After Qin Liu and Rong Pan graduated from the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business they saw an opportunity in Boulder. One of the things they had trouble finding was a cup of quality Chinese tea. Seeing the opportunity among the plethora of local shops, in 2006 they decided it was time to open their own business: Ku Cha House of Tea.
“Boulder is a place where a lot of people like tea, drink tea and enjoy tea,” Liu says. “So we wanted to introduce more of Chinese tea culture here.”
The married couple would first have to create a relationship with tea farmers before they sold tea. Their first trip soon became an annual one, searching for the perfect tea from local, family-owned farms in southwest China.
“Small farmers produce very high quality, organic green tea,” Liu says.
They found the tea farms during their travels in China and through recommendations from friends. Chinese tea farms are small, and differ from those in other countries, which commonly have very large tea plantations.
The care that small farms put into their tea is what produces the high-quality product that Liu and Pan are looking for. When the couple visits a tea farm, they are shown how the tea is processed from a leaf to the finished product.
“We actually go out and pick tea with them,” Liu says. “They show us how they process the tea from start to end, the whole process. And then of course they will have teas for us to taste.”
Many people don’t realize that white, green, black, oolong and puerh tea are all derived from the Camellia sinensis plant. The process of withering, rolling, oxidation and drying or firing determines what the leaf ultimately becomes.
Liu says that during one particular trip, he realized how labor-intensive tea picking and processing are.
They arrived at a small family-owned tea farm like many times before, but that day they met the farmers just as they were getting back from their morning pick. The farmers laid the baby green tea buds on a tray before them. They discovered that a very large amount of tea leaves won’t yield much tea.
“After the fresh leaf is processed and dried, the whole tray will produce a very small amount of tea leaves, and you realize how precious they are,” Liu says. “They spent the whole morning and didn’t get a lot. And you really appreciate the labor, the quality and everything.”
The freshest tea is picked in the spring, during the months of March and early April, when the leaves first start sprouting. During the summer months the tea quality has deteriorated due to the amount of water in the leaves.
“The freshness of the tea leaf determines the quality of the final product,” says Liu.
Liu and Rong have to find a combination of the freshest tea leaves and the best processing techniques to find the high-quality tea they want in their shop.
Ku Cha has already sold around 1,000 kilos of its premium tea this year. Liu can only describe the amount of tea they import to the United States as “a lot,” since the amount they bring back varies year to year.
Even though Ku Cha features a lot of tea from China, it also carries tea from other parts of the world. Mate is a popular South American tea that Ku Cha acquires through a distributor.
“Tea drinking is not just a part of Chinese culture, but global culture,” Liu says.
He says he often wishes that there was more time for the shop to promote tea culture, not just tea as a product. Liu and Pan had one goal in mind when they opened their shop, an aspect of their store they plan to stay true to as long as it’s open.
“Not just show tea, but culture around tea,” Liu says.