Profiles in Tea: James Norwood Pratt

Is there anyone in America – and beyond – who has not been influenced by James Norwood Pratt, “the guru of tea?” Or inspired by this knowledgeable and engaging writer, speaker, educator, businessman, and dedicated student of tea?

English Tea Store blog published a wonderful article about Mr. Pratt some months ago. He recently, and graciously, agreed to let me interview him.

James Norwood Pratt, right, with Devan Shah.
James Norwood Pratt, right, with Devan Shah.

How and why did you get involved with tea?

Self-defense. I wrote a book about California wine and became a wine pro of sorts. The sacrifice of sobriety turned me toward tea, which is an exact parallel: an agricultural product that can become a work of art.

You currently write for TeaTime Magazine. What are your other projects?

I have a wonderfully productive relationship with Devan Shah, founder of International Tea Importers. We do things together whenever possible: travel to India, participate in events and expositions, lead our tea sommelier classes to bring our coffee-selling friends over from the Dark Side.

Who are your tea mentor/s or tea inspiration/s, and why?

Devan Shah is my principal teacher in the black teas of the world, as well as others. Roy Fong was my teacher in China teas. My first real teacher was Mike Spillane of G.S. Haly Company. So this is my lineage, my ancestry in tea, although I owe large debts to dozens of other individuals.

What changes have you seen in the tea world over the years you’ve been involved?

My first book on tea appeared in 1982 – thirty years ago – at a time when there were few teas of any distinction in the US. Later that year I tasted my first Darjeeling, which was labeled “First Flush,” and which I’d only read about. It came from the venerable Munich firm of Alois Dallmayr. The next year, Mr. Peet in Berkeley started selling Selimbong Estate Darjeeling by the name of the garden itself, then later switched to a different garden. Not understanding that there are almost 90 producing gardens in the district, people kept insisting they wanted the “Selimbong” Darjeeling. Mr. Peet gave up and the company still sells a “Selimbong” Darjeeling every year, regardless of the actual name of the estate it comes from.

Most “China” teas in the US were counterfeit, made in Taiwan. White, pu-erh, and yellow teas were unheard of here. Green tea was known mainly by hear-say.

In 1993 we finally got our first traditional Chinese teahouse, Imperial Tea Court, located a scant three blocks down Russian Hill [in San Francisco] from me. This was the first time Westerners like me had a guide to the teas of China. Previously all my questions to merchants brought only the reply “Good price. You like.”  So basically there was no way to learn more.

There were no teachers, no classes, no places to meet the like-minded, few teas, and even fewer books of any real value to learn from. My dear friend Helen Gustafson of Chez Panisse always said I did everybody’s homework for them in writing my first book, which was the first time since Ukers’ in 1935 that anybody’s approach to tea was the same as wine. Tea until then was preserved in the rules and customs of the “Doily Ghetto,” as I thought of it: a social occasion for ladies who lunch, not a miracle of vegetation with a history, geography, botany, and so forth.

What changes do you predict for the tea world in the future?

We in the US are leading the way, worldwide, in our embrace of tea. The US now imports more tea than the UK and we will soon supersede Japan as the world’s fifth largest consuming country. Routine tea drinkers make up less than a quarter of the population, however, so our growth is assured: we can double our numbers and still not reach the half-way point population-wise. Few business prospects are brighter than tea’s. Tea will also become increasingly expensive as producing countries drink more and more themselves.

Being a proper Southern gentleman, do you still drink sweet tea (Southern table wine)?

Of course I love sweet tea – or any iced tea – but I only get to drink it when I’m down home.

What is your favourite tea, and how do you prefer to steep and drink it?

I prefer the gaiwan to the teapot, mostly.

I like Yunnan Royal Gold Bud tea first thing, and I like it in the 1721 Meissen Drackenmunster breakfast cup designed for the patron of European porcelain, Elector Augustus the Strong of Dresden. After that, I’m easy to please as long as it’s wet and goes down the right way.

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