David Lee Hoffman is a humble legend in the tea industry, known in China as the Tea King and as the Indiana Jones of Tea by those in the trade. Operating The Phoenix Collection since 2009 in Lagunitas, CA., he has over 40 years of experience in sourcing rare and unique teas from China.
Former owner of Silk Road Teas, which was established in 1990 and then sold in 2004, Hoffman kept a large portion of his rare tea collection to start his current business.
A documentary was made about his journey, called “All in this Tea” which was filmed by Les Blank and Gina Leibrecht and he is currently writing a book about his life.
The Journey that led to The Phoenix Collection
Before Hoffman ventured into the world of tea, he invented a unique sonic cleaning system which was used by clients such as New York’s Metropolitan Museum and other curators, to clean artifacts and ancient textiles without damaging them.
This attention to detail and passion for maintaining and preserving precious items had this budding, intrepid tea explorer in good stead for the decades to follow.
A Curiosity for Purity
Traveling through Morocco in North Africa exposed him to mint and green tea, then he delved into black tea in regions such as the Middle East and India.
It wasn’t until he began living in Asia in the 1960’s, where everyone was drinking tea, when his curiosity was piqued after being introduced to quality tea with character by the Tibetans. He drank tea with nomads and even the Dalai Lama, who became a firm friend.
The tea he drank then was premium quality and quite different to the varieties drunk by the so-called common people. When he returned to China he was disappointed after searching high and low for traditional, authentic tea, through various tea merchants and shops in the region.
The First Foreigner to Buy Tea Directly
Every now and then he came across promising sources and continued to seek out small farms and traditional producers.
Being the first foreigner to buy tea directly from the growers in China, Hoffman was amused to discover that even the locals turned up their noses at the idea of dealing with tea farmers in this way.
Tea merchants didn’t like the aspects of immersing themselves in the hard, dirty conditions of growing and producing tea, preferring to do business with clean shops where the tea was offered in neat packaging.
In the beginning, Hoffman found that the majority of tea production came from state farms, with only private farms growing quality tea for themselves and their families and friends. After deregulation in the 1990’s, tea farmers were finally allowed to sell their teas to cooperatives.
More than Eight Million Tea Farmers in China
Hoffman took advantage of being able to source tea directly from the small farms, after being afforded the opportunity to taste the teas before they were sent off to be included in big batches for mass markets.
These farmers were happy to sell directly to him, as he paid higher prices to ensure the continued and traditional production of exceptional tea.
With over eight million tea farmers in China, Hoffman decided to support the small and remote farms, by helping them to produce tea that was not sprayed with harmful chemicals and pesticides, like the bigger farms were doing.
A Dedication to Clean and Organic Tea Production
The hazards of these practices affect mass tea production in many ways, including:
- Depletion of nutrients in the soil
- Trace elements of harmful chemicals in the food and the water table
- Constant traffic compacting the soil which affects the roots of the tea plants
- Killing off beneficial microbes and natural biological life in the soil
Hoffman joined the Tea Research Institute in supporting projects that fed the soil and worked with farmers to establish organic farming.
With a passion to ensure quality tea that didn’t taste “dead” after being immersed in chemicals and going through mechanical processing, he was able to play a major part in preserving purity for the farmers and tea lovers around the world.
Visiting the land and conducting soil analysis was only one way to do this, along with developing strains and different varietals that were salt tolerant, which was caused by chemical fertilizers.
He also worked with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and the Department of Agriculture to promote organic and sustainable tea farming practices.
Bringing Exceptional Teas to the West
Hoffman began importing handcrafted and rare teas to the West in the 1970’s, with a focus on bringing pu-erh varieties from Nepal. Also sourcing the world’s finest organic and wild, pure leaf teas from remote regions in China, his teas soon gained popularity in America and Europe.
Naming several fine teas, such as Drum Mountain Clouds and Mist, Camel’s Breath and Tongyu Mountain Green, Hoffman was also the first importer of Chinese blossoming tea.
He founded Silk Road Teas in 1990 and after he sold the business in 2004, he established The Phoenix Collection in 2009, which sells an impressive array of exceptional tea.
It has a tasting room and a store where visitors can buy his tea directly. There is also a Tea Museum on the premises, with artifacts and tea bricks. The water used to brew his tea comes from a spring on his property and he has a private cave where he is ageing 80,000 pounds of pu-erh.
Hoffman also founded The Last Resort, which is an ecology research center that was built with the help of Tibetan monks, in Lagunitas, California.
The Phoenix Collection Teas
Although the teas available for sale are by order form on his website, there are secondary vendors who state that they have these teas for sale, however it’s difficult to ascertain the veracity of the origins and whether or not the tea was actually obtained from The Phoenix Collection.
This company offers a wide selection of loose-leaf white, green, black, oolong, and pu-erh teas, and they also have a sampler available. The following teas are available from their website and the sources of these reviews are indicated via links.
Bamboo Fragrance Pu-erh
Originating from Yunnan, China, this 2002 green pu-erh is packed in freshly cut bamboo, then smoked to produce an exotic and unusual tea that has a smoky flavor, hinting at the tribal area where it was processed. Slightly sweet and clean, this tea has a minty, menthol aftertaste.
Green Mist, “Wu Lu”
Hailing from the Zhejiang Province, this tea is pan-fired and has a deep flavor of green tea that is robust and fresh. With a sweet aroma, Green Mist is made from twisted needles, providing a refreshing experience with exceptional flavor.
Other notable teas include:
Yao Qing Hua Xiang – a freshly fragrant black tea that is deeply floral.
Old Tree Big Leaf Ripe – a pu-erh that tastes like you’re drinking the entire bush from root to tip.
Yiwu Sheng – a breathtaking tea that smells like beetroot and cooked pasta.
The Phoenix Collection is a tea connoisseur’s dream, curated by a Tea Master who makes other so-called masters seem pale in comparison. If you’re lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit the store and museum yourself, do yourself a favor.
David Lee Hoffman has brought back a rare world of tea infused with a depth of experience that most of us could never possibly achieve.