Our next international tea guest on Tealosophy is Sofie Vercauteren also known as @tearistasofie on Instagram. In addition you can find her on Facebook and on her Tearista website. For those following this series you will know I met Sofie in 2018 whilst studying tea together in Japan. I can actually recall the very moment I started following Sofie on Instagram. She was in China and in her caption she shared that she was on a lengthy tea journey throughout a number of tea growing regions. I was intrigued about the type of person that would invest so heavily in their tea knowledge and was hooked on following her journey!
By the time I caught up with her in Japan I could only marvel on the tea adventures Sofie had made. I actually had no idea for a couple of days that Sofie was amongst our group in Japan until someone told me. She had such a wonderful and kind presence, always observing, always engaged but thoughtful about her interpretation of the people, the places and the tea. Such joyful qualities for someone that has had such an incredible experience. I have also learned that Sofie and I face the same hard water issues in our respective markets so I look forward to sharing more on this topic with Sofie in the future. Thank you again Sofie for your contribution both in words and images for our blog today
So make yourself comfortable and settle in for a wonderful read.
Where is your permanent home?
I am from Belgium and was born in Ghent, one of Belgiums most beautiful cities. We have an amazing city centre with a medieval castle, a cathedral and many wonderfully restored old warehouses along the water. It’s a human size city that remains vibrant and young as there is a university and many people stay after their studies. The last years I have lived in a town just north of Ghent but I am really happy to return to the city centre upon my return to Belgium now.
How long have you been a tea practitioner?
Being brought up in a country that mostly drinks coffee, I started out drinking coffee, only to discover that it upset my stomach and made me quite nervous, so the search for an alternative drink led me to tea. At first I was just into herbal and fruit infusions and slowly got used to the flavour of commodity tea. It was only until I read a book about specialty tea that I discovered there was a lot more to tea than what is sold in the supermarket. What a discovery that was!
So I only consider myself a tea practitioner from that point on, it was an intense and exciting path so far. What started with the book led me to following an introduction course into specialty tea and that led from one training to another, I was hooked. Not a day went by that I wasn’t learning about tea and trying all different kinds of specialty tea. That must be around 4 years ago now.
What is your particular area of interest in tea?
That is a good question because there is so much to discover about tea. When you realise that people have been drinking tea for over 4000 years it is obvious that it has a rich and complex history. Amongst many things I am interested in the history, like the Tea Horse Road, it was comparable to the Silk Road, a vast passage way along which tea (and other herbs and trading products) were carried along. From the tea forests in Yunnan (China) to the capital Beijing, the mountainous Tibet and other far away regions. Did you know that tea was exchanged for horses? It was such a valuable product that you could pay with tea instead of with money.
Tea of course is also about flavours and aromas, the beauty of specialty tea is that there is definitely a flavour for everyone. The variety is endless which makes it so much fun to discover. For example Japanese green tea, Taiwanese floral oolong, Chinese black tea and African white tea are worlds apart and yet it is all made from the same plant, the Camellia Sinensis. It is a great joy to let people discover tea and find a flavour that fits their pallet. I truly enjoy taking people on a discovery tour through a tea tasting session. But most of the time I need to start by explaining the importance of water. The water is very hard where I live and that makes it quite impossible to use tap water for brewing a delicious tea. Often people will tell me they don’t really like tea and just drink it for health reasons, but when I ask them what they are drinking and how they are preparing it, I tell them that I would not enjoy drinking that either. It is not only the tea (commodity tea versus specialty tea) but also the water, the temperature and the brewing time that will have a lot of influence on whether or not you drink a delicious tea. Not to forget the kind of teaware used and the way the tea has been stored!
When following the tea academy, you receive the title ‘tea sommelier’ but somehow I find that a confusing word and a bit limiting. Therefore I use the word tearista, because it makes it clear that we also find new ways to work with tea. One of the things it led me to do was co-write a fun book about ice tea, 3 techniques to make home made ice tea and 50 recipes to go with it. It is one of the ways I try to share the passion for tea and make it accessible to people who have not yet discovered tea or specialty tea.
The new wave of pairing tea with food is also very exciting. Tea served in beautiful glasses and combined with food for example a nice Japanese green tea with an oven grilled white fish or a hojicha with some avocado and salmon…yummy.
How long have you been travelling? And when do you intend tomorrow head home?
After studying at the tea academy and learning about all the different tea regions I just wanted to go out there and see these iconic tea regions for myself. I was working on a marketing project that was put on hold so it was perfect timing for me to set out on a 6 month journey to travel and learn more about tea. I am almost at the end now of this journey and it will be 8 and a half months in total that I tea- travelled this year. I learned a great deal but as it goes with tea, the more you learn, the more you discover there is yet so much more you still don’t know. Maybe that is the beauty in it too, it never gets boring, you are never done.
What tea growing regions have you visited?
I had already been to India, Malawi, Colombia and Sri Lanka for tea and on this trip I added many places, be it to visit tea plantations, tea gardens, tea factories, tea houses or tea pottery villages
China: Wuyishan, Huangshan, Quimen, Anxi, Hangzhou, Fuding, Xishuangbanna, Menghai, Yiwu, He Kai, Beijing, Yixing, Jingdezhen, Jinghong, …
Japan: Shizuoka, Kagoshima, Kirishima, Uji, Wazuka, Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Tokoname, Hagi, Karatsu, …
Korea: Seoul, Busan, Hadong, Beosong, Mungyong, Jeju island
Taiwan: Lishan, Pinglin, Taipei, Yingge, Ilan, Sun moon lake, Alishan, Taichung
Indonesia: Pacet, Pagilaran, Bali
Vietnam: Ha giang, Hanoi
Our conversation with Sofie
1. What was your original intention for embarking on a travel experience centred around tea? And now that your journey is coming to an end (for now) did your intention differ from the journey made so far?
My goal was to fully understand what I was talking about, when you explain how Chinese green tea is very different from Japanese green tea it makes the world of difference if you have actually seen it, smelled it, tasted it.
I wanted to discover as much as possible about tea, get a better understanding and just simply learn from the farmers, from the people that harvest, that produce, that sell, that drink, that prepare (in a ceremonial way). Get to a deeper understanding so that I could share more about this drink, that makes me so happy, with other people.
I also wanted to find out what my role in the tea world can be in the future and that part still has to further develop when I go home now. I would love to teach more and share what I have learned on this journey with people who are interested. This will definitely not be my last tea trip so maybe I will organise some tea travels with a small group of people. Well organised and with the aim to go deeper in a certain area or tea country.
Next to that it would be wonderful to have a teahouse but I’m not sure it is already possible to build a sustainable business just with specialty tea in Belgium. For now I will keep offering tea tastings, tea workshops and tea bars on location for big events.
We will see what the future brings.
2. Based on your tea experience prior to this tea journey what do you consider to be the biggest learning you have made during this tea journey?
Tea for me is about time, the time you take to decide which one you want to drink, the time you take to decide how you are going to brew it, how long you are going to brew it, the time you share with people drinking it together. Tea leaves from each region require a different approach, they are like different personalities and its fun to explore that. But time is an essential element, it is a luxury these days in our busy lives, to take time for ourselves, tea can be that little ritual during the day where you take a moment to yourself. It can quench the thirst, it is a beneficial health drink, it can be fun to experiment with, it can bring people together to share a cup but it can also be a little zen moment for yourself. Tea and time, I truly got a better understanding of that during my travels in seeing how people spent hours and hours in teahouses in China, how Japanese and Korean tea ceremonies are about paying respect and sharing time.
3. What has given you the greatest joy as a tea practitioner during your tea travels?
My greatest joy was to be amongst like minded people, who share the same passion, whom you can discuss this subject with and meanwhile enjoy sipping tea.
4. What have you found to be the most challenging part of this experience?
Constantly being on the road wears you out a bit after a while. I did not allow myself a lot of rest, there is this little voice in your head all the time that tells you to discover as much as possible to explore and visit, not only the tea regions but also the temples, the lakes, the mountains, the markets, see the sunsets and sunrises. All of that is great of course but every now and then you need to take a little break. It’s important to stay healthy too so you really need to take good care of yourself when travelling alone for so long.
5. For anyone contemplating following their heart and passion for tea, as you have, what is the best piece of advice you would recommend to get the most out of their tea travel experiences.
Knowing what I know now, the only thing that I would change is to add some work experience on a tea farm or in a tea house. When you look on platforms such as Workaway and HelpX you can find hosts that are looking for help in return for free accommodation. This gives you the opportunity to save some money, and most of all to get first hand experience. You can search on ‘tea’ and will be surprised all the places that are looking for help.
6. For us that may not have the opportunity to travel to tea lands what would be your advice for acquiring tea knowledge?
Go for the specialty teas from directly sourced tea shops and tea brands and allow yourself to discover some new teas, it is great fun to experiment in brewing them in different ways and determine what is the best for each tea. Not only will you support a small business but also the tea farmers in continuing creating a healthy product from nature. There are off course many good books about tea where you can learn from but what I also find really valuable is the online tea community. I was surprised to find how much knowledge is shared on a platform like Instagram and on top of that it is fun to connect with other tea lovers across the world. I also try to share a lot of information, it’s not only about posting a beautiful picture so feel free to check out my IG on Tearistasofie.