David Lee Hoffman is a real tea pioneer. It's strange using any of those types of terms, pioneer, expert, legend, and I don't ever use "master," but in this case it seems clear enough that this less extreme judgement fits. He was one of the first to bring pu'er out of China to America, or tea in general, but of course that's only true in a limited sense. And he did it in significant volume, not only as a small to medium sized vendor listing out a set as one season's products, the normal paradigm today. Maybe his earliest vending ventures were more like that; I don't know.
The interesting part was his start pre-dating most current paradigms, starting tea exploration and export there in the 90s. He said that his own interest started with drinking tea, having lived in China previously, and also living for four years in Nepal and India back in the sixties. There he got introduced to pu’erh teas, while living and traveling with Tibetan nomads in the high Himalayas, and later through working with Tibetan communities in northern India.
David then tried to find pu'er again when he moved back to the States, in California Chinatown shops, but what he found was very inconsistent. He would use trips back to China as an opportunity to buy more tea. Buying some for others as well led to a business, which developed later on to buying and reselling an awful lot of tea, and building up a collection further once he sold his main Silk Road vending business.
I'll back up and cover more context; only Ralph and I joined this meetup session, an outcome tied to the time difference. We met at 7 AM Bangkok and Vietnam time, 5:30 AM India time (I think there might only be one zone there?), which is 5 PM in California. Ralph met even though it was 2 AM there in Germany; his sleep cycle is a bit flexible, and he's good about making unusual allowances to talk to these tea contacts.
Earlier I had been talking to people I knew relatively well in the meetups, and branched into more distant contacts after that. I reached out to David in relation to seeing a news story about his problems with building code and permit issues, about a foreclosure of sorts (as far as I know; it seems possible that issues or problems weren't simple). This won't go too far into all that, citing some references beyond summarizing the discussion with David. That status is at a critical juncture now; this will get into that.
We only skimmed across a few topics but all that we covered was of deep interest to me. I had the sense that another dozen or so subjects discussed at any length would've been the same, that it would have been fascinating discussing tea regions, history, US tea culture, tea aging issues, Chinese culture, or tea trade concerns. David has been actively involved in all that range for the past 30 years, just maybe more so over the past 25, with less activity on the import and trade side over the last 7 or so. That's probably essentially the timeframe of better tea interest in the US, not so far along 30 years back and more developed within 25. Surely plenty of exceptions would tie to individuals, or maybe even small groups, going back prior to that, but in a sense mainstream high-end tea appreciation is something that hasn't happened yet in the US even now.
Let's stick to what we covered, at least until a reference section at the end fills in some background. I'll be clear on context: this isn't a critical, objective-perspective take on US or Western tea culture history, or David's role in that, or any other subjects. I'm passing on what we discussed, from a subject source with a unique level and type of experience. There's a sub-theme in tea enthusiast circles about people wanting to be the main, big authority, and to "poke holes" in what others say, or in relation to "just how good" their tea really is, and I'm not addressing any of that. I'm not claiming that the Phoenix Collection teas are the best of the best available in the US, or saying anything about that relative status. David definitely owns some tea, for now at least, and he was clearly a significant part of US tea culture and history, in a sense that few others match.
"All In This Tea," and related personal history
As added background David was the subject of a well-known tea documentary "All In This Tea," covering the earlier themes of more direct tea sourcing, considering and directing purchasing in relation to sustainability, appreciating narrow-source higher-quality pu'er versions, and "wild teas," and so on. Les Blank and Tom Valens shot the footage for AITT 1in 1995 & 1996. It took Les another ten years to complete and release the film, thanks to Gina Leibrecht coming on board as the editor. All of that tea background is familiar context now, but in 2007 not so much (the time period of that documentary release), and in the 1990s even less so.
The range of teas we kind of take for granted now just wasn't available on Western markets in the early 2000s, and David helped change that. Yunnan Sourcing didn't always exist, and curators like White 2 Tea and Essence of Tea also didn't. It makes you wonder how far back those go, doesn't it?
Essence of Tea's site blog section starts in 2008, and Yunnan Sourcing evolved from an Ebay store into a website in 2009, with Scott Wilson's personal contact with China extending back to 1998 (covered in that biographical article), with vending started in 2004 and the actual Yunnan Sourcing outlet in 2009. Cha Dao, a multiple author tea blog (not long since inactive), started posting in 2005, with a number of posts that year covering Silk Road teas (David's tea business). Western tea blogging would've probably pre-dated that, but not by a lot, I'd expect. A media reference I'll cite later covers David's role as a Chinese tea vendor as already active in 1998.
To clarify that timeframe, David explained that 1990 was when he first started travelling to China and began selling tea, and that he sold Silk Road Teas (his main early business) in 2004.
a 2008 Essence of Tea post photo; that has to be who it seems to be
We really didn't cover the early days of tea history in detail in discussion, or any timeline. David spoke of how higher quality tea sourcing and purchasing within China wasn't common then, and how China wasn't really that open to visitors as it is now. He mentioned that shipping was a problem, that at first conventional shipping of large amounts was coupled with buying products that were selling on a market along with that shipping support. So to buy teas more directly from sources sending limited amounts by mail was necessary, with a daily limit per post office how much one could send.
Back then shipping options would've been limited (a problem one media interview reference described as a political issue), and David mentioned how accounting for changes in temperature and humidity experienced by the packages required allowing them to breathe, to be packed in paper and somewhat air permeable packaging. Now the opposite is true, even though it is still possible to send things by "slow boat" routes, and people tend to seal teas. Even that would all tend to be locked into containers at this point, slower to shift in temperature, with less access to external conditions. Packages flying from place to place would experience conditions changes, but it would be a different kind of effect and concern.
We didn't get far with this topic, how he stores tea, and environmental conditions factors, but it's such an interesting theme to me that I wanted to pass on what little he did say about it. I asked about humidity control issues, how he relates to that, even though time was running down at that point. He said that his storage is based on naturally occurring conditions, so it fluctuates a lot, depending on season, but the range sounded relatively humid (50 to 70-some %; with the most typical level sounding a bit humid).
Making that more specific, David clarified that he thinks 60-70 percent would be the target median humidity, but that he is comfortable having it go as high as 80%, as long as there is good top to bottom air circulation. He explained that airflow control is essential to managing a positive storage environment, eliminating dead spots in limited air movement where conditions could vary, and reducing mold risk at the most humid times. The balance is the thing; too much or too little air exposure can ruin the tea, and it doesn't need much.
That was really most of it, that we had time for discussing. A larger scale and more pressing issue took up more time, that of him losing that property, and by extension the tea itself, related to a recent court ruling on that subject of building code and permit issues.
Losing the property, and a life's work
David didn't have a lot to add beyond filling in a bit of background, which was surely a brief snapshot of a long and complicated process, which I've since reviewed in a half dozen media articles. Per everything I've seen for news about this issue building permits and code violations were always at the core of the conflict with local government.
David said that earlier in his residence application and enforcement of building permit and code restrictions were more liberal, and as they tightened those, and restrictions were policed differently, he experienced more and more problems. Of course there must more to it than that, a local political sort of dimension, but that discussion and by extension this post isn't really about investigating that, even in the reference summary section.
part of the complex (all related photos credit the Last Resort website)
In terms of update he now has one month to vacate the property. He said that he doesn't plan on removing all the tea, that there are 25,000 kilograms of it on-site, and that given the three month notice it never was practical to remove it or deal with any potential facilities or building relocation issues.
To back up, another related part we didn't talk about was how building and development tied to his vision for developing sustainable environment, related to tea storage, worm farming, and water and waste processing. He mentioned that a favorite major project had been creating a tea tasting building. I'll cite more of pictures copied from an online source at the end that fills in some limited range of that scope.
It's hard to place this development, how the earlier context of long legal battle framed it, and how relocating literal tons of tea and many other facilities over three months was supposed to work out. It wasn't supposed to be manageable, seemingly; that was probably never the point. A longer review tracing back years of steps and recent developments might make more sense of it all, but this isn't the place for that.
David doesn't know what will become of the property or the tea. He expects the buildings to be demolished, for the land value to not relate to them. A lifetime's development work will probably come to a fast end. The tea is another concern; just putting a market value on it might be all but impossible, or just sorting out what is there. There must be some records but tons of tea collected over nearly 30 years may not be well documented (David began container quantity tea purchasing in China in 1994).
In asking around about other experiences I've heard different things about his teas, which I've seen mentioned in passing in the past. It was interesting seeing reviews in those Cha Dao posts that weren't mostly about pu'er, or maybe none were in the year of posts I scanned (2005). One online friend's input was that his cafe business bought teas from David (and presumably then Silk Road), because they were selling teas that no one else had access to. It's hard to say if those rare types related to the somewhat now-conventional sounding black tea versions mentioned in those Cha Dao reviews, but then who knows what other sources were even around back then, or what types seemed rare or novel. I automatically associate David's tea collection with pu'er (and hei cha; he said a substantial amount is that too), but the import business may have been mostly about other types 15+ years ago.
This seems to be a story partly told, with a part written more as a tragedy to follow soon. I would expect the path leading to these next steps wasn't exactly like a good versus evil Hollywood movie theme, but sometimes life is a bit like that, and evil corporations or corrupt governments are shifting events like pawns on a chessboard. We make our own fates too, moving within the forces of societal changes, as David did in helping shape a stream of tea experience and demand. And cause our own problems, in lots of cases, or at least fail to avoid them.
It was an honor to talk with David just a little about these themes. I really hope that the next steps in his story go better than they currently seem destined to. The next section will add depth to parts of that background I've only barely touched on here.
Beleaguered Lagunitas tea seller given three months to vacate property: the sad part of the story, the news article I mentioned seeing, date May 16th, 2021:
Marin County is a step closer to winning its long legal battle with a Lagunitas tea seller whose property is filled with experimental, unpermitted structures. Last month, a judge ordered David Lee Hoffman to vacate and turn over possession of the property called the Last Resort, where Mr. Hoffman has lived for almost half a century, within 90 days.
...Mr. Hoffman, who deals in Chinese pu’erh tea, has built almost 40 structures on his property in the Lagunitas hills, including his own blackwater recycling and worm composting systems. He admits that some of his constructions are illegal, but he thinks of them as a model for sustainability.
The Last Resort website: the photos and videos on that site are really moving. They tell a story about David creating his own dream environment, related to building structures as artwork, and sustainable processing of waste and wastewater built as complex, natural systems.
You can see why neither scope is going to draw much understanding or empathy from local government zoning and building regulators; these are not necessarily conventional topics, or probably regarded as typically relevant to making exceptions. Anyone could see their own home or gardens as a natural or artistic space, but the effect wouldn't typically be the same, the scale and complexity, and attention to detail.
It's not a story I want to try to tell in a complete form here. The pictures convey the image and feel of what is there, and the video clips allow David to explain what it means to him, and what he was trying to do, and why. The site includes a news article that tells the whole story, up until the most recent events:
Marin tea guru in the fight of a lifetime, San Francisco Chronicle, August 2017
The Phoenix Collection tea: to many related to tea this would be the main story, but we didn't have time to explore this subject at length. I must admit I feel more of a connection to David's dreams in relation to his property, after going through the images and stories.
from a listing on that website
His bio on that site covers some background, much already covered here:
David Lee Hoffman has been traveling the remote back country of Asia for more than forty years seeking out the world’s finest rare, organic, and wild pure leaf teas. He is the first American to work directly with tea farmers in China and to engage in joint ventures with old, established tea gardens. With an extensive background in vermiculture and soil fertility, he has worked in China with the prestigious National Tea Research Institute, the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, and the Department of Agriculture to help them implement organic and sustainable tea farming practices.
At first I was skeptical of the wastewater treatment theme but it seems to work (site link), but to be clear I'm an industrial engineer, not civil
This 1998 Tea Trade press media article helps frame all that in terms of even more specifics:
TT: Do you want to make a prediction for China tea?
D: China tea is going up. I am working hard to promote it. It still has some of the best teas in the world. The future of China tea is anyone’s guess. There’s going to be a lot of popularity in the product and there’s going to be a lot of jockeying for position of control in China.
TT: What’s the most satisfying aspect for you being an American trader in China tea?
D: I love tea, I love finding great tea. It’s so wonderful to drink really good tea. It’s one of those cheap thrills in life. You can have a wonderful cup of tea, it costs you pennies for the cup, it’s very satisfying, it’s good for your health, you can drink it all day long with no ill effects. Why not indulge in one of life’s oldest, simplest pleasures?
His philosophy on brewing and enjoying tea, cited just before those conclusions, is especially relatable:
...What we need to do is to educate people how to drink tea, how to taste tea. And how to prepare tea. And my approach is to remove the intimidation of having it be complicated or difficult. Because it's not. It's simply a leaf off a plant. Nothing more, nothing less. It's only the sophistication of how they roll that leaf, how they pick it, how they prepare it, and how they feed the soil -- or not feed the soil -- that determines the differences between these teas.
...There's no right or wrong way to make tea. You can do it anyway you like. So what I try to get people to do is, do whatever it is you're doing, but taste it along the way. And if you find it's not strong enough, let it steep longer. Still not strong enough, put more tea in it. But don't judge the tea because you had a bad experience the first time. And as you develop a palate for tea, you'll learn what you like and what you don't like...
All as true today as 23 years ago. It's nice that tea enthusiasts can at least find a sense of community among other tea enthusiasts, in part based in a broad range of social media forms. It's great that the one-way text media articles, like this one, have been replaced by multi-channel discussion and varied media, at least to the extent that former news outlets dying wasn't a bad thing.
The tea experience itself hasn't really changed, there are just more options for experiencing a broader range of types. Now it's available from other countries beyond China, Japan, and India, extending into more and more novel offering scope. We have early pioneers like David to thank for that. I hope that his current challenges can meet with a better resolution than it all seems headed towards at this point.