Award-winning explorer Fuchs has spent the last 20 years documenting Himalayan trade routes and their participants, with a focus on tea as a commodity and tonic. He lived in Yunnan Province for more than a decade focusing on physically retracing Himalayan paths and leading tours into Yunnan province’s tea cultivation heartland. He co-founded Jalamteas, which focused on bringing raw ‘sheng’ Puerh (and its big-leaf-centric narrative) to a greater swath of sippers. He is the author of the Ancient Tea Horse Road; host of the award-winning documentary, The Tea Explorer; and has also recently hosted episodes 1-3 of It’s a Beautiful World with Jeff Fuchs on Amazon Prime.
We caught up with the explorer to talk about his upcoming keynote, his travels, tea trends, and the ways in which tea teaches us “to take the time to take time.”
World Tea Expo Keynote
For his keynote presentation on the Tuesday morning of World Tea Expo, Fuchs will take attendees on a journey into the past, present, and future of tea. Drawing on experiences and education from his travels, Fuchs will touch upon the history of tea as well as how it has evolved through time and cultures. Fuchs will also cover how today’s understanding of tea challenges traditional norms and customs to include a new generation of tea drinkers, which are critical to the continued growth of the industry and trade. Looking ahead to the future, Fuchs will forecast what’s to come for the tea industry and what needs to be done to ensure its continued success and expansion.
Fuchs says he is focusing on the experiential versus the technical aspects of tea. “Most of it is actually to do with the experiential aspects of tea that I think are still incredibly valid for tea in the present tense and moving forward. And I think hearkening back to the experiential aspects of tea, travel, convening, bringing people together. There's a focus on the more informal aspects of tea,” he says, noting he will be encouraging attendees to engage in “the time it takes to take tea.” “A lot of it has to do with reconnecting tea back to the people and to the soil.”
As an example, he shared a pivotal moment from one of his trips on the Tea Horse Road that has stuck with him. He and his team were searching for Tenzin, one of the last Himalayan muleteers who moved goods, including tea, across the Himalayas. When they finally found him, in a tent in a nomadic encampment, he said something slightly unexpected, “If you're going to ask questions of me, you're going to sit and listen to the answers. I heard that you in the West, you like to rush through things. So if you ask me questions, you have to listen until I’m finished answering. And you cannot interrupt.”
Fuchs and his team ended up spending three days with Tenzin in his orbit of memories, in a moment almost outside of time. “I think about it often because I get caught up in the running around as much as I always did. But every once in a while, my mind drifts to that scenario, and I drift back to him, and I go, ‘Wait a minute, just hold on. You have the ability here to just dial it down a bit.’”
According to Fuchs, it’s this ability to step back and “take the time to take time” that makes tea special.
Tea as a Form of Connection
Tea’s diverse narrative offers many entry points for people to connect over the beverage and its associated rituals and preparations. “I think tea’s inherent strengths are the ability to connect it to travel, connect it to culture, connect it to food centrism,” says Fuchs, citing travel to sites of tea origins, the cultural aspects of and influences on tea, and the “rich and sometimes brutal narratives” surrounding the history of tea.
It’s these stories and histories that Fuchs says should be worked into the business of tea as well. “I think we'd be remiss in the tea industry not to try and include, almost as a necessity, tea’s rich cultural tapestry into the business models. I believe—just knowing tea people and happily being one—that people generally do adhere to narrative, they want the story.”
The New Tea Generation
While these stories and points of connections are a great way to engage a new generation in tea, Fuchs says experiencing it for themselves is also key.
He says tea tastings, especially pop-ups, can help to engage a new audience and also add a spontaneity to an industry that is typically rigid.
Eliminating that rigidity and elitism that sometimes surrounds tea, and making it more accessible, is also a big part of engaging new tea enthusiasts. “It's maybe taking some of the intimidation factor out of tea. You don't have to get the exact temperature of water and the precise amount of tea leaves in a specific clay pot at the beginning,” he says.
He uses the example of the youth he works with as part of his role as co-founder and director of Outdoor Programming at the Akahiao Nature Institute on Hawaii’s Big Island. He has added tea times to each program, and at first, the teenage boys in the program are usually against the tea times or not interested in them. But then things start to change, and by the end of the week-long program, the boys are drinking tea, engaged in the rituals of making it, and even serving others. “It’s a communal thing,” says Fuchs, calling back to tea’s power to connect. “It's that community around tea.”
It doesn’t come as a surprise that the boys were the ones hesitant to embrace tea, as Fuchs says about 12 years ago there was a market study that showed men, more often than not, were not interested in drinking tea. But there’s been a change now thanks to tea being incorporated into other mainstream experiences surrounding things like food.
Fuchs says its important to integrate tea with other experiences versus making it a standalone industry that can seem daunting to enter given the sheer amount of education and information that is available to study. He recommends adding tea to food curriculums, to food and beverage pairings, and to push its health benefits to expand its reach and make it more accessible.
He cited the example of a mixologist at an upscale international hotel who uses teas in his bar program. “He's mixing tea in with gins, vodka martinis. He's found a way to integrate tea into conversations at bars,” says Fuchs. “He was telling me that people will sit down and they say, ‘Okay, well, I'm going to try this cocktail with matcha blended in with a vodka martini.’ And people start talking about tea at the bar, and how it fuses into the alcohol, how it metabolizes, and how it tastes. It’s this idea of integrating tea into these worlds of food, into pairings with food, pairings with alcohol, and not just restricting tea to this little isolated, elitist type of world that it sometimes occupies.”
Matcha & Pu'erh Lead Tea Trends
Speaking of matcha, Fuchs says he expects the tea to continue to trend as it is everywhere—in baking, in mixology, in coffeehouses, etc.
He also sees pu’erh tea growing in popularity. “I think it's got to do with the fact that it's the one tea that you can just leave alone, and it will naturally age and become something different that doesn't evaporate into tasteless dust without any health properties. It just transforms,” he says, noting he thinks the specialty tea appeals to people into vintages, aging, etc.
It’s the unique aspects of specialty tea that Fuchs hopes the market will come to appreciate more in the future. “I would love to see that the small and medium size producers and sellers are able to sustain themselves because people realize the value of having a good cup of tea from a source that they trust,” he says. “I believe in the artisanal aspects of tea, really playing up how it was picked, when it was picked, what does an early pick during a drought season mean to the flavor?”
What's Next for Jeff Fuchs?
As for Fuch’s personal future, he hopes to visit more of the trade ports in places like Africa and the Middle East. “I would love to visit because I think the mercantile system and trade of the past in those places were such hotbeds of culture and DNA. So much knowledge got transferred vis-à-vis the trade routes, whether they be across the oceans or over the overland Himalayan passes,” he says. “I would love to visit and see what's left of the connections. All these things happened along these trade routes, and, for me, they're almost like arteries of life that float.
“And tea inevitably is in there somewhere.”
Plan to Attend or Participate in World Tea Expo, March 18-20, 2024
To learn about other key developments, trends, issues, hot topics and products within the global tea community, plan to attend World Tea Expo, March 18-20, 2024 in Las Vegas, co-located with Bar & Restaurant Expo. Visit WorldTeaExpo.com.
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