He’s thin, intense, edgy, and obsessed with tea. Is he a relic of the past or the prototype of the future? Or just himself?
Meet Ned Heagerty of the San Rafael, California-based Silk Road Teas who for years has been obsessed with searching for rare and elusive teas. This opinionated purist who eschews blended tea as “entry level for the consumer,” travels to rural parts of southeastern provinces of China every spring for the early season harvest and to connect with his farmer/suppliers and specialty tea companies. Once picked, the teas, which Heagerty buys in small lots, are not blended but single sourced and increasingly, certified organic.
“We know where to go,” says Heagerty, who, along with his wife and partner, Catherine, has been traveling to China for over a decade. “It’s like at a farmer’s market where the farmer drives up in a tractor. We look at the tea, we smell it, we taste, we go and sit down and talk. Then we strike a deal.”
The relationship Heagerty has developed over the years with his suppliers shows up in the results. Like a 19th century botanist, Heagerty seeks out new teas as well as familiar ones, some of whose taste has evolved due to plant variations caused by changing environmental conditions. He can appreciate how, like wine, weather fluctuations can alter the taste of the tea crop. “Every year, it’s different,” he says.
But Heagerty is also a pragmatist — and a successful merchant in the tea business. Today, he sells in bulk to such purveyors as Whole Food, tea shops and restaurants as well as keeping his retail and private label stock. (Fyi: his website is exceptional: educational, informative, and fun. Online retail prices are also very fair.) And he is no pushover for a tea just because it is artisan. This year, for example, he declined to buy Golden Dragon and Bird’s Tongue because quality or price didn’t meet his expectations. New offerings, however, provide plenty of fresh tastes. Here’s a sampling of new spring “before the rain” teas:
Fun sip: What’s his most popular? Tien Mu Qing Ding, or Heavenly Blue Peak, nuanced, complex, and frankly delicious. Not for seekers of raspberry/mint/chocolate/black tea.