COVID-19 Spotlight: World Tea House

Hello again, I guess self-isolation and social distancing has made this dev unusually chatty (*shrug emoji) .

To get me through a lot of this, and to keep the naps from taking over the majority of the day, caffeine has become an important part of my diet. To avoid becoming like Dave Grohl from this cautionary documentary, I like to drink tea particularly after the sun starts to set. But teatime has been a little lonely lately—and my cat isn’t the strongest conversationalist—so I thought, why not have a cup of tea with Phil Holmans of World Tea House.

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’Ley: Hi Phil, how are you holding up?

Phil: I’m hanging in there.

’Ley: Tell me a bit about what World Tea House

Phil: Well I guess you could call me the anti-fad tea house. I don’t really care for all the culture coming out of Dr. Oz and his ilk surrounding the idea that tea is only a delivery method for some chemical du jour. I prefer to focus on taste, tradition, and innovation, with a splash of adventure.

’Ley: Could you expand on that?

Phil: When I sit down to a cuppa[sic] tea, what I don’t think about is my health (tea itself is healthy in general minus the things you put in it). I focus on taste, and connections to experiences and cultures. Some tea estates have been in the family for decades, and the traditions around them can go back centuries. I feel like when I take part in that, I am part of a long historical tradition.

’Ley: We’ve talked a lot in the past about organic and fair trade teas, and I know you have some issues with the labelling. Tell me a little about that.

Phil: Some of my tea is not officially labelled those things for particular reasons. One easy example is that tea from Japan is not certified fair trade because they have strict labour laws—all of it is fair trade by that definition. Another example is that some farms are quite small and it is a hardship for them to pay every year for organic certification, despite the fact that they follow organic practices. I think it’s a little foolish to not purchase a quality tea that is both ethical and clean just because it wasn’t deemed so by an international agency. Some of these estates should absolutely be certified.

’Ley: How do you verify this?

Phil: I talk to them, and I’ve been to a few of them. Not all, admittedly, but I hope to make it to all of them one day.

’Ley: You also said innovation earlier. How can a tea be innovative?

Phil: Oh, I’m very interested in where the tea industry is going. We’re seeing an entirely new wave of teas grown in N. America, and they’re really pushing the industry in sustainability and labor practices. I was just in Mississippi on a new tea estate and even got to plant some. I have high hopes for N. American tea.

’Ley: How recently were you in Mississippi?’

Phil: A little less than a month ago. I came home just before travel got shut down for COVID, and was quarantined for 14 days.

’Ley: Where you sick?

Phil: No no, but the recommendation was that anyone returning from a lengthy flight should quarantine for 14 days. You don’t want infect your community and 2 weeks is not that long … I say that now of course.

’Ley: How was being quarantined?

Phil: Awful honestly. This was the time when everything started to shut down. When I got home to Nova Scotia there were very few cases at that point, but there were various incidents at the shop that I needed to deal with but couldn’t. I ended up closing the shop completely for a week or so and had to send a lot of apology emails to online customers about shipping delays. The only good thing during that time was that I got to catch up on some X-Box.

’Ley: I take it shipping has resumed.

Phil: Yep, I’m holding the fort now.

’Ley: That sounds nightmarish, but I’m glad the webshop is back to normal,

Phil: Not even close. Everything is screwed up now. Many small tea shops share warehouse space to save on costs and stay competitive with larger retailers, but two of the ones I share are in New York and California. For the obvious reasons, shipping times have been greatly delayed, which a few customers have found unacceptable.

To be clear though, although it hurts small businesses deep when orders are cancelled, I do not want anyone to risk their health in those warehouses. If anyone from those warehouses are reading this, thank you for working at all during this crisis, but please keep yourself safe. It’s more important to me that everyone stay healthy and safe as possible.

’Ley: A nice sentiment, particularly in New York’s case right now. So aside from a bit of a slow down and some short term delays, you should back to normal, at least as …

Phil: Also the first flush is nearly completely missing.

’Ley: The first what now?

Phil: Depending on where you are, tea has multiple harvests. The earliest harvest is called the first flush, and that is right about now. China obviously lost a lot of it because of their lockdown, but they are starting to open up now. There have not been a lot of COIVD cases in the hinterlands of Japan, but the cities are vaguely locked down, creating choke points to supply lines. And India went into their lockdown about 25% into the harvest, which is huge loss.

The economics of this is devastating because a lot of smaller estates use the profits from the first flush (which is usually sold at a premium) to fund the other harvests. I am presently talking to some estates in India to figure out what is a fair price for both them and my customers. It’s nerve racking.

’Ley: I’m stressed just thinking about this. What do you do to relax?

Phil: Part of the reason I opened a shop with table service is because I like talking to people about their tea or even their day, so I’ve been hosting tea time.

’Ley: I live out in BC, but isn’t that illegal on your coast?

Phil: It’s a virtual tea time through Zoom at the moment. You can get there via teatime.worldteahouse.ca.

I actually use the iwantmyname web forwarding feature to change the link because I tried another service and then didn’t like it, and the Zoom url changed a couple of times. Your support team helped with that.

’Ley: Oh?

Phil: Yeah, I emailed them about my A records for Zoom and they walked me through why that wasn’t entirely a thing. What I needed was web forwarding into a subdomain. I had no idea you could just make subdomains for free.

’Ley: All part of the service. In fact, it may surprise you to know that www is actually just a ubiquitous subdomain. Trade secrets.

crickets

Phil: So anyway, that’s a very useful feature because it lets me figure out different services without needing to worry about someone not being able to find me through a three-day-old Facebook post.

’Ley: So what’s this teatime like? Is it just to ask questions?

Phil: I try to make it like my shop. Some people have questions about their tea or about tea they are thinking about getting. Others just need a social outlet. I hope it brings some people who are stuck at home something to make them feel normal. I had a lot of time to think about that in quarantine.

’Ley: That’s really nice. Does one just need to click on the link?

Phil: I did put a password on it, but the password is on my homepage.

’Ley: Since the tea I ordered should be here soon, I should pop in one of these days… assuming I can get up that early. It might even give me a reason to comb my hair.

Phil: I run it till about noon your time (PST), so no need to wake up early.

’Ley: I am a very sleepy man.

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For those reading this, in this long dark teatime of the soul I hope to see you at the virtual World Tea House soon. I am the one doing the Jason Mantzoukas impression—I swear I am just Greek.

See you all soon, stay safe, and be kind to one another.