Getting Deep in the Steep
A local partnership delivers the world’s best teas for our kombucha
At Aqua ViTea, we pride ourselves on using only healthy, premium ingredients in brewing our Kombucha. And since great Kombucha starts with great tea we are incredibly fortunate to have a world-class tea supplier right in our backyard.
Aqua ViTea has been sourcing our teas from Stone Leaf Teahouse in Middlebury since 2010, the year after the teahouse opened. This proximity and friendship has allowed us to work closely with Stone Leaf’s owner and Tea Guru, John Wetzel, tapping the deep knowledge he’s amassed travelling the world in search of the best teas. Rather than ordering bulk tea over the internet, our relationship with Stone Leaf allows us to touch, see, smell and savor the tea, the base ingredient of this delicious beverage.
We sat down with John to discuss all things tea before he embarked on his latest international tea journey, this time to the rural mountains of southern China.
Tell us a little about Stone Leaf, when you got started and what prompted you to open your own teahouse?
The year before we opened (in 2009), I traveled to Taiwan and Vietnam. In Taiwan I met my first tea connection, my friend Liao, who we still buy tea from today. Then when I came back from that trip, people kept asking: “when are you going to open your own teahouse?”
For years I had made a habit looking for the right spot and when I came back from Taiwan I found this one. It was important that it was in Middlebury and would allow us to be part of the community, and it was also off the main street but still near downtown. And a stone building that’s half underground is good place to store tea.
What is your current favorite tea?
The one that I am drinking is my current favorite. My interest in tea is that I like all forms of it. It is so situational. Whether having mountain oolong, a high-grade tea prized for flavor, or just drinking a breakfast tea, it depends on whom I’m with and the situation. There are different teas for every situation all around the world.
Where does your tea come from?
We import from Japan, China, Taiwan, South Africa, Nepal and India. All from places we’ve visited so far. It’s nothing against teas from other great places there’s just limited time. We will someday carry Korean and Sri Lankan tea.
What is your approach for selecting teas?
It’s become pretty elaborate. The first step is tasting, which is the most important part of it for me and then trusting the source that it comes from. Becoming a tea importer is about creating a local community here but also making connections with farmers and other tea people across the world. When we select a tea that’s very important. It’s not like buying tea off of Amazon – that personal connection is very important. Over the years our approach has evolved to include tea farm visits, getting organic certification when such certification exists and testing of quality.
Why is it important to meet the tea-growers and see their gardens and farms in person?
This is not strictly a business for me. It’s really about doing business the same way people have done it for millenniums, which is creating a relationship with someone. That relationship is based on more than just a business transaction: they’ve all become friends in some regard.
Tea culture is different everywhere. The essence of it is that a big part of my job is to learn how it’s done in different tea cultures. It’s about cultivating a relationship and it takes time. It takes having meals with them and being hosted by their families, learning about their traditions.
I also try not to rely on any third-party certification, even organic certification. I still use organic certification because it’s important to my buyers, but we still test our teas to prove that it’s organic. There have been issues in the past with workers from Fair Trade-certified farms not being treated fairly, especially in India. I always follow the philosophy that I’d rather go visit a farm than rely on that. I can meet the workers and get a sense of how things are done. Third-party certifications are just one more piece of the puzzle.
Tell us about the tea you source for Aqua ViTea.
It originated talking with Jeff (Weaber, founder) and Mike (Kin, original brewer) back in the day when they approached me to source tea. It was originally based on what flavor profile they were looking for but as I’ve traveled to different farms we’ve been able to match the flavors profiles – and to have that direct connection to the tea growing.
Different teas create different flavor profiles. One way that Aqua ViTea is different than some other Kombucha brewers is by using full leaf tea, not tea bags or dust. That creates a crispness to the Kombucha and gives it a more rounded taste. Many other kombucha teas have a lot of things happening in it. The root of tea for me is the simplicity of it. And the tea for Aqua ViTea keeps to the thread of simplicity.
For those who haven’t been there, please describe the experience visiting Stone Leaf.
We make all of our teas that we import available. We have 200 teas and we simplify it on a menu of 50 teas at a time. This is a place where someone can buy tea that was picked a couple weeks ago. We start selling the tea immediately after we get it in. This is where you can get the freshest tea possible. Much of the tea that can be bought in the U.S. can actually be years old, and even fresher tea loses its flavor once it’s put in teabags.
We won’t cross the line of selling teabags, no matter how pretty they would look. We need to see the tea, to have it be loose. That’s the core of our business.
Through our website, we ship to retail customers across the entire country and sometimes to Canada. Wholesaling is mostly in the northeast. We try to make it a personal experience, like we do in the tea house. I respond to all the questions directly. Through the Tea Guru feature on our website, we took the line of questions we use here to help folks chose their teas at the teahouse and translated it to the online experience.
Tell us about your next tea adventure that’s in the works.
In the past, I’ve done one trip per year, this year I am doing more. I was invited to stay with a family in Meng Song to work with them to make the tea, which is an experience I can’t pass up. And I have plans to go to Taiwan and Japan as well.