IT’S 9 A.M. IN the bright South American sun, and amid rows and rows of waist-high tea trees, Shunan Teng is explaining the art of picking the perfect leaf. We are on a tea farm, one of about 600 family farms in Argentina, though this is not tea’s natural habitat. Camellia sinensis — the singular plant responsible for true tea — is native to China, where Teng grew up and where the beverage was first cultivated. Most producers outside of China don’t know the authentic Chinese ways, so Teng has made herself into something of an international tea ambassador. She was asked here to teach hands-on lessons to the farm’s owners, father-and-son Hugo and Ivan Sand, whose ancestors planted this crop almost a century ago. As part of an online tea club Teng leads, she has — along with the organizations Soy Te in Guadalajara, Mexico and Pei Chen Tea Palace in Buenos Aires — also invited a class of tea enthusiasts from around the world (which I have joined), some of whom call Teng “Tea-yonce” in reverence to her dedication and wisdom. She snaps a tender leaf to show us the ideal for making a yellow tea called Huang Xiao Cha, and then zips through the field to find more of the best, even chewing a few to taste the raw flavor.
Tea is a drink many of us, even those who enjoy it regularly, take for granted and often know little about. It’s said that it is the second most consumed liquid in the world, behind only water. Perhaps this makes it easy to overlook — it seems like it’s always been here, a natural part of life on earth, available almost anywhere, a warm, soothing presence, flowing freely. But it’s actually one of China’s great gifts to the world, and rather complicated to produce in the proper way. The drinking of tea originated in China nearly 2,000 years ago. The plants grow most naturally in very specific climates there, often on slopes of rocky soil in the mountains, in areas with warm, sunny days and cooler evenings. Each of the six primary varieties — black, white, yellow, wu long (known in the West as oolong), red, and green — are made by harvesting leaves of the exact same plant but processing them in different ways. The process involves everything from sun-drying to baking to frying in a wok, and to wilting techniques that have been refined over centuries in China.
Teng is the owner of a company called Tea Drunk, through which she leads online tastings and educational classes, as well as sells and helps produce from farms in China that adhere to the rigorous standards set by a long heritage. Distinct climes and processing traditions at specific farms are conducive to growing plants that will end up tea of a certain variety, a wu long for instance. Teng forms relationships with artisans in these various regions who come from generations of this work. Think of it this way: anyone can make sparkling wine, but to label it Champagne, it must follow a certain method and be from the Champagne region. Teng is dedicated to working with the Champagne teas of the world.
Like most people on a singular mission, her devotion is fascinating and formidable. On a couple evenings during my time with her, she stays up all night to process tea, finishing after sunrise in the intense Argentine heat, her energy and focus never breaking. “The more I get to know about tea, the more I feel this sense of duty,” she says over a pot of Shui Xian, a kind of wu long, at a nearby hotel the morning after one such late night. “I’m hoping that one day tea can have the same reputation as wine.” She is discerning and honest — at a recent tasting class, she asked students to bring in teas that they thought were wonderful. She then sampled each one, and proceeded to tell each student what was inferior about these teas as a way of demonstrating how to improve their palate.
Teng was raised in northeast China in a family of foodies — her grandmother was an incredible cook and her father loved Long Jing, a nutty green tea that is sometimes called the “king tea of China.” “My family has always been into what I’d call the aesthetics of taste,” she says. “Growing up, every meal counted.” She learned early that the enjoyment of the culinary arts isn’t just about simple pleasures, but also in developing a strong palate with an appreciation for complex flavors. She tells the story of her baptism by fire into the infamous Chinese spirit called Baijiu, which has an alcohol proof over 100. “My dad always jokes that I knew how to drink before I knew how to speak. We have this tradition in China where we would dip a chopstick into Baijiu and let the baby lick the chopstick. The high alcohol is going to burn the baby’s tongue, and the baby’s going to cry because it’s bitter and spicy,” she says. “You persistently do this, and after a while, the baby will stop crying, totally adapt to the taste, and eventually smack its mouth wanting to have more. Then the training is completed.”
She moved to the U.S. as a teenager for school, and eventually landed in the financial industry before quitting to follow her passion. “I was approaching 30 and I kind of just had a crisis. What am I doing? Am I doing all the things I wanted to do?” she says. “I was thinking, What do I know more than average people? Tea.” At first, she started Tea Drunk as a brick-and-mortar teahouse in New York, but soon the project evolved. She sells tea online, but she’s also leaned into being a scholastic resource, hosting tea clubs and online tea tastings that exploded in popularity during the pandemic, eventually steering her toward in-person educational experiences like this one in Argentina. “I would say we see ourselves as a destination for exceptional tea knowledge,” she says. “Tea is very difficult to explain to people by just wording it. People need to experience it.”
She found that it was a tall order to educate people about the merits of high-quality tea and reform an industry that has gone astray. Mass production and globalization have made tea a volume game, and industrialized methods and machine-picking are great at creating massive quantities of product for people to drink. But it’s all been terrible for small farmers and the environment, not to mention the taste and complexity of the beverage itself. Bad tea can even be bad for you — chemicals for flavoring are sometimes added, and there is an industry practice of selling stale green tea as yellow tea. “In China, we have long thought tea is a plant that has a soul. And the more you see how tea is very sensitive to its environment, the more you feel that might be true,” she says. “It’s almost like I want to think from tea’s perspective. And I do feel bad for the treatment of tea. I also think from the human perspective — we have to balance it all with the farmer’s needed to make a living. But I want to consider what’s good for tea.”
Take this farm in Argentina, called Alma Annette. Farmers here have generally sold to a few major tea conglomerates, who then siphon most of it to the U.S. to be made into cold bottled tea loaded with sugar. This has allowed little space for the cultivation of quality — the big corporations are interested mostly in quantity and low prices. But price has sharply declined recently, such that many tea farmers can no longer subsist on the crop, meaning they either have to pull up their tea trees and plant something else or find another way to generate revenue. “The tea industry, politicians, justice system, the industrial tea factories — they fix a legal price but it’s not a fair price,” says Ivan Sand, the keeper of this Argentine farm, which his family planted almost a hundred years ago. “I’m trying to break free from the current system. I believe my grandfather, who is now deceased, would be extremely proud we are trying to stick it out with tea, rather than rip it up, which lots of farms are doing. The furthest thing from my mind would be to be a bratty, ungrateful grandson who would rip out the tea because there’s no profit in it.”
In China, we have long thought tea is a plant that has a soul. And the more you see how tea is very sensitive to its environment, the more you feel that might be true.
The idea is that if farmers can get good enough at processing tea that they can produce an artisanal crop, they can sell it themselves for higher prices — some of the Tea Drunk teas that Teng sells from China are upwards of $346 an ounce — and so Teng has come here to help them learn, showing them how to handpick with discernment, make their fields more biodiverse, and process with more intention and intricacy. In turn, the more elevated methods of growing, handpicking, and processing are better for the soil and environment; essentially, artisanal-grade product can help these farms become both financially and environmentally sustainable. What’s good for tea can be good for people. “When I walk amongst the tea fields every day, working hard and plucking tea, I think about my great-grandmother harvesting this tea the same way I do now,” says Sand.
So what’s it like, exactly, to pick tea the proper way? It takes patience and focus — you’re not looking to indiscriminately rip off the leaves, but instead trying to find just the right ones. You wade through the tea trees, dodging spiders, crickets, and butterflies. While the sun bakes your neck, you put your hand to any branch you can, trying to find the desired leaf for the style of tea you’re making. For some teas, you’re hoping to get tender buds. For others, heartier, more mature leaves. Still others, you want a leaf that adjoins the small bud of a new leaf. You do not use a machine, just your hand, letting the plant itself tell you where to snap the stem, fingering the branch to find a natural groove the way you do with asparagus. It’s weirdly hypnotic — at first, you feel intimidated at engaging in such a specific search, but you quite quickly become obsessed with finding the perfect specimen.
Processing needs even more attention than picking. There are any number of different methods, and most teas require a constant rotation of different ways to dehydrate. For some, you put tea in an oven; then, when it smells right, you take it out and let it rest. After a short time, you’ll do another round of baking, then another round of resting, and so on and so on, until the tea looks and feels the way you want it to. Some methods are even touchier: Yellow tea, for instance, requires frying the leaves in a wok at almost 500 degrees, using your bare hands to gently turn the leaves to make sure they (and your fingers) don’t burn. It is a science, yes, but it’s also an art — your eyes and your nose are the only thing that can tell you when the process is done, and you have to go with your gut. Things out of your control — like humidity, the amount of sun, the heat, and the rain — can all drastically affect the outcome.
But Teng also needs consumers to understand that good tea made with this level of care is worth spending the extra dollar on. I admit that before researching this story, I knew very little about tea, let alone its gradient of quality. I did not know it was invented in China — I had absorbed enough ambient colonial claptrap to associate it as much with England, even though Europeans didn’t start drinking tea (which they learned about and stole, both figuratively and literally, from China) until about five centuries ago. I barely knew the difference between pure tea and herbal infusions — tea, technically, is a beverage that’s made from Chinese Camellia sinensis. Anything you see made from chamomile, jasmine, and rose is herbal, which can be enjoyable, but not the same thing as proper Chinese tea. Even as I sit and drink various brews with Teng, my palette is so amateur that it’s hard for me to truly sense the difference between the varieties as she explains them, and I’m so accustomed to bad American and English tea that some of the inferior teas taste just fine to me.
That said, as my week with Teng proceeds, I do begin to develop a real enjoyment of the tea she offers and find myself wanting to brew again and again and again. The quality of her tea makes it endlessly drinkable — once you whet your appetite with the good stuff, you quickly can’t get enough. On my final day on the farm, I must’ve had at least 10 small cups in the span of five or six hours, and would have drunk more. I also began to see tea as a unifier — a commodity almost everyone from any corner of the earth enjoys, as evidenced by Teng’s devotees, who have come to Argentina, and who work and learn with her from Mexico, Germany, the Dominican Republic, the U.S., and China.
One stormy morning on the farm, it’s too wet to do much work, so Teng brews a red tea that we’d picked and processed ourselves. Everyone eagerly assembles around a long wooden table as hot water is poured over loose leaves, a tangle of arms grabbing for small cups. People gather to talk, breaking language barriers and naturally conversing, with thunder clapping behind us. “Tea brings people together,” Teng says, looking around at the levity. “This … this is the real fruit of our labor.”
Still another part of Teng’s hope is that by teaching people to appreciate tea, she will also help people develop an appreciation for Chinese culture, particularly important in an age of rampant anti-Asian sentiment in the United States. “There are definitely misunderstandings of China and Chinese culture. Or certain Orientalism. It’s like a fantasized version of China and Eastern culture that’s actually not true,” she says. “I think many people didn’t know that Chinese culture is a very, very romantic culture. It’s a culture where people have this very strong desire to connect with nature. We had emperors, we had poets — they all wrote about their personal experience, their personal understanding, of the tea. And a sense of achieving beauty.” Teng brings a higher calling to every aspect of this ancient beverage, from the handpicking to the drinking. In fact, just like the baby learning to appreciate the astringent Chinese liquor, she stresses often that drinking tea isn’t even just about pleasure. “We don’t drink tea for pleasantness — we drink it for complexity and balance,” she says. “If you want sweetness, drink some sugarcane juice or something.” To her, some of the best things in life don’t come easy. “If you give a kid wine and grape juice, the kid is going to say the grape juice is tastier, right? And that’s the difference between an untrained palate versus a trained palate. A trained palate brings an analytical mind to it,” she says. “Once you are able to grasp the finesse, the tickle to your emotion, it’s just that much greater.”
Alex Frank Writer
Alex Frank is a Manhattan-based freelance writer and editor covering music, fashion, and global culture. Frank previously worked at Vogue.com as deputy culture editor. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, GQ, Pitchfork, New York Magazine, Fantastic Man, and the Village Voice.
Bryan Derballa Photographer
Bryan Derballa is a New York–based photographer with experience shooting a wide variety of work, from documentary to portraiture to fashion, for numerous newspapers, magazines, and commercial clients.