"TEA HAS AT LEAST THREE times the variety and complexity of coffee," said Eliot Jordan, Director of Tea for Peet's Coffee and Tea. When asked about the benefits of being a tea man in the center of a coffee kingdom, Eliot Jordan, in his kind and intelligent manner, cited the great platform he has been given to influence how Americans receive and perceive tea. With 192 stores in the U.S., Peet's is one of the largest tea retailers in the country, and its tea program is highly regarded, thanks to the skill, knowledge and sensitivity of it's quietly diligent tea buyer, Eliot Jordan.
"To put Peet's name on a tea, it has to be worth every penny," said Jordan, who began working at Peet's in 1984, and was mentored by Jim Reynolds for 14 years before being offered autonomous leadership for Peet's tea program. I'm also not a tea elitist," he said. Rather, his goal is to buy the best tasting teas at the most affordable prices to delight the palates of a broad range of consumers. "The biggest market for quality Chinese teas is China, not the U.S.," said Jordan who shies away from "tribute teas" and tea competition winners. "It is fantastic tea, but even if I could buy it (for Peet's), I couldn't sell it here because of the price. Tea is just not valued in the same way in this (U.S.) market."
Jordan does buy single-estate, hand-processed teas for Peet's Rare Tea collection, including the Ancient Trees Organic Pu-erh, Golden Dragon Oolong, and Silver Cloud white tea. This is greatly to his credit, considering the care and effort that must be made to procure finer quality teas at prices that match the bottom line for such a large retailer.
Jordan focuses mostly on first- and second flush teas from India and China, buying Chinese greens in April, oolongs in May, and North Indian and Chinese black teas in June. He is responsible for buying about 200 teas and spices (in a ratio of 4:1 respectively) which are (often but not always) blended to create the 44 tea products made available to Peet's customers.
He has, of course, different criteria for judging different teas. "I approach all teas with a British style cupping (method) of boiling water and five-minute steep, with the intention of drawing out all the good and bad that the tea sample will offer. Then for certain styles of tea from China and Japan, I will re-evaluate the tea in the context of how it's brewed by Asian experts, in particular for greens, oolongs, and pu-erhs, so that I fully understand how the tea can taste at its best."
Jordan cited the current trend towards the Chinese way of evaluating teas. In China, he said, they value the appearance of teas more than they do in India, and, in fact, sometimes might pay too much attention to how a tea looks rather than on its taste. "When I evaluate a Chinese tea, I take appearance more into account than when I judge an Indian tea. If an Indian tea tastes extraordinary but looks so-so, I might buy it, but with Chinese tea, if it looks bad, I'll avoid it. Americans expect rare teas to look good." "if it is in a tea bag, the appearance of the leaf is not relevant," said Jordan. He looks carefully at the leaves in any case to be sure the leaves are evenly graded.
"There is cultural freight or inheritance with every tea," said Jordan. "In China, you have generations of tea farmers experimenting with varietals, and many teas have at least 700 years of history. India has a much shorter history of tea cultivation, Jordan said, "but what the Indians have that the Chinese industry doesn't is a system where all teas are tracked from the field to the factory to the exporter to the buyer. Each lot is tasted and tracked complete with sale price, at least for teas sold at auction. There is a long history of tea cupping and record-keeping that goes back to the British. China, with its much bigger diversity of tea and less Westernized approach to production just has a different and more diverse tradition."
A good tea is only good in its application," Jordan added with enthusiasm. "Green, white, or lighter oolong teas are meant to be smooth and light, so excessive heat is out of balance to the flavor and aroma. It's better to drink it at a little cooler temperature,. This allows the subtle flavors to come up," he said. "In contrast, black and pu-erh teas are best brewed and sipped hot to get the best out of them."
As we sip our tea together, I realize that this year marks the 25th anniversary for Jordan's career with Peet's, much of it spent as the Director of Tea. With a light in his eyes, he exclaims, "There is so much more to know about tea. It is never ending."