Tea is a big deal in eastern Asia, but in Missoula, maybe not so much. A local couple, however, went to China and Taiwan this summer to try to change that.
Lake Missoula Tea Co. owners Jake and Heather Kreilick spent three weeks this June traveling in the countries to connect with distributors, and gain a firsthand look at how tea companies there are run.
At 6 p.m. Friday, the couple will share their newfound knowledge at their shop, 136 E. Broadway.
“It’s a family movement,” Heather said of tea farms in China and Taiwan. “They’re personally invested in it.”
The companies there that the Kreilicks buy from, Heather said, are all family-run businesses that have been passed down through generations to children, nephews and cousins.
This impressed the Kreilicks, who brought their children, Uriah, 18, and Violet, 9, with them on the trip. The family didn’t use a guide, instead relying on their children’s limited Mandarin skills to negotiate prices and talk to shop owners.
This isn’t the Kreilicks’ first international trip. The couple went to Indonesia a couple of years ago to connect with suppliers there and wanted to do the same thing with suppliers in China and Taiwan.
The trip started in Taiwan, which is known for oolong tea, a middle ground between black and green tea, then moved to the Yunnan province in southwestern China, known for puerh (pronounced “poo-are”) tea, a dark brew.
The Kreilicks have purchased tea from a farm in Taiwan for a while, after meeting the owners at the World Tea Expo in Long Beach, California, and becoming friends. The family invited them to visit their farms, located in Taiwan, Sumatra and China.
Taiwan, Jake said, is becoming the main source of tea in the area and is even overtaking China in production and quality.
“They really know their teas,” Jake said. “They have knowledge that, for whatever reason, in China is really needed.”
But in some parts of China, they’re doing just fine. The Kreilicks visited Xishuangbanna next, the mountainous, southern part of Yunnan province.
On Jingmai Mountain, they visited the site of a centuries-old village known for its tea trees that grow in the forest, not in a cultivated field. The trees are hundreds of years old and the tea made from their leaves claims many health benefits, including weight loss and extended life.
The benefits of fair-trade practices were clear at the Jingmai Mountain farm, Jake said. The manager of the company told them wages had risen steadily over the past few years.
“They’re making a real living,” Jake said.
Learning how the tea is processed as well as brewing methods and new relationships all gave the Kreilicks something special to bring home.
“The tea’s a mechanism to connect with people,” Heather said.
“They’re investing in us and we’re investing in them,” Jake added.
The couple compared tea to wine – there are a lot of different price points, a lot of different styles and a lot of different tastes from person to person.
Heather said they’ve come to learn that there are many different types and qualities of teas in the world. Their goal is to find the best types and qualities for Missoula.
“People appreciate that we’re putting the time and research into it,” she said.
Bryan Steward was in the shop Thursday morning, drinking tea and drawing in his notebook. He’s come to the store every time he’s visited Missoula in the past year and a half and recently moved to town.
“There’s something for everybody,” Steward said, explaining why he enjoys tea and the shop so much.
Tea can be very simple, plain and inexpensive, or complex, aged and very expensive. One of Heather’s goals on the trip was to find an oolong tea that was right to sell in the shop. She looked for a combination of good flavor and accessibility and a lower price, and brought back several teas to choose from.
Jake said Yunnan province reminded him of Montana. It was mountainous, with rivers, lakes and pine forests all next to the start of the Himalayas.
He’s considering what a cultural connection between Missoula and the area would look like, with a commercial component driven first by their tea orders, and has spoken to the Missoula Cultural Council about the idea.
They both are excited to return and see their friends again. But for now, the Kreilicks will relish their time in a land where tea is a lifestyle, a staple that is woven into the culture.
“You wouldn’t believe how many tea shops there are,” Jake said.