The Auteur Effect
When people in Western circles talk about great food and drink, there’s a temptation to turn regular working people into heroes. We call it the auteur effect: say an exciting new restaurant gets a favorable review, praising some innovative technique. The chef is name checked, and before you know it is hailed as a visionary whose soulful spirit creates works of culinary genius.
The reality of restaurant work is that the head chef is one of many cooks in the kitchen, all acting in concert, each with a particular set of skills that they probably didn’t learn from the chef who gets the glory. Then there’s a separate team of equally skilled professionals in charge of hospitality and service to guests in the dining room, and dedicated suppliers continually on the hunt for new ingredients to provide to their clients, and trained engineers at high-performance cookware companies who collaborate with chefs on new tools that allow kitchens to pull off ever-greater culinary feats.
The deeper you dig, the more you realize that the world of restaurants isn’t really made of heroes and auteurs. It’s comprised of experienced craftspeople working together—within the bounds of tight commercial margins—to make a product greater than the sum of its parts. The same is true for the world of tea.
By way of example, take our perennially popular Nantou Four Seasons oolong tea. We select this Taiwanese oolong from a farmer in Nantou County who we love working with both for the high quality of the leaf and the subtle, skillful roast. Every year, she sponsors work visas for migrant pluckers from Indonesia and the Philippines to harvest his fields. Some lots of our Nantou are made solely of this harvest, but if the farmer has a poor yield, she may also purchase fresh leaf from neighboring farms, which might be processed together with his leaf—or a local factory will be enlisted to handle the production for her. The factory is run by a co-op of longtime tea professionals who specialize in oolongs from this region; they receive contracts from dozens of farmers in the area, some of whom may have specific processing requests, while others are content to trust the pros. Then, depending on how busy the coop is, our Nantou may change hands yet again to be roasted in a separate facility that specializes in baking finished tea.
At each stage of the process, the tea is carefully tended by experienced workers, each of whom leave their mark on the finished product. From farmer to picker to processor to roaster, dozens of hands may be responsible for a single lot. We could tell a similar story about our Roasted Bao Chong, which is grown and processed in northern Taiwan but baked to our specifications by the same roaster we trust with our Nantou Four Seasons. Or take a look at some of our pu-erh teas, which were picked, processed, blended, pressed, and aged by separate groups of people on two distant sides of mainland China.
This is the nature of agricultural work: it’s not a field of solitary auteurs, but rather an ensemble cast. It demands flexibility to account for the realities of farming—the irregular harvests, the machine breakdowns, or a favorite processor moving into retirement. And while the auteur story is compelling, this collective arrangement usually makes for better tea, since any one of these skills could take decades to learn, and few people have the time or inclination to master them all.
And as with all things tea, there’s rarely one standard way. Sometimes the auteur story is true: Mr. Chen, the maker of our Spring Fortune oolong, is an experimental tea maker who more or less does all the tea processing himself, using original techniques he’s developed over the past 30 years, which include resting the leaves for 18 hours in an oxygen-free environment and then spending months teasing out their fragrance. But even he relies on hired pluckers to help him through the harvest.
The result is a complex, aromatic, gorgeous brew distinct from any traditional oolong style in Taiwan. It also means tiny yields and high production costs that make it one of our most expensive teas. We are lucky to work with Mr. Chen, but it would be challenging to supply high-quality tea to a wide audience if we only worked with solitary producers.
We don’t consider that a compromise. It can take a village to make a beautiful cup of tea.