Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Tea Explorer: an Analysis (originally published in Tea Journey Magazine Blog)

The Tea Explorer: an Analysis
by Rita Fong and Drew Taylor

The Tea Explorer is a documentary film written, produced, directed, and shot by Andrew Gregg and starring Jeff Fuchs, noted writer, photographer, explorer and tea merchant.

It’s a film about some of the people whose lives have been touched by and are still entwined with the leaf along the 5000 km. “Ancient Tea Horse Road” (Cha Ma Gu Dao). The Tea Explorer takes us along this thirteen-hundred year old network of trade routes over and through the Himalayas that traders used to transport tea, salt and other commodities (including Tibetan ponies) between China, Tibet and beyond. The Tibetans actually traded ponies for tea.

Nothing stopped tea’s flow to all points down the valleys of the Himalayas until the 1950s when the People’s Republic of China invaded Tibet. Then borders were delineated, closed, and trade stopped.  

In this mystical forgotten land, with names like Shangri La and Kathmandu, it is the oral tradition by which histories, lessons, and life stories are passed on.  Tea is not a fancy afternoon sip in this rugged remote region of the globe.  It is more than a commodity. It is daily sustenance. Simple. No pretension. Yak butter and salt are added for nutrients, to make fuel and deliver stimulants for survival in the mountains. Tea is a central part of the lives of these people.  Unfortunately, between the time Jeff Fuchs wrote his book and the making of this film, he says 80 - 85% of the 50-60 elders he had interviewed have passed on.

Five years ago, Jeff Fuchs first met Andrew Gregg in Toronto following references via mutual friends in Kathmandu.  Upon meeting,  the seed for an adventure film about the origin of tea was planted.  Fast forward to 2014 and Andrew joined Jeff on a research trip to scout the area.  During that trip he took a trek to take test shots and see if there was a bigger story.  While Jeff used this time to see if Andrew was the right person to help him tell the tale, Andrew made a ten minute short to show producers and sell the story.  Andrew, at 6’8” is formidable, but he had a sensitive way that got people to talk and showed great cultural sensitivity. He wasn’t an ugly Westerner who went in and tried to take over.  
It was during these two weeks that the coffee drinking Andrew converted to tea, and the filmmaking team was established.  
Andrew Gregg 

Jeff Fuchs: “We had a shared vision of how we wanted the narrative to play out.  We wanted to introduce the origin of all tea. Southern Yunnan has the oldest tea trees, oldest cultivated region for tea, [we] wanted to introduce tea and the journey that tea took and of course, a little bit about why I wanted to do it.
We shared the vision. Then we waited, met, drank lots of tea. Andrew became a tea drinker, [and] gave up coffee.  And waited. [It was a] question of time, budget, getting the right people interested. Three years where nothing happened, then all of a sudden…”

Andrew Gregg finishes, “the ... CBC Documentary channel said ‘We love it, let’s go for it.’” They still needed more money so they searched some more and rounded out their funding.  They plotted all the while until finally they were able to shoot for 5 weeks in October and November 2015 with only their sound man, Michael Josselyn making up the bare bones crew.
To be fair, filmmaking is not easy and shooting in the mountains the film covers a lot of ground and is rich with beautiful cinematography and gorgeous portraits of unique individuals. It just takes a while to get there.https://teajourney.pub/

Jeff Fuchs acts as the conduit that brings their stories to the world. Himself a huge advocate of Puerh tea, the sole origin of which is still Yunnan in China, he  begins in the temperate tea forests in southwestern China – the birthplace of tea on the planet (Camellia Sinensis Assamica). It is from here that tea traveled the world and was eventually grown elsewhere. Tea shops are on the decline in fast moving big cities compared to rapidly sprouting cafes. Traditions are changing and Fuchs’ disdain is evident as he shares his observations. Then, we follow him as he retraces segments and explores new veins of the Tea Horse Road that he documented back in 2006 when he wrote his book The Ancient Tea Horse Road.

The film starts off like an Anthony Bourdain travelogue. While music more befitting a 60’s beach party oddly plays in the background, shots of tea being poured and treated are interspersed with Jeff stepping in to assist the tea farmers and recounting his childhood in his Hungarian household with its strange foods and teas. Jeff is a charismatic character who seems at home in his skin, having a laugh at his Hungarian heritage which set him at odds with his classmates in Manotick (a little town south of Ottawa, Canada), but that also introduced him to pure tea:  greens and oolongs, that went beyond the industrially manufactured tea bags most people grew up with before the current resurgence began.
As a young child, spending parts of his summers in Switzerland, his grandmother took him into the mountains and helped ingrain the love that drove him back. After ten years in the Himalayas he has faith in himself, and a deep respect for nature and those who live in concert with her. “These are lessons you can take anywhere. Lessons that can be applied anywhere.” Being present or dying has that type of grounding effect.
As a searcher looking to find purpose in his travels, he made promises to people who now respect him for keeping his word to record and share their stories when so many others came and went leaving only their garbage and taking whatever they could carry or ship out.
For one of the old traders who simply lives with the tea he can get, Jeff gave some of his good tea as a thank you for the stories and guidance shared.  That folks were willing to welcome him and offer him refuge and hospitality moved him and the necessities of survival in the mountains taught him to honour his body and his mind.

Speaking with Andrew and asking him his high points he was so enthusiastic about this shoot he said all of it was a high point.  “Travelling with someone like Jeff, who is not only a great subject but a great organizer, it was one of the greatest trips I’ve ever been on...and I’ve done a lot of adventure shoots.” Watching the film I was waiting for examples of his excitement to be captured from his viewpoint.  The high camera angles were a given (6’8”), and many of the artistic choices and stunning subjects were extremely compelling.

If you can traverse the first twenty minutes of this film, afterwards you discover many rich segments of a vital Himalayan history that linked more than three dozen minority groups through tea fueled commodities distribution. The music and stories become more unified as the film progresses, coupled with riveting footage of glorious mountain vistas and tales of adventure.  The discipline required to make and enjoy an always varying cup of tea is overmatched by the filmmakers’ arduous journey fueled by daily infusions of whatever the travelers can get their hands on.

Some of the people in this film stay with you as they have clearly affected the filmmakers with their vast traditions and frank humility.  Spanning ancient royal connections and lifetimes of trekking on foot, what is conveyed through their presence is a sense of that most basic of buddhist principles, joy through suffering. Like a koan, the riddle of this film demands persistent attention and release of preconceived notions.  What emerges is an abiding love of tea, mountains and people with integrity.

Click HERE to watch the trailer

* Republished here with permission.

Photos provided by The Tea Explorer Film's PR Dept.

Monday, January 29, 2018

TEA IQ and the Toronto Tea Festival 2018

by guest blogger, Drew Taylor

Tea IQ...

Tea IQ...hmmm.

At first glance, this may seem like a nonsensical concept.  After all, what can you possibly know about tea, that's measurable, beyond either enjoying a good cuppa or not?
I'm married to a tea sommelier and I've been to a few festivals and tea drinking events so I'm not completely lost in the fray, but when you taste something that stands out, it's a real treat.  Sometimes it's a matter of the right drink at the right time.

Having attended the Toronto Tea Festival a few years running, I'd have to say that as unlikely as it seems, there are people with a profound Tea IQ among the myriad throngs of those like me who can tell a green from a black (hey, by the colour--wait, what? Blind tasting!?  Oh, not that kind of blind), and might be able to tell an Oolong from a Puerh (there's definitely a difference and repeated exposure will help clarify it). But tell the difference between the soil of China vs. the soil of Japan or Korea as it affects the flavour of a similarly dried and prepared varietal? How can anyone know tea so intimately?

Three winners

This year, once again, the Toronto Tea Festival will be holding their Tea IQ contest, and aside from the presents awarded to the almost certainly same few who can identify region and subtle differences between many types of tea, there will be that opportunity for everyone else to hone a combination of senses, to quiet the mind and savour the qualities of some very fine brews.  I must say, there was a green tea last year that I could not buy for love or money, but it was the best tasting green tea I've ever had. That's the real opportunity.  The TTF does it up right. You're not trying to tell Tetley's from Twinings, or Red Rose from Lipton, not to take away from those highly successful purveyors of consistently manufactured tea products, but after you've spent an evening with Jeff Fuchs and watched some of his journey in The Tea Explorer, you begin to appreciate that what makes a great tea is more than a hit of caffeine and a hot drink on a cold day.

There's a reason they talk about a tea's "liqueur".

And if Rita is pouring, I'll definitely take what she's having.

Find out for yourself this weekend.  The Tea IQ is held on Saturday and Sunday (Feb.3, 4th) on the Epic stage at 1:30 PM (but get there early) the 6th Annual Toronto Tea Festival.

Tickets can be purchased online, by phone and in person at Tao Tea Leaf.

SPECIAL THANKS to our guest blogger, Drew Taylor for the post and photos!
Drew is a local actor / writer / filmmaker / photographer / handyman.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

THE TEA EXPLORER, Interviews with Jeff Fuchs & Andrew Gregg

In case you haven't heard elsewhere, there is a new feature length documentary film called The Tea Explorer! It debuts on the CBC Documentary Channel, Sunday July 23, 2017 at 9 PM. EST. 

Here is the trailer 

And guess who had the chance to interview not only the writer-producer-director Andrew Gregg, but the star of the doc himself, Jeff Fuchs!? Noted Canadian writer, photographer, explorer, and tea merchant.  

I first met Jeff Fuchs in November 2009 at a tea event presented by the Tea Association of Canada (now Tea and Herbal Association of Canada) to celebrate Canada's first 12 Certified Tea Sommeliers from George Brown College, Centre for Hospitality and Culinary Arts.  By now you don't need to guess who was one of the first 12... Yup, me!

The media event featured Jeff in his role as writer of the then new book The Ancient Tea Horse Road.  Naturally, I got my signed copy there.

Fast forward to present day and the film's publicist contacted me here and asked if I'd like to help launch the film. Hmm...Tea, Film, and Jeff Fuchs?  I'm in!

You're already familiar with my fascination with tea. As a major film buff in my pre-kid days, I used to attend TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) religiously for over 10 years.  Long waits in line ups waiting for the box office to open (pre-online ticket sales days), lines at Rush Screenings for sold out performances, did I mention long lineups..? All worth being jostled in a mosh pit of crowds cramming for a glimpse of our favourite movie star or director, along with staying afterwards for the Q.&A.'s.... I was thrilled to be a part of a World Premiere as one of the lucky few who got to see a winner of the people's choice awards, and then see the same film conquer the world and go on to win an Oscar!  Whew, exciting stuff.  I need a cup of tea to calm down.  Perhaps some raw puerh...that was what Andrew Gregg was drinking when I interviewed him!

...ahhh, now where was I?  Oh yes, would I like to help promote the new tea doc starring Jeff Fuchs...? Heck yeah!  I was thrilled when I was able to arrange interviews with the filmmaker and the star, you can read my exclusive Tea Journey Magazine write-up here.

Even better were the interviews themselves.  Andrew Gregg was amazingly enthusiastic about the film, saying it was a high point among adventure films that he had made.  Although he'd been in the Himalayas before, it took this film and Jeff Fuchs to convert him from a coffee drinker to a hard won tea aficionado!  He shot this documentary with one other person (besides Jeff and the locals who guided them), sound man Michael Josselyn.

When asked about low points he said, "We encountered a few snags.... we really wanted to end the film in Darjeeling but we couldn't get film permits, and we couldn't get into Tibet to film." 

As for what was most challenging? "Going up the Sho La Pass.... Somebody like Jeff, half mountain goat, nothing new to him.  No big deal -- Doing the trek up the Sho La was the hardest by far, the most physically demanding.

For a shoot like this, it sounds so trite, but it's hard to know what to pack.  You're in the subtropics in Yunnan, then you're in the snow storms up in Sho La, then in Kathmandu you're sort of in full rainy season, but then up in Mustang you're in dust storms.  It was everything.  It was a true adventure, and other than the true exertion travelling up the pass, it was a pleasure."
Andrew Gregg 

Pinning down Jeff for the interview took a bit of logistical gymnastics but we made it work.  I spoke to him in his home on the Big Island of Hawaii.  He was relaxed and open, just back from a trek up the upper Mustang, some of the new (to him), segment of the Ancient Tea Horse Road he traveled in the film.
Jeff Fuchs
When asked what the mountains mean to him, Jeff Fuchs said when his grandmother took him into the mountains when young he recalls thinking "I gotta be up here, cause I feel differently, I breathe differently. The Chinese have a saying where you are either a water person or a mountain person. I am a mountain person.... Mountains are nature's editors, and in order to be in the mountains or travel in them, you absolutely have to be physically and tangibly in the moment. You can't be theoretical in the mountains."

In  the film, Jeff brings us along to a segment of the Tea Horse Road that's he's travelled and documented in his book and a segment he had not traveled previously, which I noted in my Tea Journey Magazine review article. "Coming back to the same segment, it's remarkable how comforting it is to see, it's like an old shoe that you love to wear. You see it develop and you see it age, and see it get a little more sure of itself....

New segments are extraordinary....  The tea horse road was like a 'do everything' pipeline of trade goods, information, DNA, linguistics, and for me it was a reminder of how this road, we call it a road, the Cha Ma Gu Dao was so vital in opening up and feeding some of these really remote communities.  And a lot of the new segments that I've done in the last three-four years, they do the same thing, remind me that it's the same narrative again and again... opening up the world of remote peoples.  
It feels like home, it's very familiar but it's a place I've never been before.  But the narrative and the story is the same."

Rita: And what does tea mean to you? "Tea is very simple, it's a simple fuel that I physically need....It's a sort of slightly unpredictable friend that I always enjoy the company of.... Japanese teas are so consistent, so perfectly made, even if the weather is off, they can [fix it]...what I love about puerh is that it's a bit of a cowboy tea, even if you know the grower, even if you know the harvest season, everything is slightly different every year and I love that.  So it's a little unpredictable but I'm good with that.... I want to feel the grower's [and] producer's personality in the teas."

Rita: Why do you feel like you need to tell their story?  "I feel like I owe them. A sense of responsibility to not just tell the story but to open the story up so that people understand a little bit more about how tea travelled and how much tea is more than just a luxury 4 O'clock high tea in London type of thing but how it's something... intricate, [a] part of these people's lives. Responsibility because the story has never been written down properly. [The] tea horse road feels like this amazing adventure journey pipeline that's never really been fully investigated and respected for what it did.

I believe tea is something very simple. It should be something simple."

So, what's in the works next for Jeff Fuchs? "More trade routes, but details are secret at this time. Building a permaculture school in Hawaii.  Permaculture is all about growing things without using pesticides and using plants to take care of other plants and building soil. I'm experimenting with tea which is going well. Experimenting on growing tea on the dry side of the island not the typical wetter east side of Big Island where most of the tea farms are. Everyone knows tea loves humidity and rain but everything is changing, you know, climate change and everything. "

In my film buff days, I would have loved to interview Brad Pitt or Steven Spielberg, but as a tea person this project has been the closest thing to it. 

I've seen the film (in the privacy of my own home), and really enjoyed it. It moved me so much that I found myself consulting my pal Google to find out more about the Himalayas, Upper Mustang, Lo Manthang.

Overall it was a beautiful story of humanity.  Covering the origin of tea, adventures in the high mountains with a photogenic, charismatic and tea-obsessed host.

You can read my Tea Journey Magazine article here.

This reviewer gives this film 5 Puerh cakes out of 5.

Thank you Jeff Fuchs, Andrew Gregg, David McCaughna, Publicist for the Rick Mercer Report (for contacting me and providing the photos for use),  90th Parallel Productions and CBC Documentary Channel for making all this happen!

You can follow Jeff's adventures on Jeff Fuchs' Tea and Mountain Journals

The Tea Explorer Facebook page is here to keep updated on the latest.

Don't forget, The Tea Explorer debuts on the CBC Documentary Channel this Sunday, July 23, 2017 at 9 PM EST. 

Friday, June 30, 2017

World Tea Expo SURVIVOR - Part 2 (Canadians at the World Tea Awards)

July 1st is Canada Day! Happy 150th Birthday Canada! #Canada150
So, what better way to celebrate than commemorate the Canadian wins at the World Tea Expo?

The World Tea Awards took place on the evening of June 14th, Day 2. The room was buzzing with people enjoying canap├ęs, cocktails, and chatting away while waiting for the awards ceremony to start.
Canadians fared well at the World Tea Awards! Here are some highlights from the evening:

Congratulations Camellia Sinensis! Two awards!
Congratulations Dan Bolton! (Tea Journey Magazine)  I was at their table covering the event
 and the excitement was awesome!  Proud to be a contributor and a team member of Tea Journey.

Congratulations to my friend and fellow Canadian Certified Tea Sommelier,
The Tea Stylist, Linda Gaylard!

Linda, Kevin Gascoyne (Camellia Sinsensis), Tracy Bell of MillenniaTEA and Louise Roberge, the President of the Tea and Herbal Association of Canada
Pretty award, eh?

Vancouver based farmer direct JusTea
Purple tea was all the rage at the Expo. They recently created three purple tea blends
 (Purple Mint, Purple Jasmine and Purple Rain, cool name or what?) 
I've seen them on social media so was curious to try them.
Purple Jasmine was very nice. Purple Rain would make a great iced tea.
 Boaz Katah (Kenyan tea farmer) and his wife Jamilla with Paul Bain of JusTea
sharing the #purpleteaexperience 
An innovative startup from New Brunswick, MillenniaTEA 
It's a interesting product. Freshly picked leaves, patent pending flash freezing process keeps the leaves as biochemically alive as possible to deliver the highest levels of EGCG and other tea goodness to the consumer. 
CEO, Tracy Bell
Fresh-leaf teas. So fresh! Picked June 4th!
Congrats on your New Products Innovation Award win, MillenniaTEA!
Frozen fresh tea leaves from the The Great Mississippi Tea Company 
These are the tea farmers from The Great Mississippi Tea Company,  Jason MacDonald and Timothy Gipson.
Frozen fresh tea leaves from Hangzhou.
Mmm, of course, I had to taste them. Both were great, fresh and refreshing, not bitter at all.
I particularly liked the one from Mississippi. The leaves were picked just before the Expo. I could sure taste it!

As I was sipping away, the JusTea crew came over to discuss potential partnership. MillenniaTEA needs fresh leaves,
we've got a Kenyan purple tea farmer here, hmm, some exciting things could be in the works as you read this....
MillenniaTEA was on CBC's Dragon's Den to pitch their business idea in front of a panel of Canadian business moguls for funding. If you're curious, check it out this fall when the episode airs.  And no, I was not paid in any form to mention this. Although if the CBC, MillenniaTEA or any tea companies are reading this... I am a freelance Certified Tea Sommelier... open for potential collaborations... Call me!