By Kathalina Hoffman, Northwest Christian High School Intern to ThurstonTalk
Shen Zen Tea is an organic and artisan tea company seeking to inspire people through their tea. Founder and co-owner, James Chang, lets his philosophy about life shape his business.
“A lot of people drink tea day to day without thinking about it. It’s not contemplative, kind of like wallpaper – it’s not art. What we want is for people to stop and think about and be present with what they are doing. That’s my life philosophy. We not only sell tea – we sell people the opportunity to make tea.”
The name reflects this attitude as well. Shen means “deep” or “holy” in Chinese and the ancient sage who discovered tea in China was named Shen Nong. Zen means “spirit.” The company’s tagline explains how these two meld together in a quality tea drinking experience: “Discover the Spirit of Tea.”
James’s “go-getter” attitude has taken Shen Zen a long way. When he started out, almost five years ago, he and partner Neil Buckland sold only one variety of tea. They would go door-to-door selling their tea as well as at farmers markets where they would stack their tea into a pyramid to make it seem like they had more.
Now, Shen Zen Tea’s first brick and mortar shop, located in Olympia’s Capital Mall, is celebrating its one-year anniversary and James has more tea than his shelves can hold. The shop offers freshly brewed cups and pots to drink along with hand-packaged teas with names like Pumpkin Spice Chai, Herbal Zen Detox, and Peach Peony. Shen Zen offers gift packs, delicious artisan syrups and as of this summer, hand-crafted kombucha. Sit and enjoy, take some to go, or sign up for a class to learn more about tea’s origins and brewing the perfect cup.
Unlike most tea companies, James is both the manufacturer and the distributor of his teas. He has total control over every aspect and it shows. The tastes of the teas are not dictated by a big company, but rather by his own palate and hand.
James personally visits each farm where he sources his ingredients. His travels have taken him from Italy to Brazil, South Africa to Argentina, and Madagascar to right here in Washington. Instead of answering the question, “Where do you get your ingredients from?” it is easier to say where he doesn’t go to get ingredients (answer: only Antarctica).
Each canister of Shen Zen Tea holds an assortment of dried leaves, buds, fruits, spices, and oils. Shen Zen Tea currently has over 80 different varieties with 40 currently offered in the store. James always has a few “conceptual” teas under development.
James expresses his creativity through his teas, creating the flavors and blends himself. He also holds true to his promise that every tea is made with 100% organic, fair trade, and humanely grown ingredients, something he firmly believes in. The water used for brewing tea in the shop and at the farmers markets is brought from an artesian spring which he feels makes a superior tasting and better for you cup of tea.
Another unique aspect of Shen Zen Tea is their labels. The logo was hand draw and painted by James and every canister sold includes three images: a picture of tea being poured, an image of “splashed” tea, and one of the dried tea inside. James calls it, “information in art.” Each picture highlights a few key attributes of the tea including intended color of the tea when brewed correctly and the viscosity or thickness of the tea. There is a certain detachment between product and consumer, James explains, when the person buying the product doesn’t clearly know what they are consuming or should be creating. Shen Zen Tea shop not only wants to give you an amazing cup of tea, but also wants you to experience and appreciate their product’s complexities and replicate the experience at home.
“Tea is a beverage that captures our human experience,” says James. “It is multi-faceted and covers many aspects of our lives.” Scientifically, there has been much research done on tea. It is not just a folk remedy anymore as studies have revealed certain teas are proven to fight cancer and diabetes. From a culinary perspective, there are whole arrays of flavors, pairing with different foods and opening up new cultural experiences.
James never let slow times during Shen Zen’s early years hold him back from doing what he loves. “I have something great, and I’m going to pursue it. I don’t let my circumstances control my outcomes. I create my own outcomes,” he shares. He has the true mind of an entrepreneur, something that Olympia welcomed with open arms.
James and Neil are excited about celebrating one year in their Capital Mall location. “Olympia really chose us,” James explains. Visit the store Monday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. or Sundays from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. For store updates, follow Shen Zen Tea on Facebook.
The Shen Zen Tea Shop’s friendly staff welcome every customer and help educate shoppers to find the perfect tea for them. “Every tea has a story, we just help tell it,” says Reggie Wyatt, Shen Zen Tea employee and tea enthusiast. Reggie’s co-worker Allegra Radcliff agrees. “Our tea is delicious!”