How To Stay Alive in the Specialty Tea Business


Amateur judges evaluate this year’s Wuyishan wulongs. Their scores make up 25% of the final score.


After 17 years of bringing specialty tea to Tucson from China, I am amazed to still be here sitting at my desk at Seven Cups. It’s been a while now since I have written a blog post, and remarkably I have not been fired. The new year is upon us, and having recently returned from a memorable trip to China, I’m feeling pretty grateful for the tea in my travel jar. I thought I would say hello and say thanks.

 At 70 years old, trips to China are hard and joyful work. It’s so great to be with old friends, and since China has become a rich country, they have prospered because of their dedication to making better quality tea. It’s really breathtaking to see how China has changed since I first started traveling there. I came back from this trip inspired. That has usually been the case for trips that I have taken there over the last twenty plus years.

Four people seated around a table sampling specialty tea.
Zhang Li Ying (center right), retired from the Chinese International Tea Culture Institute, sharing tea in her Hangzhou tea house with Austin (center left), Ravi Krosen (far left) of Smith Tea, and Chen Guo (far right) of Kunming Tea Company.

Seven Cups sits at the fulcrum between tea makers and tea drinkers. It’s a clean feeling to be here, with the clarity of a good cup of tea. I have to say that our customers are an interesting bunch of people. I think very few would disagree that we have enhanced their lives, in a small but noticeable way — and that’s quite rare to find. Our mission statement from the company‘s beginning was to enhance the lives of the people we touched. We may have fallen short a few times and will again in the future, but it is good to know what you are shooting for.

We practice our business as our art. We are always trying to get better in every aspect of what we do. It is really hard to find a speck of dust in our desert teahouse, and equally as hard to find an unhappy customer. Tea is a difficult business, from the sourcing, inventory management, and logistics problems generated from around the world, to customer service spread equally as broad. With all due humility, I think we have done an exceptional job.

Cloud-cloaked mountains rise beyond the rooftops of Wuyishan City, a great center of specialty tea production.
A view of the misty Wuyi Mountains from the streets of Wuyishan City.

We are often asked why we carry only Chinese tea. Looking into the future, it may not always be that way. We have great friendships with great tea makers in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Africa, Korea, and Japan. Realistically speaking, we don’t currently have the resources to bring those tea makers into our catalog following our current business model which requires us to source directly from tea makers. However, I’m sure that we will get to that place as more tea drinkers discover quality teas. Barriers to supplying quality tea are significant, and every tea producing country presents its own set of challenges.

China was our choice from the beginning because after all, all tea had China as its original source. China also has the widest variety and the highest level of tea making skill over the widest spectrum of tea making. My thoughts, in the beginning, was to focus on the study of Chinese Tea Culture. China is the place to start for any serious tea student.

Liu Guo Ying, left, brewing specialty tea at a tea table surrounded by tasters for the Zhu Xi Cup tea competition.
Rock wulong tea master Liu Guo Ying brewing tea for Austin and Andrew at the Zhu Xi Cup tea competition.

Looking ahead to 2019, we are updating our site and putting up a new site for our brokerage service and broadening our catalog there. Seven Cups staff is also deeply involved with the International Specialty Tea Association working on standards for judging quality teas. Please follow our progress there. The site will be set up to accept members in the next couple of weeks.

We will continue to do what we have always done: get the best teas that we can find at the best prices. Please compare our tea with others to test out that statement. In the meantime, we are going to do our best to educate you to become better tea judges.

Access to quality, reliable information about a tea is important to assess its worth. Compare the research that we do with the information offered by other companies. Believe me, if they had it they would be offering it to you because it is this detailed information about the tea, along with its base quality, that establishes its real value. We are always available to answer any question you have about tea and its cultures.

Austin Hodge