Aaron Stair has turned his life-long love of tea into a profession. His new premium tea producer BASAO is the result of months spent with individual growers from around Asia ensuring the quality and sustainability of the farmers' methods and soil that produce every tea in their collection.
We spoke with Aaron to discover how tea became his drink of choice, and eventually, his livelihood.
What started you on your tea voyage?
I have been on this journey for as long as I remember, but if I had to pinpoint a specific moment, I would say it was one day when I was 16 years old. I found an Asian market in my hometown and stumbled across Oolong and Green tea, which I had never seen before. I still remember the packaging and thought they were like mysterious treasures! This fascination with tea continued through college and beyond. I kept finding more and more interesting teas after moving to Los Angeles in 2001 and then to Colorado the next year. There I found a shop with some wonderful Phoenix Oolongs and first flush Darjeelings and that’s when I realised tea could really be an art form.
What was the most important thing to you in the creation of BASAO?
We started by trying to create something that everyone can enjoy on any level they might find appealing. We love trying to create a comprehensive and immersive potential for joyful engagement. We want to serve people in a way they will feel satisfied and have additional meaningful experiences in life.
Where does the name come from?
The name is inspired by, but not named after, an old Japanese tea trader around the turn of the 18th century named Baisao. I believe that if we were all living at the same time we would be good friends. It’s more of a tribute to the ideas we all agree with instead of directly naming it after the man.
Are you launching the teas worldwide?
Currently Hong Kong is our focus. It’s right in the middle of our chosen partnering farms. We can be anywhere we’re needed in several hours, which is critical for us due to the amount of time we spend with our partners. HK is also a fairly tea neutral city meaning that no type of tea is indigenous to the city and the very international nature of the place lends itself to a wide scope of preferences for flavours. Everything we deal with starts and ends (created, warehoused, packaged, etc.) in HK.
Tell us about your strict guidelines for clean farming practices?
We understand, cooperate, or even in a few cases take care of the agriculture for our partners. We are oriented by efforts to increasingly build, what could be called, a “life based” model of agriculture as opposed to a “death based” model.
By life based I mean the primary focus is on restoring and maintaining life. We start by the desire for health and that informs our direction. We have chosen to emulate the natural process of succession in ecology with confidence that these practices are restorative because they are based on replicating healthy natural systems.
The “death based” model usually eliminates more than it creates. Industrial synthetic chemical models of agriculture are founded on creating cyclical patterns with the need for larger biology/people to regularly add fertility to soils and, in almost all cases, the need for the use of synthetic pesticides. It creates a condition where eliminating a few pests with insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc. at the same time destroys all other life fundamental to healthy ecology and consequentially sterilizes and toxifies the environment. Bluntly stated in a theoretical sense it ends up being a type of ecological genocide wherein the successful growth of the few is dependent upon the death of the many.
Thankfully there are ways to healthily and cleanly deal with these matters. Given enough effort and access to appropriate resources, even a very mistreated condition can be turned around and set well on the way to restoration in 6 months to a year.
Why do think it was so difficult to find tea producers that lived up to these practices?
There are several factors we have to consider for a potential partner to be a good match for us. There are clearly measurable factors like availability and potential quantities of tea per year/season for what we need. Then there are factors like intention and dedication to the craft of making tea or if the teas produced fit our flavour preferences. We also need to take into account viewpoints on social and environmental responsibility and if our longer-term strategies are aligned as a team. These are all standards that are ongoing and under constant review but we have found that it is not difficult for the tea producers to live up to these if we essentially share a core set of basic values.
When you did find these tea producers, what was their reaction to your proposed cooperation?
Reactions to our general manner of cooperation are almost always very positive. There have been a few that I believe think we’re kind of crazy when we first introduce our scope of cooperation but questions in the past have gone away fairly quickly. I think it’s because we have a wide range of possibilities for working together and don’t try to force someone into a level of involvement they are not ready for or isn’t appropriate for their particular situation. I’ve found in general that the tea producers we approach are very helpful and very welcoming of others who want good partnerships.
You got right into the creation of the tea from the origins and made mini films about the producers, can you tell us why you wanted to share their stories?
It’s all about connections and communities. We have a brilliant opportunity with tea to talk about the whole story of its life, from sun and soil, to people enjoying great teas wherever they may be.
One of the things we want to achieve is to increasingly help articulate and recognise the identity of the people and places that create our teas. Tea can often be considered a commodity, in the sense that it is nameless and faceless in the same way as products such as copper or crude oil. We believe that tea is a craft and an art and we want to recognise the stories behind each tea that we produce.
What has been your reaction to these films so far?
The reaction to the origin films has been great so far. I think people are becoming more and more interested in the social aspects of products and experiences as we all realise it’s important for the world’s future direction.
Do you find that tea preference is very individual or that it is more situational with certain teas being better drank at certain times of day?
There are people who go both ways but in general I find that some people are more likely to follow self-determined routines, enjoying particular teas at certain times of the day, and others are a bit more given to making what ever sounds good at that specific moment.
What are some of your favourite tea and food pairings?
I love cold steeped first flush Darjeeling teas with ice especially from Lingia and Upper Namring. That type of iced tea with a large garden salad makes for a really refreshing lunch. I also love our Traditional Smoky Bohea with a strong dark chocolate. They complement each other really well.
What teas do you find Hong Kongers typically drink?
Tea drinking here is quite varied but I’ve mainly noticed a lot of iced black tea with lemon, milk tea, pu’er (bo lei in Cantonese), jasmine green, tie guan yin, and a few other different mixes eaten with dim sum. A lot of people ask what I do and, when I tell them I’m involved with tea, more often than not I’m asked if I like Chinese tea or English tea. I hope we can help to expand people’s horizons a little and encourage them to sample the amazing variety of teas around the world.
What teas work best with Cantonese flavours?
I think places hit fairly close to the mark when they serve some of the more highly aromatic floral versions of Oolong like Tie Guan Yin, even if they are more heavily baked. Some of our teas fit right alongside that category like Oriental Beauty or our two types of Wudong Dancong from the Phoenix Mountain range.
Do you foresee a resurgence in tea drinking the way coffee has ingrained itself in the culture of many cities in the recent past?
I see tea moving in the same direction as other drinks like coffee, wine and craft beer. They have all developed in recent years and started reaching new audiences and I think tea is ready for a very similar experience. The next ten or more years should be a really fun and interesting time for anyone looking for better and better tea…