Silk Road Teas: Seeking Variety in an Ancient Brew

By Catherine Yang
Catherine Yang
Catherine Yang
August 11, 2013 Updated: August 12, 2013

On any given day, about half the American population is drinking tea, according to the Tea Association of The USA. More and more Americans are drinking tea in recent years and seeking out new varietals as they do.

“Once you taste really good tea, the door is open, and you don’t go back,” says Ned Heagerty, president of Silk Road Teas.

Heagerty imports the largest range of varietals, between 80 and 100 yearly, specializing in early spring teas directly from China.

The spring season is divided into four periods for tea harvesting: the pre-Qing Ming period, where the leaves are plucked before April 5; before the rain (Yu Qian tea) plucked before April 20th; spring tea (Gu Yu tea), plucked before May 6; and late spring teas, plucked before May 21.

“That window in there is when what we think are the best teas are available,” Heagerty said. “They’re very young, nuanced; their growth is really strong in the bud and the leaf. Those teas, they’re prized. Certainly the Chinese have recognized that for hundreds and hundreds of years.”

Heagerty spends three to four weeks in China, tasting teas from early morning to night to find the most interesting teas he can.

“Some days I might taste 20 lots of Dragonwell just to find one that I like,” Heagerty said.

“Every year I find a tea that I haven’t tasted before, or that’s made a little differently so it tastes different,” Heagerty said. “The interesting thing about tea is that there are so many different tastes. In my warehouse, no matter what mood I’m in, I can find a tea that’s close to that.”

It’s a competitive trade, Heagerty says, because he’s competing with the local Chinese markets for the best tea.

“I have to get there early, I have to be there on the street, and I have to be out there looking for tea and buying it, because it goes—I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said I’ll take that lot, I come back later, and that tea’s gone,” Heagerty said. “It does move very quickly; tea is a commodity.”

Silk Road Teas

Heagerty has been traveling to China to buy teas for 10 years now. He had drunk tea all his life, but it wasn’t until he was interested in acquiring Silk Road Teas that he really became interested in the product.

“Usually when learning a trade, you start at the bottom and move up. I was sitting across the table from a man who started me off with, in his opinion, the best of [teas],” Heagerty said. He spent the next three years learning, tasting, and traveling in China with the previous company owner before buying Silk Road Teas.

“We’ve been buying in China for over 20 years now,” Heagerty said. Along with individuals and factors he regularly buys from, people know what Silk Road Teas is looking for, and different factories and farms will send him samples to try.

“It’s tea companies, tea markets, traveling to tea farms, some brokerage, although probably less compared to most American companies,” Heagerty said. “There isn’t that many people between us and the tea.”

“There’s an individual in Fujian who was in the tea business who’s retired, and he has a tea farm and he’s producing very interesting green tea,” Heagerty said. “His background was in jasmine tea and I think someone who does really high-grade jasmine teas has an understanding that’s fairly sophisticated, because of the nature of the varietal that you use for jasmine infused tea.”

“He has his own tea farm, and he produces his own to the local style, so it’s a very localized way of processing. These teas are very localized not only in appearance but in taste,” Heagerty said.

“He’s somebody I visit when I’m in China and usually he’s doing early processing of spring tea,” Heagerty said. “He’ll present lots and he gives me the opportunity to buy into those. We get a lot of interesting tea that way, that’s kind of a classic Silk Road Teas approach.”

Heagerty travels through six provinces during his trip and tries to get to sources as local as he can for the most interesting tastes.

“It’s interesting, if you go to a city like Fuzhou, it’s at the end of a river and … it still has a very strong tea culture in it,” Heagerty said. “We will buy within that local area, in the farms and tea markets; we’ll be able to buy seven to eight different styles of [a Maofeng green tea] depending on whether it’s on the south slope, the north slope, the east or the west, and then depending on when it’s picked and then how it’s processed, depending on its look, its appearance—its taste and profile are very different.”

“We might come back and call it Spring Blossom Pekoe or Stir Fry Green, there’s all these iterations of the tea, which in China—in that area that it’s sold locally—it’s consumed locally and that’s it. It’s not for export. You would rarely find it,” Heagerty said.

Heagerty imports the teas in containers and the majority of his business is wholesale, though last year, Silk Road Teas made its first foray into branding, and boxes of tea bags can be found on the shelves of various supermarkets or specialty shops.

“In all cases, what we try to do is buy the best possible leaf out of China, certified organic, and do a minimal amount of milling so that the best possible taste comes through,” Heagerty says. “The larger the leaf in tea, generally speaking, the better it’ll taste. When you start breaking and milling things down, it oxidizes very quickly, it loses a lot of its vitality and taste.”

Heagerty says he believes that tea drinkers are looking for better and better products, and the market is largely ready for higher quality teas.

“We find that once people have tasted really good tea, they’re quite surprised, usually. They’re like, ‘I didn’t know tea could taste like this,’ and then it’s very difficult, it’s like now you can’t go back,” Heagerty said.

“It’s obviously a wonderful product. I’d be hard-pressed to think of one negative thing about tea,” Heagerty said. “Everything about it seems wonderful. It’s healthful, it brings people together.”

“Not only made so that you have a wonderful mouth-taste feel, but how you feel after, is wonderful. It’s healthy, you know your body appreciates it,” Heagerty said. “Chinese teas are just such a range of taste, it’s truly remarkable, great stuff.”

Catherine Yang
Catherine Yang