Thursday, August 13, 2009

Floating Leaves

I love going to Seattle for drinking tea. I think of it as a city with an extensive tea culture, and on this trip I have taken some time to ask questions from Seattle tea industry insiders. Seattle has such an amazing story as an economic trading port on the Pacific Rim. Though, not as popular as San Francisco or its neighbor to the North, Vancouver BC, Seattle is a leader in imports of coffee and tea. I bet Seattle has a pretty high per capita tea drinking population when compared to other cities.
First, I went to Floating Leaves and had an amazing brew session with the owner, Shiuwen, and some of her friends. Shiuwen’s window faces west, so we were able to bask in some of the days last rays of light. The windows are big, so there is a nice amount of natural light. She has her strong Jade plant that enjoys its spot in the window. “It brings in the money.” she chimes in as I take pictures of her plants. This is just after she told me that I was not allowed to take pictures in her shop. So, if you want to exhibit some basic courtesy, don’t just blast into Shiuwen’s shop taking pictures, as I did. It might be nice to ask her permission, before taking all the pictures you want.
Before I met Shiuwen, in 2002, she was working for Seattle’s Best Tea. She wanted to do more to promote tea. She began visiting tea houses on the west coast at which time she met Roy Fong (owner of Imperial Tea Court) and Frank Miller former owner of Blue Willow Tea House (which no longer exists). Shiuwen was inspired by these tea teachers and her thirst for knowledge grew. She and her former husband did some tastings in Seattle and people were skeptical that the small pot would make enough tea. “Let’s make some tea, and you can tell me if it is enough.” Shiuwen suggested. And sure enough by the third infusion everyone was very impressed. People were ready to place their orders. Shiuwen made a call to Taiwan and asked a relative to send her some tea. She opened a 10 by 10 space in a covered outdoor market. In the mornings she would work as a barista at Starbucks and then she would walk to the tea stand where she would take naps in the lull between customers. “Business was slow, because the open market was never filled.” Shiuwen recalls.
Shiuwen, David Weinman, Michael J. Coffey, Rich Tao and I drink tea at Floating Leaves.

Her next venue was The Freemont Sunday Market, which was a flea market. Each place she went she would meet customer and develop a bit of a following. It was in these early building days that she met groups of loyal customers that, to this day, still buy from Floating Leaves tea.
I met Shiuwen and Rob, her former husband, in the Spring of 2005 when they came to Taiwan for a buying trip. I was living in Taiwan at the time and we spent a couple of days drinking a great deal of tea. We shared several tea buying stories and drank tea until we were tea drunk. In July of 2005, Floating Leaves opened its first full service tea room in Ballard, but after struggling to keep it open and after making some life changes, Shiuwen moved Floating Leaves to its current location which is smaller and more tailored to Shiuwen’s ideal shop.
The top selling teas of Floating Leaves are: first, Dong Ding oolong tea, because it has the taste of a high mountain tea, but it costs less money; second, Wen Shan Bao Zhong oolong tea, because it is delicate and beautiful, so it is easy to grasp its greatness. It is a great starting point when one wants to get into oolongs. And third, High Mountain Tea, everyone likes high mountain tea right? I am thinking that the price is the determining factor that makes High Mountain Oolong Tea the number three seller.

This is the tasting table at Floating Leaves, after spending an afternoon with Shiuwen and tea friends.

After hearing the Floating Leaves saga, all I could say was, “Wow, you truly are Floating Leaves.” Shiuwen admits that the name is bad fong shui and might have had an influence on the business. She thought about changing the name to Floating Fragrance, but says that too many people know her by the original name.