It’s another beautiful day among the tea leaves, and Bill Waddington, founder and president of the Minnesota-based TeaSource specialty tea company, is doing what he loves best — walking the fields of another tea plantation.
With his distinctive greying beard and glasses perched on the top of his head, Waddington, 65, is clearly far from home, but he is also very much in his element.
Visiting tea growers in person, he believes, is the best way of getting a ground-level view of the leaves that will go into some the of the finest teas in the world. These are teas that win international tea competitions, and they can cost $300 per pound or more — way more — or far less.
“I often meet with people whose families have been teamakers for four generations on my trips,” Waddington said. “Tea is a perennial plant, so many of the plants that are harvested today were planted by growers’ great-grandfathers. When you’re drinking tea made from those plants, you’re enjoying a beverage steeped in history.”
TeaSource, the company Waddington founded 21 years ago, has three retail locations in the Twin Cities (St. Paul, St. Anthony and Eden Prairie), plus a thriving online sales division.
TeaSource typically carries more than 200 teas at its physical locations, and new varieties arrive each month from locations all over the world, including many that are specifically sold as “direct sourced,” thanks to Waddington’s travels.
TeaSource is a well-known destination among locals who are established tea drinkers, those who drink tea for its many health benefits and foodies who love tea’s taste, aroma and exalted culinary status.
Customers can shop for bulk tea to take home (as well as tea pots and more). But they can also sit down for a perfectly brewed (or iced) cup (or take one to go).
The gracious world of tea
What many Minnesotans may not realize is that Waddington has an international reputation as an educator and ambassador for the tea-drinking life.
Waddington was honored this past spring for his hard work and dedication in the business by the World Tea Expo, which named him Best Tea Educator, and his business, TeaSource, Best Specialty Tea Brand.
“This is the world’s largest international tea trade show,” Waddington said. “And the winners of these awards are chosen by attendees of the expo — in other words peers, colleagues, competitors and customers.”
Waddington has made it his mission to travel the globe learning more about tea, a beverage that’s older than wine, beer and coffee.
His tea quests have taken him to the top tea-producing lands of the world, including China, India, Japan, Sri Lanka and Taiwan. He visits plantations, gives workshops, teaches classes and conducts tastings.
“I’ve taught hundreds of workshops and classes on specialty tea, both for the general public and tea professionals, in places including New York, Las Vegas, Hamburg and Beijing,” he said.
Waddington clearly loves everything to do with tea — not just its flavor, but its production, origins, culture and close-knit community.
“Tea people,” he said, “are incredibly gracious, and I’ve discovered that the world of tea is bigger than the world of wine.”
From ‘hobo’ to tea expert
Waddington’s current status as a tea mastermind is well-established, but his journey into this world was a long time coming. Currently a resident of Northeast Minneapolis, he was born and grew up in Chicago.
After graduating from the University of Illinois at Chicago with degrees in history, education and physics, he held a number of jobs, including teaching social studies at a small parochial school and working in the library of Northwestern University.
“I worked many jobs in my 20s and 30s, and I know I must have driven my mother crazy with my refusal to choose a career,” he said. “For almost two years, I was a hobo. I rode freight trains, hitchhiked, worked and walked all over the American West. I was looking for something to be passionate about, and eventually I found it in my family and in tea.”
Waddington’s love of tea began early, when he was 18.
“I hated coffee, even the supposedly ‘good’ stuff,” he said. “To me, it tastes like roasted dung.” Needing something to help him stay awake during his college studying sessions, he turned to standard grocery store tea. Then his interest grew, and he started conducting research.
“Early on, the research I did was just to satisfy my own personal curiosity,” he said. “I would read articles about tea experts, find their addresses and write them letters — the kind on paper, mailed with stamps.”
He’d write to Germany or India or wherever he could find someone to answer his questions, and he gradually started building relationships in the world of tea.
“But I had no grand plan of opening a company,” Waddington said. “It was just that the more I learned, the more I got interested. People would send me samples of special teas they made just for themselves, and they’d connect me to their friends. They were thrilled to find a young American who was interested in real, good tea. It tickled them.”
Taking the leap
Fast forward from that eager 18-year-old to the middle-aged version of Bill Waddington. By his 40s, he was living in La Crosse, Wisconsin, working as a corporate trainer for the grocery wholesaler SuperValu.
When he began experiencing what his wife of 27 years, Liz, called a midlife crisis, he decided that he wanted to “do something I really loved — as opposed to something that was ‘OK.’” Deciding it was time to “fish or cut bait,” he started TeaSource out of the spare bedroom of his house, working two jobs for about a year. Then he decided to quit and open his first retail location on Cleveland Avenue in St. Paul.
“I knew one thing for sure — that I wouldn’t get braver as I got older,” he said.
Waddington’s long and varied job history gave him courage: “I thought that if the store failed, I could drive a cab, drive a truck or work a forklift, because I’d done all those jobs before.”
And baby makes three
With the full support of Liz, who is a vocal performer and music teacher, Waddington opened the store. Six months later, he and Liz traveled to China to adopt their daughter, Maggy, who is now a student at Arizona State University.
“She’s from Jiangxi, which is known for its watermelons, but is a pretty good tea region, too,” he said.
Maggy grew up in the Highland store, Waddington said.
“I had her crib in my office, and she spent those first few years being carried on my back in a baby carrier,” Waddington said. “I didn’t want to be a dad who was gone 40 to 60 hours a week, away from his family, so she spent a lot of time at the store with me.”
When Maggy was 6, she asked for a job at TeaSource, and Waddington required her to interview with the store manager.
“Children love developing responsibility, having tasks to do and taking direction,” he said. “It’s something they’re often missing out on in our world.”
Last year, she went on a Chinese buying trip and served as her father’s interpreter.
“It was one of the best trips of my life,” he said.
Sharing his passion
Jim Pfau became friends with Waddington about 25 years ago, connecting through a shared interest in traditional folk music.
“Bill has always had strong opinions about community and right versus wrong,” Pfau said. “Tea is a passion for him. But he’s also conscious of being profitable. Part of what motivated him to open TeaSource is his belief that he could provide jobs for the community and provide what sociologists call a ‘third place’ that’s neither home nor work for the community. This was long before the brewpub/taproom boom.”
Donna Fellman is the director of online education at the World Tea Academy.
“Looking back on my many years spent in the tea industry, Bill’s friendship is a highlight of my professional career,” she said.
Fellman co-taught many classes with Waddington and delighted in the way he could reference everything from The Pirates of the Caribbean to the Kardashians.
“He made teaching a real joy for his students and co-instructors,” she said, adding that it’s not just his peers who respect him.
His employees value him and the world of tea.
“In an industry known for its rapid turnover, he has employees whose tenure at his company is measured in years, not months,” Fellman said.
His favorite blend?
It’s no surprise that Waddington starts his day with a cup of tea.
“I drink black tea first thing, then move to oolongs or green teas later in the day,” he said.
Right now the tea he described as his “desert-island beverage” is Burning Sun, a breakfast blend from Ceylon.
“It’s very full bodied, with a tremendous aroma and dark stone-fruit notes. It can take milk and sugar, but it’s not bitter, so you really don’t need it,” he said. “It’s one of the most well-made teas out there, and it’s so satisfying for starting the day.”
What is tea?
With the exception of herbal teas (known as tisanes), which are made from a wide variety of plants and herbs, all tea types (including the oh-so-trendy matcha) are made from the same tea plant, Camellia sinensis, a long-lived, broadleaf evergreen that puts out new leaves every year like a perennial.
Though it can be grown in many temperate areas, tea thrives in the cool, high mountain regions of central China and Japan and the moist, tropical climates of Northeast India and the Szechuan and Yunnan provinces of China.
What makes a tea black, green, white, dark/puer, yellow or oolong depends on how it’s harvested and processed. Processing can include various degrees of withering and oxidation. Black tea, for example, undergoes full oxidation, while green tea is oxidized only briefly. Some teamakers treat their processing techniques as highly valuable, guarded secrets.
Variations in tea styles within each tea category come from where and how it’s grown, including differences in elevation, climate, soil and each year’s weather, similar to the concept of terroir in wine.
Read a full description of how each category of tea is made at teasource.com.
What about caffeine, calories and cost?
Caffeine: Though herbal teas are typically caffeine free, true tea contains caffeine, typically 50% to 65% of the caffeine content of coffee for black tea and 10% to 30% for green tea. You can modulate the amount of caffeine by adjusting temperature and steep time: Hotter water or longer steep times delivers more caffeine, while lower temperatures or less steep time equates to less caffeine.
Calories: Teas, herbal and regular, are calorie free (well, technically, tea has 2.4 calories per cup)! Exceptions would include any tea preparations with added sugar, such as certain matcha and chai drinks.
Cost: Loose-leaf teas are exceptionally beautiful to look at and handle, but they aren’t necessarily more expensive than tea-bag teas. At TeaSource, prices start at about $4.50 for enough tea to make 20 cups (2 ounces), which comes out to about 25 cents a cup. Buy 4 ounces, and the price goes down to 18 cents a cup, roughly the same price as a Tazo teabag. (Of course, you can spend more on rarer teas.) Before buying, you can sample a few teas and the staff will let you smell some of the store’s 200 teas in their containers to see if they might appeal to your palate.
Cold-brewed iced tea recipe
This tea doesn’t even require you to boil water. It steeps while you sleep! Perfect for the dog days of summer, this overnight technique allows you to cold-brew a big batch of refreshing tea with minimal effort.
The night before you want to enjoy your tea, place eight to 10 rounded teaspoons of loose leaf tea (or 4–5 bags of tea) in a gallon jug. Fill the jug with cold water. Let it steep overnight, at least eight hours, in the fridge. Strain the tea leaves and serve the tea over ice. Store in the refrigerator for up to four days.
Try these iced!
Any tea can be served iced, but these varieties come highly recommended by TeaSource.
- Black teas: Lumbini FBOP, Organic Iyerpadi BOP
- Flavored black teas: Minnesota N’ice Tea, Mango Tango, Pomegranate Black, Raspberry Beret
- Flavored green teas: Green Mandarin Orange, Green Mango, Sweet Ginger Green
- Herbal: Red Berries, Hibiscus Punch, Lemon Sunset
- Oolong: Cucumber Lime Oolong, Strawberry Oolong
- White teas: White Mango Ginger, Honeydew You Love Me
Read all about these teas — and take a tea quiz to see which teas you might like most — at teasource.com
752 Cleveland Ave. S., St. Paul, 651-690-9822
St. Anthony Shopping Center
2908 Pentagon Drive N.E., St. Anthony, 612-788-4842
561 Prairie Center Drive, Eden Prairie, 952-767-3648
Visit TeaSource at the State Fair
TeaSource will be at the Minnesota State Fair from 9 a.m.–7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 24 at the Creative Arts Building to offer tea samples and mini-workshops.
Julie Kendrick is a contributing writer for many local and national publications. She lives in Minneapolis. Follow her on Twitter @KendrickWorks.