Can you determine the type of tea you’ll like by the type of cheese you eat, the apples you prefer, maybe even the beer you drink? Bill Waddington can.
Waddington is the kind of guy who won’t refuse a tea, even if it is flavored with yak butter or garlic, the kind of guy who will bring out a brick of dark tea and have you inspect it with him for golden flecks, the kind of guy who answers a question about silver needles by dashing to the computer and bringing up a tea plant image full screen. Waddington’s interests surround him, literally. In his office at the TeaSource retail store in Northeast Minneapolis, maps of tea regions hang side by side with photos of his family — and yes, when he brought his adopted daughter back from China, he also brought back some tea. A full bookcase on one side of his office forms his tea library, but you get the sense that the tins of tea leaves out front in his shop have just as much to tell.
Before Waddington honed his powers of tea divination and traveled the world scoring the Twin Cities some of the world’s great teas, he was just a guy who liked a drink.
As he explains, sometime in his early twenties, he got to thinking: “Somewhere in the world there must be great tea, in the same way there is great champagne, great olive oil…” He had no thought of owning a business — he just wanted to know more. Waddington started reading UN agricultural abstracts at the library. He then went a step further, writing letters to the tea growers mentioned in the articles. Waddington points out that this was in the early ’80s, before the Internet. Many of the growers wrote back mainly because “they were so astonished that someone from America cared about good tea.”
Soon, Waddington was forming relationships with people across the globe. “That’s what I love about the business, the civility. It’s civil in the sense of politeness, graciousness,” says Waddington. That civility characterizes the people who began writing polite letters back to him and sending along tea samples to their new American pen pal.
Waddington’s wife calls this characteristic of his — this dogged pursuit of an interest — his “obsessive curiosity.” It has taken him to India, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, China, and Japan — the five top tea-producing countries in the world.
“Sometimes I feel like Indiana Jones,” Waddington confesses about his new taste discoveries. One time, a Taiwanese man drove him to a mountain in northern Taiwan. There they met a tea grower, Mr.Fong (pictured at left), who had lost track of his age some years after turning 80.
“If I hadn’t known it was tea, I might not have guessed,” Waddington says about the drink Fong gave him. “The two old men [Mr. Fong and the driver] sat there cackling, watching me.” (They also later got him drunk on Mr. Fong’s homemade dark, murky wine, but that’s another story.)
Like any true enthusiast, Waddington brought some of Mr. Fong’s tea, called pouchong, back home to share. He drank a pot with the host of The Splendid Table, Lynne Rossetto Kasper. “‘It’s like drinking lilacs,'” Waddington recalls Kasper saying on air, and he wholeheartedly agrees.
Another time, Waddington negotiated with an Indian vendor whose family owns a number of Darjeeling fields and an Assam estate (“You can see Everest from this guy’s back porch,” Waddington says). Though the vendor specialized in full-bodied black teas, Waddington convinced him to try making an oolong, a medium-bodied tea. (Oolongs are usually lighter in color than black teas and have different additional flavors, created by rolling, tying, and twisting tea leaves in a way that doesn’t occur in black tea production.)
“We’re Indians, we don’t do oolongs!” Waddington recalls him saying, but the result, the Kapili Estate Oolong, is now a beloved specialty sold at TeaSource and at high-end teashops in London and Paris.
Waddington says, tea has let him connect with people of other cultures. “Tea is a social and spiritual lubricant,” he says, reminiscing about a tea ceremony he recently witnessed at a Taiwanese wedding. The ritual involved the new husband and wife preparing and serving tea for one another, and reminded Waddington of the high value of tea in other cultures.
The relationships Waddington established through tea, have contributed to the 2,000-3,000 samples that arrive at TeaSource each year. To evaluate them, Waddington applies a strict discipline, judging on depth of flavor, aroma, a tea’s brewed and unbrewed look, and texture. “The best teas don’t just have flavor, but texture too — velvety, or silky.”
“Then,” he says, “you look for complexity. Are there 10 different flavors going on? Are their fruity notes, licorice-y notes?” At TeaSource, Waddington sells some teas that offer the exceptional sensory experience, but also great-tasting everyday teas. “You might have an Assam that’s just one note, but it could be weighty, malty – a good note,” he says.
The standard size sale at TeaSource is ¼ lb. of tea leaves, which results in 50 cups of brewed tea. Teas are sold anywhere from the $5.00 -$6.50 per ¼ lb, (10-13 cents per cup) to the most expensive tea in the store, the Oriental Beauty. It’s a Taiwanese oolong that costs $74.99 per ¼ lb. ($1.50 per cup). Waddington says the price of tea depends on the level of skill and care that went into making the tea, but it also depends on scarcity. The Oriental Beauty, for instance, has both. It’s made by a world class tea master and only 24 pounds of the tea were made in the entire world in 2008. Adding to the rarity: High-end teas are much like fine wines — changing environmental factors mean that a particular vintage can’t be exactly replicated the following year.
Curious about what Waddington drinks? He starts his day with an affordable, yet unique cup – a full-bodied black tea with spicy and fruity notes. It costs $8.57 per ¼ lb. (17 cents per cup) and comes from the Lumbini Estate in Sri Lanka.
Waddington’s customers range from elderly ladies who have been drinking tea for decades, to a group of tough-looking bikers that come into his store asking about oolongs, to a high school tea club that meets at his St. Paul Highland Park location to sample teas together. He says that many of his customers feel that “they are an oppressed minority in a coffee culture.” Yet, when they walk into his store, are visibly relieved.
At the register, Waddington opens a canister of his most popular selling Earl Grey, the Earl Grey White Tip. The open tin exudes a bold sweet, citrusy bergamot perfume. He carefully points out the silver needles amidst the black curled up leaves.
“It’s a fun world,” he says.