Growing up in China, I was always surrounded by tea, but the memory of tea actually catching my attention dates back to a visit to my dad’s office when I was five years old. It was during lunchtime and we all gathered in this reading room where the latest newspaper and magazines were offered, along with freshly brewed loose leaf tea (this was the early 90s so yes people read on paper, feeling nostalgic yet?). For my dad and his colleagues, this was the most relaxing time of the day as they caught up on the news, chatted about random topics, and bonded over tea. For me, it was the coolest discovery ever as I witnessed how tea, this “adult beverage’’, was brewed and served, and most importantly, how it made everyone so happy in the middle of a workday! There was no fancy teaware or serving style, but I still remember staring at the tea leaves unfolding and swirling in hot water, and then releasing the gradient colors of jade, blonde and tan into the liquid. I didn’t quite appreciate the taste as a five-year-old, but the feeling of togetherness was so vivid that it stayed with me throughout the years.
Fast forward to now, I am drinking tea on a daily basis, and launched a tea-based skincare brand for tea lovers called TEA.L. It’s been a long journey from that office visit to living and sharing a tea-centric lifestyle with tea hobbyists from all walks of life. The journey is far from a straight line, as tea was absent in my late adulthood and early 20s. It was through meeting my husband that I rekindled my passion for tea and the pursuit of authenticity in tea care activities.
Reconnecting with tea and expanding beyond green tea
I moved to New York City after college to pursue my master degree at Columbia University, well at least that’s what I told most people, deep down, I was pursuing a possibility of living an authentic life as a gay man. I didn’t see that happening in my home country, and America was my answer to ‘what should I do about it’. The subsequent years following my move to NYC can be summarized as an overwhelming journey to establish myself as an immigrant and a gay man. Just like any coming-of-age story of our lives, I lost some and gained some. Unfortunately, tea fell off my radar during that process. If I caught a cold, I would still drink tea from a teabag to help alleviate symptoms, but the magic of togetherness and sensual stimuli I felt before was gone.
The turning point came in 2012 when I met my current husband, Ronald, who was working as the northeast district manager for a Canadian tea brand called David’s Tea. This was around the time when loose leaf tea started gaining popularity in the U.S., and multiple international brands were opening stores all across the country. Through Ronald’s job, organic loose leaf teas became a frequent topic and we developed a habit of tasting teas together whenever samples of new teas or blends came into his stores: Dragonwell, Jasmine Black Pearls, Gyokuro, Lapsang Souchong, to name a few, and the whole world of tisanes such as Rooibos, Guayusa, Yerba Mate, which I never heard of before. Inspecting tea leaves and sniffing their rich bouquet instantly brought back memories and reminded me of what tea really meant to me: It’s not just a cold remedy, but a craft beverage, a lifestyle that brings me joy, and now, a way for me to bond with my husband and others.
Before we even realized it, we brought our steepers to work, stocked bags and bags of loose leaf teas and tisanes at home, and sipped day and night. Friends and families started becoming curious, and we would host tea tasting sessions during holiday gatherings. My parents, who’ve only had Chinese green tea before, would now try recommendations from me and be amazed at new notes and textures. How things have gone full circle for the wide-eyed five-year-old!
Go beyond drinking and sail into skincare
At the time, Ronald’s employer, David’s tea, rolled out some innovative ideas of how loose leaf tea can be used beyond plain drinking, such as tea cocktails and tea-flavored lip balms. Although, in my opinion. they never quite got it right, these ideas opened up new doors for me and Ronald to explore how tea can be extended beyond the cuppa. While Ronald, as the baker of the family, developed mouth-watering recipes for tea-infused baked goods, I was eyeing how to incorporate tea into another aspect of my self-care regime: skincare.
I started taking skincare seriously in my early 20s as I was battling an oily T-zone and never-ending acne issues. In my journey of researching and experimenting with skincare products, I discovered that although there was never a lack of mention of teas in the beauty industry, no product has ever indicated exactly what tea is used beyond ‘green tea extract’ or ‘fragrance’. Since I’ve been living in the crossover between loose leaf tea and skincare, I went down a rabbit hole and discovered neither ‘green tea extract’ nor ‘fragrance’ are regulated ingredients. Namely, there are no established standards on what can be labeled as ‘green tea extract’. This discovery, to me as a tea lover, felt like the equivalent of having to drink out of a Lipton tea bag after years of appreciating high-quality loose leaf tea. It was very disappointing when I realized nothing on the mass market can really fit the bill, and more importantly, why can’t real tea be used in skincare, when it is known for a variety of skincare benefits?
Soon this revelation turned into a strong urge to create my own tea-based skincare that is authentic and of higher standards for tea lovers. Ronald and I took this on as a side project in late 2018, and after a year of developing ways to infuse organic loose leaf teas directly into skincare with minimum processing, we launched TEA.L in August 2019 and have been blessed to know how much the tea lover community shares the same concern and appreciates our approach to tea-based skincare.
The second wave of tea awakening: a tea-centric lifestyle
Thanks to the love and support from the tea lover community, TEA.L has grown 10x in 2020 despite the challenges posed by Covid-19, and it has evolved from a side project to a way for me and Ronald to connect with the community, an integral part of our lives. And as a surging influx of tea lovers started using our products, we sensed a second wave of tea awakening is brewing: if switching from a pre-packaged tea bag to steeping loose leaf was the first wave, the second wave will bring in the practice of a tea-centric lifestyle. A tea-centric lifestyle embraces teas for their versatility and benefits in all aspects of life, including drinking, eating, skincare, even aromatherapy, and more importantly, the cultural significance of what tea represents. For me, the cultural significance is the warm and fuzzy togetherness I first witnessed at five years old during that visit to my dad’s office, and every tea lover we met has either found or is on their way to find what that significance is for them.
Recently we had the opportunity to virtually meet hundreds of tea lovers across the country and exchange tips and practices of a tea-centric lifestyle, via the International Virtual Tea Festival. Through the 2-day event, lots of ideas were shared, and we mainly focused on aspects beyond drinking, including skincare with tea, cooking with tea, baking with tea, and most importantly how to put together a ‘tea care package’, either for themselves or other tea lovers in their lives after an incredibly challenging year. For baking with tea, we demonstrated our recipe for matcha cookies with white chocolate chips while someone in the audience shared her experience with infusing rooibos in scones. Cooking with tea was another lively debated topic, where we found out with our audience there were multiple interpretations of the classic dish of ‘Sauteed Prawns with Dragonwell’ (龙井虾仁). The highlight for me was definitely skincare with tea, as we were able to share our vision with the tea lover community by showing exactly what teas and tisanes went into our products, and how we made them.
(If any MyTeaPal users are interested in knowing more about these topics, or getting a copy of the written materials, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org)
As the ambassador for the TEA.L brand and tea lovers ourselves, Ronald and I are always looking for new ways to connect with the community and share what a tea-centric lifestyle means, and that’s how we found out about MyTeaPal! It caught our eyes as it truly fills a gap in the core need of tea enthusiasts and provides huge potential in building an authentic community. We are excited to introduce ourselves to this fast-growing community and give back by sharing our work on tea-based skincare. If you are interested in exploring more with us, visit our website, follow us on Instagram or Facebook, or email me at email@example.com.
(Originally published by Zhao Lu in MyTeaPal Stories)