Tea with a View

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A few weeks ago, I visited Jonah and Coomi of Bitterleaf Tea at their Kunming studio. Bitterleaf is known for beautiful teaware and beautiful photographs of said teaware, thanks to Coomi’s pro photography skills, but they also have been sourcing and pressing high-quality puer since they opened business three years ago.

Their story is pretty romantic: they met in Canada, got tired of their office jobs and decided to move to Kunming. Jonah took Mandarin classes at Keats (the school I am currently enrolled at) and Coomi did photography gigs. After a period of experimenting with different career options, a tea company was born.

Bitterleaf is one of the younger western-facing puer companies, but they have quickly secured repute in the online community thanks to the couple’s design backgrounds and commitment to honesty and transparency. They were among the tea folks I reached out to while planning my trip, and they invited me to visit their studio in Kunming.

Like many places in this city, the Bitterleaf studio is well-hidden unless you know exactly where to look (this challenge is compounded when you are an illiterate foreigner like me). On the 11th floor of one of Kunming’s countless towering apartment buildings, the tea studio is a small but comfortable room with a wall of windows overlooking many other towering apartment buildings. Coomi lamented the lack of a more aesthetically pleasing view, but I thought it was a good vantage point for monitoring the never-ending bustle of Kunming while maintaining a relaxed distance, tea in hand.

Jonah and Coomi run every aspect of their business, from sourcing to marketing to shipping, and I happened to catch the studio just after receiving a big shipment of new teaware. Laid out with care on the floor were tea trays, teapots and gaiwans. Carefully sourced from artists, there wasn’t a piece there that I wouldn’t want in my own collection. This was a cool ‘behind-the-scenes’ glance into the daily workings of an online-based tea company.

Sourcing is finished for now, and much of the summer work at Bitterleaf involves meticulous photography of each and every tea and teaware that comes in. Kunming serves as a sort of way station for their products – tea and teaware come in from other parts of China, everything is unpacked, organized and photographed, then it all has to be repacked and shipped out to customers all over the world. As you can imagine, this work is time-consuming for one couple, and it is important to recognize that running a tea company isn’t just sitting around and drinking tea once the season’s sourcing is complete.

After hours of tea tasting, we had a much-needed dinner delivered – rice noodles with bean curd (豆花米线) and a local jelly beverage that I’m not sure exactly how to translate (木瓜水). I left with a bunch of samples at a heavy discount, all of which I have tried now and enjoyed. I had a great visit with Jonah and Coomi and would recommend a visit to Bitterleaf studio for anyone interested in great tea and conversation.

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Will Thurston

Will Thurston is a senior from Charlotte, North Carolina.

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