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In conversation with a master: honeybush tea and the alchemy of excellence

This week we chat with Mingwei Tsai, Cape Town tea merchant, hospitality industry tea service trainer, and Grounded partner behind the five signature honeybush blends from the Langkloof Honeybush Company (LKHBCo).

Interview and editing by Hailey Gaunt

8 January 2021

Blog artwork

One of LKHBCo’s signature tea blends.

Growing up in Taiwan, from a young age Mingwei Tsai was immersed in a culture of tea. First travelling to South Africa in his teens to study English, then staying for a PhD in civil engineering, Tsai wound up settling far from his home of origin, but eventually found his way back to his tea roots. Today, Tsai is one of South Africa’s foremost tea ambassadors, and the owner of Nigiro Tea Merchants.

We chat about tea blending as an art and tea drinking as meditation. We discuss the importance of relationship building and trusted partnerships, and why promoting tea regions is the answer to building truly equitable products.

Mingwei pours honesbush tea from a glass teapot into a glass cup.

Mingwei Tsai, Cape Town tea merchant, blender and owner of Nigiro Tea.

What is a master blender (is this an official designation)? How did you become one?

I don’t see myself as a master tea blender, I just have 25 years of experience of tea drinking. I think my enthusiastic interest came from my family. My uncle is a tea merchant and works extensively with oolong farmers in the mountains of Taiwan. He communicates with the farmers and for a few decades now has helped them cultivate, telling them how to bring about the best in their teas; doing so increases the value of oolong. Besides growing the teas, fermenting the teas, and producing the teas, he also is very good at seeing the best in each single-region oolong and blending them to bring their best qualities. I think it’s the same for what we are doing for honeybush or rooibos – it’s about getting the best of each individual harvest, then creating the best combination possible.

And that starts with the landscape, right?

So each herb, each tea, each spice, depending on the season, depending on who grows it, it changes. It changes in flavour, it changes in quality. Some farmers are not as diligent as others, and some are very good. When you ask them why a tea has changed, they have everything recorded so they can tell you the reason, or the direction towards a possible reason. That always helps to understand what caused a change in flavour. But, having said that, we actually know very little. There are many, many different characteristics, and different factors that change the general personality of the tea.

Maybe just to walk back a bit – because not everyone understands the importance of equitable value chains and sustainability when it comes to something like tea — can you talk a little bit about those core values, what they mean for tea, and why you look for them? Are they guiding principles for you? Do you notice them in the taste of the tea?

In terms of sustainability and in terms of how the farmers treat the farm workers, that I think requires long-term relationship building. I have over 500 blends coming from, maybe, thirty different countries, and each country has a few different plantations, so it would be impossible to go to all these places and check their standards. I really rely on connections. For instance, if I trust Nikki from Grounded’s team, I would trust the relationships they build with farmers in the Langkloof. I can’t see myself going to Egypt to the Nile River to meet the people harvesting chamomile flower, then taking a boat 4,000 km down the river to a lemongrass tea plantation and engaging with more farmers. I’d rather find a reputable connection in Egypt, and build relationships and network from that source.

There is a lot of emphasis on the farmers in the tea and coffee industry – the farmers need to have endorsements or certifications. But there is nothing for the farmers to say, ‘hey, my tea needs to be served right’.  If I’m buying teas from Japanese tea farmers, they’ll give me all the certifications saying it’s organically grown and certified. But they can’t say to me, ‘Mingwei, you need to make your green tea from Japan at 60 degrees.’ I can’t give them a certificate that says every pot is going to be made at the right temperature and is not going to be burnt. And, in fact, if it’s burnt it’s going to taste very, very bad and the tea leaves are going to be broken. 

The farmers need to have endorsements or certifications. But there is nothing for the farmers to say, ‘hey, my tea needs to be served right’.

The context is always focused on making sure the farmers are doing the right thing, but not the other way around. That is why I believe that if I do it right from the farmers and supplier perspective, then I will do the same equally to the waiters serving the teas: as correctly as possible. It builds a sense of trust. And, later, if anything goes wrong with a harvest, then we will have established that transparency.

As a relatively new tea on the market, do you think it’s especially important to build this foundation with honeybush partners and farmers right now so we can begin from a place of authenticity and build honeybush into an excellent tea in every sense?

So if you look at the coffee industry and the wine industry and vegetables – big supermarkets like Woolworths and Spar – it’s all about the farmer. I actually think it’s the farm workers — they are working the hardest. So, it’s good to focus on a farm, but if somehow that focus distances the farm workers, that’s not great. That’s why I love focusing on the region. If this is the region, we’ve got a team of people who are cooperating with each other and that teamwork is there. I love that.

I don’t see superheroes. With honeybush, we should focus on teamwork and region. If we are focusing on the Langkloof, there may be some regional communities, that would be a beautiful way of doing it.

The quality standards for honeybush are still developing though, so this work is kind of pioneering work.

With honeybush, we are pioneering something. At the same time, we can look at a lot of past tea blending exercises – the history of rooibos, things like that.

I think what makes honeybush very special is it is very calming. It is very settling. I enjoy the possibility that is there. It has such a big range of flavours, which is very unique. Rooibos doesn’t have such a big range to my understanding.

I think what makes honeybush very special is it is very calming. It is very settling. I enjoy the possibility that is there.

So is it really just kind of your intuition and experience, and maybe what you’re feeling passionate about at the moment, that guides your blending?

When a tea tastes great, it’s fine. But what happens when farmers are growing something that doesn’t taste very nice on its own? A farmer has now spent over a year or two years cultivating their tea, and then the finished product comes to me and it’s very harsh to say, ‘It doesn’t taste nice on its own.’ So I always want to find a way to add value so that his tea and his herbs and his flowers can be used one way or another. Then we all win.

Although my energy and my time is spent on blending and creating flavours and combinations of great flavours, my core service and connection is through tea service training and education. I spend quite a lot of time training hotels and waiters how to engage with customers and how to do food and tea pairing. For a blend of tea to be exciting, to be understood, to be focused, it needs to be served well.  It’s very surprising to find out how many people don’t know that honeybush exists. So I have to get out there, and the way for me to do that is to do tea training. That is on the service-provision end of it, and then I’m also very much involved with the farmers. 

For a blend of tea to be exciting, to be understood, to be focused, it needs to be served well.

Two people sit opposite each other at a table lined with teapots, smiling and sipping on honeybush tea.

Honeybush taste profiling at Grounded’s head office.

It’s interesting that you’re involved in the whole chain from the landscapes to the serving. That must be rare.

I think so. I always say to the hotels and restaurants and everybody that works with us, that I’m not just a supplier. I always make an analogy of, if I have a very special cabbage that I want to sell you, I will sell you the cabbage along with a very special cabbage recipe so you can make a cabbage curry. That then connects you to the cabbage that you purchased from me. I don’t want to be just a ‘tea supplier’. I’m often referred to, by hotels and things, as a ‘tea partner’.

Well, you’re so much more to Grounded than just a supplier. We discuss everything from the producers and how we process something, to the blending and packaging. Pretty much the whole process. You’re an advisor/partner/confidant.

So for Grounded, I think it’s quite important for the farmers to feel confident and driven that their product can be seen in South Africa or internationally. We can see that in any of the teas internationally. One hundred years ago nobody knew Sri Lankan teas. There were no teas grown in Sri Lanka two hundred, three hundred years ago. And then, slowly, people began to become aware. It’s all about marketing. And in a South African context, there was little known about rooibos until it was pushed out into the international arena. So, similarly, we can do that and more for honeybush. The farmers need to feel that what they are doing will connect with the rest of the world. 

There was little known about rooibos until it was pushed out into the international arena. So, similarly, we can do that and more for honeybush.

The tea tasting Grounded did with farmers in Napier, for instance, was a very nice activity to make the farmers feel positive. They may not immediately see it, but they could begin to see what could be possible from a value-adding chain. In time they will see for themselves where they fit in the chain.

I agree so much with what you say about bringing the producers in to actually be part of the journey of creating the final product for the consumer. After we shared these finished blends with the producers for the first time, it changed the appreciation of being part of a final product. It almost builds a sense of pride that reinspires, remotivates and pushes the whole industry forward.

Yeah. They need to feel that they are part of something. They may not understand that the honeybush will blend very beautifully with ginger pieces from India. They may not know how it could taste if honeybush is combined with lavender flowers. Lavender flower is nice and bouncy and it’s light and airy, where honeybush is the opposite. But at a certain ratio it is very exciting. So, I am in the position to make them aware that this is possible. They will focus on what they do best, which is growing the honeybush. And I will focus on what I do best, which is putting things together and working on the hotel and restaurant front side.

A number of glass tea pots brewing with golden honeybush tea lined up in front of the honeybush farmers who grew it.

Tasting the LKHBCo’s signature blends with the farmers who grow the honeybush.

What are some of the flavour profiles of honeybush?

Honeybush can range from berry, which is sour, which is very unlike rooibos, to something that is caramel, which is very like rooibos. And then it can be citrusy as well as floral. Citrusy is similar to rooibos, but floral is not. Honeybush is not like rooibos. If you put all the teas of the world together, it will never taste like green tea from Japan, or jasmine tea from Asia. It can never taste like a sweet Sri Lankan black tea, however, it has elements of them. It has a lot of attributes we can magnify and emphasize.

Mingwei pours tea from a glass teapot into a glass cup.

Mingwei’s tea taskings are part meditation, part education, and entirely sensory expansion.

Speaking more generally, what do you think makes an excellent artisanal tea? What are you looking for when you’re blending – do you have certain criteria?

I think that rather than speaking about ‘artisanal’, maybe we can speak about ceremony. Any tea can be an artisanal tea. Even a tea bag can be artisanal tea. Even a tea bag can be ceremonial. I think for it to be ceremonial, it requires a person to just take time, look at the colour, connect. One can also enter into a ceremonial or meditative state without drinking. I may be the tea maker that makes teas for you, and just through making the teas it’s enough for me to benefit from the tea. Sorry, I’m just trying to be very metaphysical (laughs). So I can smell it, and through smelling the tea, that calming sensation can already happen without drinking it. Or looking at the colour or infusion of the tea, can already help me. So the artisanal side of it must be more fulsome, more complete. It requires ingredients, it’s about connecting. It means one plus one is greater than two.

It requires ingredients, it’s about connecting. It means one plus one is greater than two.

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