Leaves of Change: Verdant Tea champions China’s unheralded family farms by going straight to the source

Hot water being poured over tea leaves and traveling tea set // Photo by Aaron Job

Hot water being poured over tea leaves and traveling tea set // Photo by Aaron Job

The future of tea is a new generation—one of thoughtful drinkers who have developed their palates by selecting pour-overs from lists describing coffee beans’ origins and consuming spirits in the same building in which they were distilled. Developing that same relationship between tea farmer and tea drinker is where Verdant Tea has staked its mission, and they’re eyeing this generation—as well as the restaurants and cafes frequented by these men and women—to help carry it out. 

Verdant Tea, owned by husband and wife duo David and Lily Duckler, has sold tea directly to customers since 2011. In 2018, they expanded their business to offer a brokerage service, Tea Partners, that supplies tea to restaurants, grocery stores, and coffee shops. “After doing online retail for so many years, we’ve asked, what does it mean to change the whole industry?” David explains. “That led to us starting a wholesale program.”

David first became familiar with the Chinese tea industry as a student. He spent four months in 2008 studying Chinese tea folklore at Qingdao University (where he would later return for summer and post-graduate research) on a Fulbright scholarship, and during his time there met with a network of community leaders and tea farmers. Included among the many farmers he met was the He family in the eastern, seaside district of Laoshan, who eventually became one of the first families represented by Verdant. 

The farmers, David discovered, were pushing the boundaries of tea production, growing tea in challenging but high flavor-yielding terrain and hand-picking tea leaves to ensure consistent, high-quality taste. Yet the opportunity to bring tea from small family farms to the U.S. was essentially erased due to China’s prohibitively expensive tea export processes. David began to ask if there was a way to transport not just the farmers’ finished product, but also their stories and expertise to the States. 

 David and Lily Duckler on a tea plantation in Daping Village, China // Photo courtesy Verdant Tea

David and Lily Duckler on a tea plantation in Daping Village, China // Photo courtesy Verdant Tea

“What they’re doing is so incredible, wouldn’t it be great to […] put a megaphone to their voice,” he thought. “To be first and foremost a company that serves farmers.”

Before landing on a shelf in the American pantry, tea can pass through as many as six different entities. The typical process takes it from a factory farm in China to a commodity broker, who auctions it off to export brokers that sell to U.S. importers or wholesalers. The importer, in turn, sells the tea to a local distributor, who gets the product into retail stores. 

Verdant’s model, on the other hand, replaces all of the middlemen, buying tea directly from the farmer and selling it directly to the customer. 

According to the Ducklers, the typical export/import process compromises the tea industry in two ways. The first involves flavor. Factory farms tend to take an economy-first approach to tea production and rely on flat, low-elevation plots that are hotter and more prone to attracting insects. To protect the plants from the insects, pesticides are used—chemicals that, David explains, discourage plants from producing their own defense mechanisms in the form of polyphenols, which are key compounds in creating a more complex flavor in tea. Growing tea in rocky soil, typically in areas more prone to clouds and mist than sunshine, on the other hand, is a slower, less efficient process, but leads to a higher quality product whose flavors embody the terroir and unique approach of the farm overseeing its production.

The He family’s Laoshan district farm produces two such teas—a black tea with malt and chocolate notes, and a creamy green with soybean nuttiness—both of which are essentially impossible to get outside of China’s Shandong province since factory farms can’t capture their terroir or craftsmanship, say the Ducklers. Laoshan is one of China’s northernmost tea growing regions. It features a cold climate, natural spring water, and limestone-laden soil that deepens the tea’s flavor, which the Hes further enrich by planting soybeans between the rows of tea. The Ducklers don’t play favorites—they represent 11 farms to date—but they do offer a sample pack with tea from five different farmers, including both He family teas and a sun-dried Sheng Pu’er that is wild-harvested from thousand-year-old trees and carries flavors of basil and cedar.

Flat pressed tea leaves in the workshop of the He Family in the Laoshan province // Photo courtesy Verdant Tea

Flat pressed tea leaves in the workshop of the He family in the Laoshan district // Photo courtesy Verdant Tea

The second way regular tea export processes compromise the industry is by setting exorbitantly expensive and complicated export requirements that small family farmers often don’t have the resources to meet. Tea is a finished product when it is sold. Not unlike a cheesemaker who oversees their entire process, from raising the sheep to aging the cheese, family tea farms grow, pick, and finish the tea, guiding and tweaking the product from start to finish. But the expense and rigamarole of obtaining export licenses are often beyond the scope—in expense and time—of what family farmers can afford. 

Verdant Tea champions small farmers’ practices by highlighting the producers alongside the teas. Their supplier base includes farmers David met during his research as well as referrals from those farmers. Verdant’s website, which drives the bulk of orders, organizes products by family and region, effectively positioning the farmer as the key difference between tea options. “How we differentiate ourselves is we go for 100-percent transparency,” David says. “No one should be in the business if they can’t tell you where the tea came from.”

It took six years of navigating China’s regulatory system for the Ducklers to secure an export license—a process that, according to David, is too time-consuming for most small-farm owners to attempt. Verdant could still import teas without the license, using shipping companies and customs brokers, but at a cost that was typically three to four times more expensive than managing logistics directly. With the license, Verdant can operate more efficiently and let growers set their own prices. 

“In general we’ll let someone know, this is selling really well, you could raise your prices a little bit,” David says. “We’re happy to represent whatever prices people count on for the year. And that’s been great for our partners. Once we work with someone, we want to work with them for life.”

This helps protect farmers from China’s erratic tea market: a critical word from a celebrity or political figure can send the price of specific types of tea plummeting, while unpredictable changes in weather affect which teas grow well in a given year. 

The Ducklers hypothesize that these practices have long been accepted because tea is generally packaged in the U.S. as a mysterious product with opaque origins. And de-mystifying tea is another central pillar to Verdant Tea’s mission. Evoking pearls-and-pinkies, British high tea, or stereotypes of Chinese lore diminishes the artistry and care that feed the tea’s production and distracts from the concept of tea as a casual social beverage. 

“Most people think to enjoy tea you have to play it right—dress up like you’re going to the Queen or brush up on kung fu,” Lily says. “Drinking tea is a normal thing to do. You don’t have to dress up in lederhosen to have a German beer; you just go and have fun.” 

That’s where the new generation comes in. Verdant’s aim is to grow a community of new tea drinkers who are used to seeing farms and local vendors listed on restaurant menus, and will approach the experience of drinking tea as something social and sustainable.

Verdant Tea's Laoshan Gongfu Black Tea being poured into a serving cup // Photo by Aaron Job

Verdant Tea’s Laoshan Gongfu Black Tea being poured into a serving cup // Photo by Aaron Job

Through their wholesale program Tea Partners, the Ducklers aim to scale their reach by building on longtime collaborations with Prohibition Kombucha, which is co-owned by David and uses teas sourced by Verdant, and Birchwood Cafe, who uses their tea for chai. 

“That’s where Tea Partners comes in—what about other chai or other kombuchas?” David ponders. “If you want to change the industry, how are you going to do it alone?”

Their wholesale customer base includes international clients in Europe and South Korea as well as a strong network in Minneapolis and St. Paul that includes Kopplin’s Coffee, the Wedge Table, and Birchwood Cafe, plus a beverage truck called Jinx, which is run by Jennifer Wills and Sam Eilers. 

Online retail has always comprised the bulk of their business, but the Ducklers have tested other tactics for bringing tea to the public, too, including a tea cocktail room and restaurant on Franklin Avenue, which they ran from summer 2013 through fall 2014. But they realized each venture wound its way back to their core vision: helping people brew the best possible tea in their own homes. “At the end of the day, you don’t need us here except to connect us with our partners in China,” Lily says.

Marketing efforts at this point for Verdant’s teas consist primarily of word-of-mouth—a tactic the Ducklers are eager to continue, as it eliminates the need for a marketing budget that would result in price markups. (Notably, they were invited by the Xcel Energy Center to create a unique tea for Lady Gaga’s tour stop in 2017. They selected tea from a farmer known to be a Lady Gaga fan.) To date, the Ducklers aren’t aware of any other companies selling Chinese tea under a similar model. But small-farm-grown tea is taking off in Japan, where it’s easier to gain an export license and younger generations are taking an entrepreneurial approach and representing their own family farms. 

And that is ultimately the Duckler’s goal: to pave the way for farmers to represent their own teas directly to customers. Their dream is to service an online marketplace, where farmers can set up a portal to their teas and customers can browse by farmer and region, not tea blend. 

“The goal is you’re supporting that vendor, not that platform,” David says. “We really want to see Tea Partners become a platform for farmers to use. Our role is cultivating those relationships.”