Tea Drunk: A Taste of Ancient China in NYC

  • Posted on: October 14, 2017
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On October 3rd, 2017  Shunan Teng, founder of Tea Drunk hosted the LS section of Sustainable Systems at her shop in the Lower East Side.  Tea Drunk, founded in 2013, isn’t an average tea house.

As the homepage of the Tea Drunk website states, “Every Spring, we head to the deepest mountains in China to eat, sleep and work alongside the heritage farmers to produce the world’s most prized teas.  We walk an untrodden path to preserve a 2000-year old art that is the epic romance between man and nature.”

During our visit, Shunan served students three varieties of tea: Huo Shan Huang Ya,  Wu Yi Shui Xian and Bai Hao Yin Zhen.  In an atmosphere of genuine hospitality and joy, Shunan shared stories about the history of tea, the background of the ancient regions where she sources tea, the hearty nature of wild tea plants which are naturally insect repellent and drought resistant — and the challenges facing these areas in the age of climate change.

She also shared her belief that to taste and enjoy tea that has grown in these ancient regions of China is to taste something incredibly special, long pre-dating contemporary labels such as “organic” and “sustainable.”

During our visit and tasting, Shunan described in detail the highly nuanced attention that tea farmers and elders of the regions must have with the changing environmental conditions, including seasonality, wind, air, light and temperature — and their use of an ancient calendar system that divides the year into 24 “seasons,” helping them to know when to harvest tea and proceed with various steps of tea cultivation.

She also explained her belief that producing and tasting these teas is as much of an “art” as it is a deeply human practice — becoming aware of the highly particular and complex nuances, which result from regional geography and variation, is to enjoy something often lost in the highly standardized practice of modern tea manufacturing and production.

She expressed to students her intention to share (and help preserve) these important aspects of Chinese culture with the world through her work at Tea Drunk. And her hope to encourage people to taste “real” tea rather than allowing standardized market trends determine what is “good,” as these trends directly reshape the geography of tea regions and cultivation practices around the world.

She also briefly discussed her recent pop-up shop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Post visit reflection:

Reflect on our trip to Tea Drunk.

What was the most inspiring part of the visit?

“The most inspiring part is how the process of making tea requires all five senses. This makes Tea a fully long-life design. A farmer has to practice and live in the environment for so many years to gain this ability. It is like a call from the nature.” – Athena Wang

“The very inspiring things to know was the tea making process and the food/drink industry situation beyond it. I never expect that tea making has to undergo so many different process, and so meticulous handcrafting steps. It is so related to the nature, different location, different soil, various climate. These natural conditions rather than machine will make most impact not the produce’s flavor and quality. You see? It is something that made possible by nature not machine, and people enjoyed it. The tea house owner also mentioned the tea tree pretty sustains its growth by itself. In this way I suppose it doesn’t to use and it is not suitable for consuming artificial fertilizer. I feel like this is something that people or say designer should learn from. There are things in the nature that produce good things without human intervention. And that is something would inspire people to create long life design.” – Yi Tang

“I was quite surprising of how beautiful those tea names. Even I originally come from China, I didn’t know we have so many beautiful tea names for different catalogs. Some of them are made due to the place of origin, while some of them are made from quite poetic stories. I researched them after this visit. It was quite inspiring for my future design.”Olivia Zhu

Despite being a new business, which of the Long Life Design criteria do you think Shunan might be able to fulfill over the next 50 years, and why?

“I would say all of them but especially the criteria of the environment as she and her staff are very respectful and aware of the period of time in which the tea leaves can be handpicked. Therefore, this is respecting the natural cycle of the tea trees without making alterations on the plant in order to have all year growings. For instance, this is the opposite of mass production and consumption as it engages invites the consumer to learn more from its source and manufacturing and giving more importance to the quality of it instead of the quantity. Also, because of the strong commitment and belief on the complexity of tea that the owners have, it is shown and transmit to the consumers by the way it is sold and served. You get to see the leaves, the process of adding water, smelling the tea scent, among other things that makes you connect and care more about it instead of just buying a random tea.” – Alda Borges

“The way of leading people to think about how fast our life is. And creating a new system from collecting the materials to manufacture the products to sell them through a ceremony with zen aesthetic. Because the whole system or life style make people reflect on what we are doing to our industry and planet now. Do we really appreciate what we get from nature? Or we have used to “create” something convenient to ourselves but burdened to the planet?”Olivia Zhu

“I remember Shunan at the end she talked about how the tea industry should look up to the wine industry because nowadays people who drink wine really stick to the natural wine. And in her opinion, tea drink should also stick to its original way of production and consuming, which means make or drink the tea without additional artificial materials I guess.

Also, “users standard” could be something possibly to achieve for her. She is really passionate to tell others about tea culture, what good tea is and how to appreciate tea. And I think in future yeas as she keeps doing this business, her educations on tea to customers will make the customers knowledgable about teas and cares about the sustainable systems behind the tea production process.” – Yi Tang

Name several of the specific systems involved in Shunan’s work at Tea Drunk? (think about what kind of geography, tea, history, people in China and New York are essential to her work etc.).

“Transportation including air and road, the water and electricity consumed to make the tea in store, the packaging for the tea, the water and soil in nature that supports the growth of the tea tree, the fertilizer for the plantation of cheap tea, the 10-day labor for picking up the tea, the two month labor for handcrafting the high quality tea, the coal burned for baking the tea, the electricity consumed by machine to produce tea.” – Yi Tang

“The agriculture system, from the trees are planted to ready for picking up their tea leaves. Shunan said there are some trees over hundreds years old. The transport system, from some remote areas in China to NYC. The water system, from those trees get watered to grow, to the tea leaves get moistened from air, to dry those leaves and finally, using water to cook tea.”Olivia Zhu

  • The location of where the tea trees are grown historically in China in order to get authentic tea.
  • Working with heritage farmers of China.
  • handpicked the leaves in order to get the right leaves which survived the winter, and therefore have more complexity.
  • handcraft the tea by respecting the criteria of terroir, varietal and craft.
  • Handcraft the tea using traditional methods.
  • New York sale’s people to serve the customers – Alda Borges

Do you think of Shunan as an artist or a business person?

“I would say she is both. First, she has taken the meaning of the tea in an artistic way by putting a meaning and importance on the whole process of making the tea while she eats, sleeps and works alongside with farmers. Also, she is giving a twist on the meaning of tea as now it is so common and mass produced instead of caring for its beauty and natural complexity. On the other hand, she knows how to sell her idea and passion about tea and to care about the tea we consume, because she shows her conviction and fully convinced on what she is doing and selling.” – Alda Borges

“She is business person who knows how to make design-driven strategy, at the same time she is also artistic. Obviously, Shunan appreciates tea, she has passion for it. She values it as one of the thing she loves most. In this perspective she is artistic. She was enthusiastic to talk about her deep knowledge about tea making and tea production, the desire to express and how she expresses her feelings are made me feel she is artistic during the visit. And she also made an artistic name for her shop. She is also an intelligent businesswoman, who is visionary about the industry she works in.” – Yi Tang

“I consider Shunan as an artist more than a business person. Because the way she did tea ceremony is quite a show, like a performance art or meditation for me. It was a significant process of how tea was prepared, and how we supposed to appreciate the tea.”  – Olivia Zhu

Do you feel her work is aesthetic?

“I do think her making tea is a really beautiful art, maybe because I admire the tea culture. I grow up in the environment that tea is rooted in our daily life. The other very important reason is that the process from growing tea trees and frying tea requires so much efforts. Her spirit of letting people know the story behind the tealeaves in our cup moves me.” – Athena Wang

“Yes. I’ve been to many traditional tea house back in China and my hometown. But in my opinion Shunan’s shop won most of the shops back in China because of it’s unique style and aesthetic. The whole tea house was decorated in light color, in various shades of wooden color and white colors. And it’s also quite minimalistic comparing with tea shops back in China. The table is made of wood and at the same time it leaks water, which is a genius and beautiful design.” – Yi Tang

“Yes.  Especially when she narrated her experience of picking the tea leaves in a specific time period. I think that’s quite aesthetic an poetic of being embraced by the nature and meeting with the brand new, just mature leaves and feeling about the season change. This production process is especially aesthetic compared with common manufactory ones.”Olivia Zhu

Do you feel her work is “sustainable”? Does it also address environmental issues in other ways, perhaps in ways that ancient farming cultures did naturally? What do you think of this?

“Yes, I definitely think her work and product is sustainable, and for sure it addresses environmental issues. First, the product is made from a 100% natural material and the process of making it doesn’t pollute nor contaminate the environment. On the other hand, I think it also addresses an environmental problem, which is mass production and consumption, by putting more importance on the quality and process of making the tea rather than just having more quantity without caring about anything. In this way, by giving more importance to the source which is the location and authentic tea trees, the variety of teas and quality of the leaves, and the process of crafting the tea is what makes the consumer consume in a different way rather than not knowing where the product came from and how it was made. I think this is a good initiative and a good example for other industries, not only for food but also for fashion for example, to start giving more importance to the quality and respecting the source instead of having more quantity no matter what in order to get more money.” – Alda Borges

“Half and half. Sometimes I do worry about this kind of little shops that are so cute, so authentic. They have their little worlds within modern fast-pace cities, but maybe close down because of some reasons. (I don’t want to be so realistic.) However, the category she is in, which is tea, is very historic and has already been sustainable.

Shunan’s tea was grown by hand instead of cultivated and picked by machine, so it reduces the carbon emission and are closer to the nature. It makes people think about the life style they have: is the fast-pace life the real life, or it has destroyed the true value of living. For years I have been blamed that I am too slow-not efficient. And I was so confused that why we have to ignore so many good and meaningful details and focused on the things that are so-called more “important” but harming the environment, harming our living.”  – Athena Wang

“Yes, I do believe her work is sustainable. The tea supply she chose from China is not from tea plantation. The tea trees  were all sustained by themselves, which means there is no artificial fertilizer added in the soil there, and what people should is just patiently wait as the time passes by. It’s more closed to the ancient farming in my imagination, letting the plants growing naturally. I think this is good, though we need to balance this with feeding more people on this planet.” – Yi Tang

“I’m considering one perspective which is the package.  Because I learned from some stories that in ancient china, we actually used paper and pottery to contain the tea. Each family may have two or there potteries especially for different kinds of tea. And when you buy it from the stores, they will package tea with paper to make it easy to carry. And you can keep it with your own pots after you home. In this way, everything is kind of “long life” design. Nowadays, I feel we use quite fewer of those “traditional” containers. Even in those organic food stores, we still sell plastic bags which make me quite worried about our environments.” – Olivia Zhu

Jamie Kruse is an artist, designer and part-time faculty at Parsons School for Design. In 2005 she co-founded smudge, (smudgestudio.org) with Elizabeth Ellsworth, based in Brooklyn, NY. She is the author of Friends of the Pleistocene: fopnews.wordpress.com.

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