Tea Trekking with the Coley Family, Dominion Tea’s Artisanal Ambassadors

Being a connoisseur of tea isn’t the same as being a connoisseur of wine. Some of the world’s best oolong grows 7,600 miles away in Taiwan’s Alishan National Forest. It is produced by tea masters more interested in quality than quantity. Witnessing the process firsthand and renewing their all-important personal relationships with suppliers is critical to Dominion Tea entrepreneurs Hillary and David Coley. That’s what took this Purcellville couple and their then 10-year-old son D.J. on a journey late spring that was as intricately planned and executed as a well-brewed oolong. Their journey took them to China and Hong Kong at a time when trade talks with China and protests in Hong Kong were tense. Their first-person story distills the ancient art of tea production, cultural differences and the awakening of Chinese self-expression. 

Dominion Tea’s success lies in understanding and influencing manufacturing. Nobody buys tea raw because it goes bad in 36 hours. You buy a finished tea, so it needs to be produced in line with our values and the history of the individual tea. Tea grows natively in Taiwan and China, so the best producers don’t use pesticides or fertilizers, which we can verify in person.

The second reason we go is to learn about the history of the tea, the culture that it comes from, and how the two have intertwined over centuries. And, frankly, we want to eat their food!

To Alishan, you first travel from Taipei to Chiayi City, about halfway down the coast of Taiwan then a train into the national forest. The land where the tea grows is Tsou tribal land. We deal with a tea master, who learned the ancestral art of selecting and processing the best tea from her father as he had from his. 

What sets these oolongs apart is their complex, clean flavors: creamy, floral and sometimes nutty, depending on whether or not they’re roasted. At higher elevation, tea plants get plenty of morning fog, which generally burns off by afternoon. Warm, misty conditions are great for tea.

Even more than the tea-covered hillsides, we loved seeing the bright orange or yellow insect glue traps in the fields. Combined with myriad webs of the giant golden orb weaver, one of the largest spiders in the world, both gave visual proof that the tea is grown without insecticides.

Once plucked, leaves wither for 24 hours while the tea master determines what type of oolong to make. The leaves are agitated for the next 24 hours in tumblers and rolling machines as the tea master samples it to discern its flavor. It is then roasted or dried and put into air-tight storage. The tea master prefers that it sit and a final finishing roast be applied a few months later. This resting time is said to be the key to creating the more complex flavors in the tea.

Next, Jinjiang, Fujian Province, China is a short 45-minute flight from Taipei. From there we board a bullet train for Fuding, on the northern edge of Fujian Province, to catch the tail-end of the white tea harvest and production of jasmine green tea. Sandra, account manager for our supplier, shows us the tea fields and helps us tour the factory and Fuding. She says the Chinese government is building up Fuding as a tourist destination for middle-class Chinese, much as Napa Valley is a destination for wine tourists. This idea is more novel to the Chinese than to Americans because there, seemingly everyone grows tea the way Americans grow tomatoes. Because the government heavily influences land use and infrastructure investments, it’s a well-funded venture, sure to succeed eventually.

In China, as in the U.S., family is important. We enjoyed a large family meal with Sandra and her family in Fuding celebrating the Dragon Boat Festival, a holiday when tens of millions of people travel home to spend time with family. Dish after dish of seafood, vegetable and tofu dishes were placed before us on a lazy Susan to share, as the family talked for hours.

Next stop was Quanzhou, the ancient starting point of the maritime Silk Road and the likely birthplace of Chinese civilization. Touring a 1,000-year-old mosque, the importance of preparing D.J. for the trip came into play. Our guide told us that nobody practices Islam in China, but D.J. could plainly see several women in hijabs and one woman laying out her prayer rug. I could tell the discrepancy was bugging him. We had cautioned him not to challenge Chinese officials, but to discuss his questions later in private, so we got an earful back at the hotel. 

When at last we headed for Hong Kong, it was via a high-speed train packed with children listening to American music from Sesame Street or loudly singing B-I-N-G-O, with the full encouragement of their parents and entirely without the use of earphones. 

Emerging from the train station at the central Hong Kong metro station, we expected to thread through a maze of underground tunnels to the subway line for our hotel. But when we arrived, it was packed, no one moving. Curiously, everyone was wearing a white shirt and politely conversing. I tapped an English-looking person on the shoulder and said, “We just got into town; what’s happening?” He said, “We’re protesting the extradition bill.” None of that made any sense to us, but it was June 9, the first of what would become 15 weeks of pro-democracy protests. We had quietly touched down in the middle of history!

Part of experiencing another culture with your child is learning to appreciate what you have at home. Chinese people don’t discuss the law or politics with strangers, while we’ve elevated complaining about our government to an art form. D.J.’s experiences helped him understand more about the complexities of modern-day China and why the protesters in Hong Kong, who until 1997 were under U.K. rule, felt the need to speak out.  

We had our own concerns about visiting during increased trade tensions. We decided our engagement is with small business owners like us, looking to share in the history and culture of tea, which long predates today’s politics. When our vendors worried aloud if tariffs would hurt their business, we reminded them that our national leadership never lasts more than eight years. Even so, could you put a rush on that order?

The Chinese, heavily influenced by ancient traditions of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, have a much different concept of time. We speak of deadlines; they think in centuries. The literal time difference between our countries means we have to get up at 4 in the morning to text with our vendors in Asia who are 12 hours ahead, leaving an hour to negotiate before they go to bed. It then takes 14 to 21 days to process bills and payments and send product to the docks, and another 30 to 45 days for cargo to arrive by ship. Even airfreight takes a week. It’s not like ordering on Amazon.

Though it looks like we were always moving, in fact, time slowed down for us in China, too. Meals, discussions—everything takes longer, even a perfectly brewed cup of tea.