was active, they asked if they could start their own club. They’ve done such a great job, that other campuses nationally and internationally are interested in modeling their own Global Tea Clubs on ours. I am so proud of our students! The club meets every other week, sponsors talks and events, and from time to time, helps out with GTI projects. Their enthusiasm for tea is amazing! And they are such an amazing group of students. Did I mention how proud I am of UC Davis’s students? I am!

GTI routinely supports students with an interest in tea. Photo: Courtesy of UC Davis.

Question: Let’s chat about the tea industry in general. What do you love the most about tea and the tea industry?

Answer: Nice people! And dedicated. They are so knowledgeable and helpful, it is always a pleasure to talk with them.

Question: What do you think are the most important issues in the tea industry right now and why?

Answer: Climate change is the most important issue, and tea is the canary in the coal mine. I worry about the viability of growing teas with increasingly challenging conditions for growth. Fortunately, at places like UC Davis, we have great scientist addressing the issue; off campus, increasingly not only the small-scale specialty tea farmers but also the large-scale more commercially oriented farmers and companies are recognizing the importance of sustainable farming. And increasingly the rest of us are recognizing the importance of responsible ecological behaviors.

Separately, in many places, younger consumers are not drinking tea. In the United States, people come to tea more as adults now than as children, so learning about tea is newer and a less familiar activity. And, the habit of slowing down to share a pot of tea with a friend is harder to do because we live such harried lives (and currently, in such isolating times). So, consumption is an issue, and teaching consumers about tea is an issue. The fact that tea is so good for health, and that increasingly research studies are proving anecdotes about tea’s healthfulness, is a real boon.

Tea is the most consumed prepared beverage in the world, yet its market share in the United States is dwarfed by the coffee, beer and wine industries. This to me is crazy! Consumers need to understand that in general, tea prices are too low. Sure, they can get a good enough cup of something, but with a little bit more money and effort, they can get a product that tastes better, lasts longer, and is better for their health. Tea is a win-win product.

Question: What advice do you have for those in the tea industry who are facing challenges as a result of the pandemic?

Have faith. It will get better. Please don’t give up. Tea consumption in the United States has been growing rapidly, and despite – or even in many cases, because of the pandemic – consumption has grown even more in the last year. This indicates that new habits are forming that will outlast the pandemic.

Question: The theme of this year’s GTI Colloquium is “The Stories We Tell: Myths, Legends, and Anecdotes About Tea.” Tell us about that. Why is that an important topic right now?

One of the nice things about tea is that every tea tells a story. And there are so many myths, legends and anecdotes about tea – starting with the legend that the “Divine Farmer” Shen Nong in China’s Neolithic period discovered the healthful benefits of tea – that I thought it would be fascinating to explore some of them. I also am aware that for the industry to succeed, they need to narrate the story of tea to their consumers and help them understand many of the special attributes of tea. And always, we aim for interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity, so we always hope that the presentations will spark something in the participant’s minds, and that will resonate with them, and they’ll want to know more. We want to help our academic community through our Colloquia, and we want to help the industry and the general consumer learn more.

Question: Thanks for your time! Last question: What do you want the tea industry to remember about the Global Tea Initiative?

Answer: Whether you are a student, scholar, expert or aficionado, we’re here to help you. Please stay tuned and when it’s launched, participate in our Professional Certificate Program in tea. And come back for our next event!

To learn more about the Global Tea Initiative at UC Davis, or their upcoming annual Colloquium (free to attend), visit GlobalTea.UCDavis.edu.