Midtown Tucson shop sells China's finest, which isn't always easy to find

Thanks to Dan Sorenson at the Arizona Daily Star…

Keiko Naito, a manager at Seven Cups Tea House, heads out with a customer’s order. The tea shop at 2516 E. Sixth St. has more than 100 varieties, often found only in remote areas of the Chinese countryside.

Banging his head and knees in a tiny clown car bouncing along a potholed Chinese mountain road, Tucsonan Austin Hodge seeks out artisan teas — the kind of stuff that will absolutely ruin you for Lipton’s and Earl Grey.
The world’s best teas, and China’s worst roads, are on those mountainsides, says Hodge, co-owner of Seven Cups Tea House, 2516 E. Sixth St.
So go there he must, Hodge says, because the same species of tea plant will produce a different-tasting tea on the east side than on the west side of the very same mountain.
As with wine grapes, the “terroir” — the French term for the effect of a locale’s soil, water and air on the taste of a grape — makes a huge difference in the taste of leaves from the same species of tea plant.
There are tastes and smells from the artisanal teas Hodge hunts down in China that are every bit as wild and varied as a buttery New Zealand chardonnay is from a Northern California zinfandel.
“Wine is a good metaphor for tea, but tea is a lot broader,” says Hodge, a tall, 60-year-old convert to the wonders of the world’s second-most-consumed drink.
He came to tea when he quit smoking in 1980 and found coffee triggered his lingering desire for cigarettes. Hodge switched to tea, but not in a big way.
He was satisfied with the bagged tea that dominates the U.S. market and much of the world. But several years ago, he met a Chinese student at the University of Arizona and was turned on to the joys of relatively rare Chinese whole-leaf teas. He traveled to China and furthered his appreciation of fine teas. After a while, it occurred to him there might be money in bringing these teas to the U.S. Many trips to China to meet rural teamakers followed.
In 2004, Hodge and wife and partner Zhuping Hodge opened the Seven Cups Tea House.
But the Hodges are growing Seven Cups Tea Inc. on the Web, selling tea worldwide — including back to China.
Austin Hodge said getting the connections with small artisan tea makers and government export licenses is an accomplishment.
“Usually, foreigners don’t get out into the countryside in China,” he says. “Not many good places to stay. No five-star hotels.”
Beyond that, getting an export license involves wading a daunting bureaucracy.
“They don’t want any more food scandals,” he says. “They even test the soil and water” where the teas are grown. The Chinese government also assures that the tea is of the purported origins and quality and meets the standards of the country to which it is exported.
All of that is an accomplishment, he says, but selling tea back to China is a high honor.
“We were granted the right to sell at the (Lu Yu) Tea Museum,” Austin Hodge said.
The museum is a replica of the Tang Dynasty emperor’s tea factory, which Hodge said employed 10,000 workers. And that was during the period when these finest teas were available only to royalty — and later, the Communist Party elite.
But with growing and wider distribution of wealth within China, he said, quality teas are cherished by more Chinese.
“In China, (tea) is the best gift you can give,” says Hodge.
It’s no small thing here, though not yet widely appreciated, he says as customers sip in his quiet, elegant teahouse.
A fabric-wrapped 500-gram, saucer-sized cake of Zhengshan Big Leaf tea sells at Seven Cups for $55.75
Some others come in decorated, silk-covered boxes.
But, says Hodge, there are “plenty of teas that are more valuable than gold.”
These are “puer” teas, aged for decades, even hundreds of years, gaining flavor and value.
In almost the same breath he adds that “the Brits turn into something worth less than the bag that holds the tea.”
He says the teas known to most of the world bear little resemblance to the Chinese teas Seven Cups sells.
The bagged stuff most of us call tea is chopped, making it bitter, and is judged on its ability to stand up to milk. It takes sugar to make it palatable, says Hodge.
Many of Seven Cups’ customers find the Web site after reading or hearing about tea’s health benefits, says Mikel Chertudi, 29, a UA Eller College of Management grad developing Seven Cups’ business plan.
Getting people to try high-end tea is an obstacle. Those who have only experienced Velveeta, Folgers and Hershey’s may love an artisanal cheese, a cup of Ethiopian yirgacheffe or a Lindt chocolate — if they get to try it.
“You don’t have any idea until you try it,” Chertudi, a tea novice himself, said of fine teas.
So growing new customers by wholesaling to established U.S teahouses and coffeehouses is in the business plan, Chertudi says.
Franchising the original Seven Cups Tea House is another part, says Chertudi. They’ve already opened one in Denver.
Eventually, he sees a much larger market for fine teas.
“This is for everybody, not just the hoity-toity,” he says.
And although their tea is expensive compared to tea in bags, he said it compares favorably with high-end, shade-grown coffee in cost per cup.
Find the latest local business news at www.azstarbiz.com
? Contact reporter Dan Sorenson at 573-4185 or dsorenson@azstarnet.com.

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