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The Search Party

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In a country crazed by milk tea, local tea master Renee Sebastian is on the hunt for a tea culture we can truly call our own.

Photography by
Jilson Tiu
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Location Tag

Surrounded by clusters of trees and bushes, in a forest on the side of a mountain in the highlands of Benguet, Renee Sebastian is staring at a leaf.

Far from civilization, the only sounds are the faint rustling of branches and occasional chirp from a passing bird. Time does not seem to pass. Renee examines the leaf and the tree it hangs from. Could this be the leaf she’s been hunting down for years? The Camellia sinensis species of true tea, growing in the wild? She takes her time—the way of tea is never rushed—and turns the leaf to the light.

Like all quests into the unknown, her journey has been fraught with false leads, shady deals, and long hikes. But every tip-off may unearth treasure, and so she is here. After enough deliberation, she concedes: the leaf is a fluke—a hybrid of the original. The search continues.

For Renee, the way of tea is her way of life. She’s been on the path of tea for decades, and her path has led her on a mission to cultivate tea culture in the Philippines. Even as the country’s first certified tea master, it’s a tough job in a place where having that title might not mean very much to people.

Our relationship with tea here is frail, to say the least. Our days are fueled by the obvious: coffee. Coffee for breakfast, after lunch, for merienda, for dessert, even coffee after work. And tea? In the Philippines, more often than not, tea is an afterthought, something brought out from the depths of dusty cupboards to cure an illness, relieve a sore throat, fight a cold. It’s a drink to be swallowed quickly—before you can taste it—not something to be enjoyed or delightfully slurped. Traditional tea is not a favorite of modern life, though it has been brewing here for ages.

A mysterious and foggy view of Benguet

Tea began as a medicine and blossomed into a beverage: salabat, lagundi, pito-pito, walo-walo—herbal teas have been the go-to remedies of every doting lola and trusted albularyo for longer than they can remember. Sore throat? Fever? Upset stomach? Weight loss? There’s a shrub for every ailment. It’s no wonder tea has left a negative impression: for those that stocked it at home, we grew up gulping down these teas in fever-fuddled states, enveloped in weakness and suffering, unable to taste or smell. Once we’re cured, we steer clear from any of those herbal remedies and never look back, for the most part. No matter how much honey was poured into that cup of salabat, it would always taste like a fever.

Renee can attest to this cultural aversion: upon offering a cup of a rare, complex, high-grade black tea to a group of colleagues, a few of them displayed some wild hand-waving and head-shaking, “Ayaw ko! Matatae ako!”

Traditional tea is not a favorite of modern life, though it has been brewing here for ages.

For most of modern history, our experience of tea has been peripheral. Picked off of grocery shelves, tea time meant dunking a bag of Lipton-brand tea in hot water, concealing most of the beauty and long process that goes into making tea.

Perhaps an analogy to specialty coffee’s recent progress may clarify; consuming tea through tea bag fannings is like drinking instant coffee, while the careful preparation of tea using whole leaves—with the correct water temperature, steep time, and brew method—is similar to the experience of the slower, manual pour-over method of brewing single-origin coffee. The latter results in a more complex and flavorful cup, brimming with various taste notes lost in the instant version.

Urban specialty coffee shops have crossed into near-mainstream status and that just might be the go signal for local tea. Our culture has made room for slowing down, for appreciating something more nuanced—a progression observed in local beer (craft beer and microbreweries), chocolate (single origin cacao), and liquor (craft spirits and cocktails). Is it finally time for tea?

A Faraway Scent

Around two decades ago, Renee was on a holiday that turned into the beginning of her tea journey. Traveling through northern Africa, she stumbled upon her tea awakening: in one of the bustling medinas, she encountered a cup of tea splashed with the curious combination of rose water and verbena. The epiphany was a slow dawning.


Camellia Sinensis
Leaves from the elusive Camellia sinensis plant.

Her first sip was unlike any other she’s had before; slowly, a hundred thoughts and sensations revealed themselves. A bouquet of aromas danced from her cup, and a wide range of flavors revealed themselves on her tongue: floral notes, a citrus tinge, and a taste of something that can only be described as brightness at the finish. Who knew a simple cup of tea could yield so many dimensions of taste?

For someone whose past knowledge of tea consisted of mass-produced tea bags and the humble salabat, the old walls of Renee’s tea perceptions were demolished as she stood there, somewhere in North Africa, thinking of how she could take this experience home.

Much like any other ancient cultural practice, tea is an art form, steeped in heritage, carefully handed down for centuries.

With her newfound passion ignited, Renee was adamant on learning the ways of tea. From the medinas of Morocco to the salons of Paris, the boutiques of New York to the tea rooms of London, she educated herself on the long and storied existence of Camellia sinensis, from which all teas are made: white tea, green tea, dark tea, black tea, and oolong tea.

She sampled every kind of tea blend she could find: plain, perfumed, blended with flowers and fruits, roasted, baked—the world of tea left much to be explored. Like a scientist on the edge of discovery, she threw herself into her work, and began experimenting by creating her own tea blends. She studied the science of tea, attended seminars and expos, joined gatherings of tea enthusiasts, learned from professionals, asked them questions, thirsted for knowledge.

After enough practice and consuming even more tea, she chose to make it official by taking the exam for international certification as a tea master. Among other complexities, this certification required her to go on a blind tasting of over 200 teas and correctly identify each one.

Tere Domine looking at what could be Philippine tea leaves
Biologist and Kalsada Coffee's country manager Tere Domine examines a tea plant growing in the wild.


Fresh off the certification, Tea Master Renee Sebastian already knew what her first order of business was: to learn more. She met older, more experienced tea masters and yearned to be taught the secrets of tea. Much like any other ancient cultural practice, tea is an art form, steeped in heritage, carefully handed down for centuries. At its core, the art and practice of tea is one of gentleness—a deliberate slowing down to become immersed in a single moment.

Even the growing of tea leaves requires time, patience, and attentiveness. It begins in the soil (altitude, acidity, water content), requires a certain amount of rainfall and sunshine and the careful guidance from a tea master, and at least three to five years of growth before farmers slowly harvest them, plucking off only the top two inches of each tea plant. For every kilo of dried tea, you would need to harvest approximately 2,000 shoots or leaves. One tablespoon of dried tea goes into a cup.

Amid the endless activity of modern life, a cup of tea is a mild call to slow down and pause.

And a lot of work goes into that cup: the leaves are sorted according to which kind of tea they will be processed into. Then they are either sun-dried, pan-fired, steamed, ground, bruised, then oxidized and withered to control the enzymes and moisture content, before rolling them to release essential oils for all that flavor and aroma. The leaves ferment, temperatures are controlled, and leaves are dried out.

Traditionally, all these steps are done by hand. The kind of tea that ends up in your cup is a result of these methods and the tea master’s own technique. The smallest adjustment can give your cup that much more nuance than another; the same leaf, tweaked slightly, can taste like apricots while the other is umami. The same leaf, grown in hotter temperatures, will taste sweeter than the same leaf grown in temperatures a few degrees lower. That entire process—plus sourcing, tasting, blending, and brewing a cup of tea—goes into the skill set of a tea master, the finer points of which are traditionally passed down upon one’s discretion.

A fresh tea leaf from the Camellia sinensis assamica plant; Tere nurses her fifth coffee of the day.

For Renee, tea is an art. Her approach to tea is unique in that she is artistic with its forms, creative with its flavor profiles, and adept at making connections between tea leaves, fruits, and essential oils that enable her to create exquisite tea blends. This is her specialty, and how she believes tea can become more enjoyable and accessible to Filipinos: by creating bursts of flavors that are both familiar and surprising.

A few are easily understandable: black tea with mango and vanilla; a fruit tea made of mango, pineapple, tangerine, strawberry, calendula, and safflower; green tea with walnuts (she describes this one as having the aroma of syrup, giving one a memory of breakfast; almost like pancakes when milk is added). But others take some serious imagination: white tea with cinnamon, orange peel, rose petals, apple, almond, cornflower, papaya, calendula, and safflower; green rooibos (an African shrub) with apple, hibiscus, cranberry, cornflower petals, and sunflower oil.

The result is a mélange of sensations and emotions that leave one feeling renewed, and perhaps a little wiser and curious. The number of fruits and flowers, while daunting at first, achieve a level of harmony after the shock subsides, encouraging another mindful sip. The rest is noise; for now, there is only this cup of tea to appreciate.

At its core, the art and practice of tea is one the gentleness; a deliberate slowing down to become immersed in a single moment.

If it’s not already evident by the kinds of tea blends she creates, Renee’s main motivation is pure fun: she enjoys the process, creativity, and element of surprise that she can craft through a beverage. It’s proof of an artist at play, cranking out so much work and new blends she enjoys drinking. “We need to keep it fun and not too snobby or highbrow,” she reminds herself. She believes it’s time to educate the people back home about the wonderful world of tea. Her relentless questing for tea has taken her all over the world and, like all great adventurers, our heroine set her sights for home.

Tere shows tea master Renee Sebastian her tea-growing experiments


In 2009, she was already a step ahead—perhaps too far ahead—of the Philippine tea industry. Armed with her experience as a tea master she established da.u.de Tea Corporation, one of the first to introduce loose leaf teas to the country (and the first tea company accredited by the FDA and Bureau of Customs, at that). Meanwhile, the local brand Serenitea introduced their drinks to a nation of newfound pearl-loving people, kicking off a milk tea madness that quickly became a cultural devotion.

Da.u.de’s high-end loose leaf teas found a small following, mostly from the well-traveled set. The larger market wasn’t ready yet, and it proved to be a little too early for some proper tea appreciation. Though her artful tea blending is exquisite, it may have been a little too complex for a country only beginning to appreciate tea. Meanwhile, the milk tea industry exploded: more shops and brands would open across the country and develop into a full-blown craze—you know the rest.

Rather than introducing another milk tea shop, Renee wants to go deeper. She’s at a point of her craft where, aside from elevating her art of tea blending, she has progressed to working with tea at its most difficult: growing the actual plant. She intends to cultivate the Philippines’s first tea plantation and create a signature Philippine tea, something we can call our own. For years, she’s been on this quest across the country, hunting for evidence of Camellia sinensis in the wild. She believes that once a true Philippine tea is cultivated on our soil, people will begin to appreciate it.


As she got more involved in the herbal tea and farming industry during her quest, Renee began receiving more tip-offs and rumors of Camellia sinensis growing in this mountain and that valley. She made every trip, to be sure. This tea hunter was relentless and, in 2016, she finally found it: Somewhere in the mountains of Mindanao, she confirmed the existence of Camellia sinensis trees growing. It moved her terribly when she found out that the locals weren’t aware of its value—they have been using the precious tea trees for firewood. But this wasn’t what drove her away.

Fearing for her safety amid dangerous political climates and insurgencies at the time, she chose to continue her search elsewhere. Soon after, she received another tip of a possible Camellia sinensis sighting up north, in Benguet, which proved to be another false lead: a hybrid of Camellia sinensis with gipas, or mountain tea. She pushed on.


The Last Hunt

A new character in Renee’s search is Tere Domine, who is no stranger to quests in the mountains. As Kalsada Coffee’s co-founder and country director, she has been working with coffee farmers for years, keeping an eye out for better practices and new crops that can support their coffee farming. On one of her many treks around the farm, Tere noticed a few plants that looked familiar.

A biologist by training, Tere possesses an innate curiosity for the natural world. Tea has been on her mind for a while now, and she’s been wondering whether it grows in the country. She exudes a quiet sense of wonder and constant calculation; you can almost hear the whirring of her mind’s machinery. “I have a Japanese friend in the La Trinidad mountains,” she begins, “And I asked her if there was tea growing in the area. She said, ‘Yes, I’ve seen them.’ She comes from a tea-growing country and knows what it looks like. She must know what she’s talking about.”

The very next day, Tere treks to the area where her friend said there would be tea trees growing. Down a path in some Benguet mountainside, she spies a few bushes that look similar to the photos of Camellia sinensis she Googled the night before. Excited, she plucks off a few and does what any good biologist would: smells them, rubs them on her arms for any signs of allergic reaction, tastes them, subjects them to some examination more meticulously than the rest of us would. “I sent a photo of these to my Sri Lankan friend who worked with tea for 30 years, and asked him if it was Camellia sinensis. He said, ‘It sure looks like it.’”

Puzzled, she asks the elders about it and they lead her to another part of the mountain to reveal more tea trees growing to nearly six feet tall. There are too many of them to be ignored, so she takes a few more samples to try to confirm its rumored status. She requires the expertise of a tea master.

Tea master Renee Sebastian


Months later, word reaches our tea master, but she is doubtful: “I’ve already been to Benguet to look at those tea plants. They’re not it.” But the photos convince her that it’s worth another shot.

It’s that good old seven-hour ride from Manila to Benguet, and everything is still familiar to Renee: these roads, that farm, that church. It’s the sequel to her first visit and she will know if it’s the real tea soon enough. The emotional climate in the car holds a bit of suspense, excitement, perhaps a whisper of fear—she’s been here before. “We’ll see,” she shrugs. She’s been on this search long enough to know better than to ignore any evidence.

Tere meets her at the foot of the hill, after being told to turn left at the waiting shed that looked like every other waiting shed they passed the last few kilometers. The road to finding tea has always been a long and winding one; it will be no different here.

Passing through the dirt roads of Sitio Belis in Atok, Benguet, Tere points out one of the alleged tea trees to Renee who, upon closer inspection, furrows her brows. “No, this is what I saw before. It’s the hybrid.” Tere was upbeat: “I’ll show you the others; it’s on the other side of the mountain.” Easier said than done.

She’s been on this quest across the country for years, hunting for evidence of Camelia Sinensis growing in the wild.

A few hours and many pauses for breath later, on a steep incline, Tere approaches a tall bush. Its topmost leaves are the color of yellowed paper but those at eye-level are a rich dark green, shiny and deeply veined. A dramatic breeze seems to blow as Renee takes one of the leaves in her hand. Tere stands nearby, watching Renee, her expression inscrutable. “Yeah, this is it. I’m pretty sure.”

Peering up into the taller tea trees, an unmistakable white flower peeks from the branches: a camellia in full bloom.“That’s the confirmation right there!” She collects a few more samples with the excitement of a kid in a candy shop. The search has been fruitful this time.

They continue up the hill that reveals even more tea trees thriving, though they are wild and uncultivated. The trees are so tall they seem to have been growing for 15 years, but they are past saving. “You can’t harvest these anymore. Not in good condition. Nahahaluan ng iba, inconsistent in shape.”

On the way back to the farm, the air almost shimmers with excitement. Camellia sinensis thrives in the Philippines; all it needs is a master’s touch.

Tere and Renee discuss the Philippine coffee industry while taking a work break at one of the farmers’ shared homes.


Time for Tea

There are two major varieties of tea: Camellia sinensis sinensis for cooler climates, and Camellia sinensis assamica for tropical climates. What Tere and Renee found in Benguet were of the assamica variant, a leaf that is processed into a very strong black tea—perfect with copious amounts of milk and sugar, without detracting too much from the tea’s natural flavors. This is what Filipino palates are accustomed to.

We take our coffee the same way, whether it’s barako or espresso, and this isn’t a bad thing—in moderation. Purists may scoff, but purists will always scoff, and this takes away from the enjoyment and creativity of a beverage.

Once a true Philippine tea is cultivated and a culture is formed, creativity will naturally flow. Perhaps a signature Filipino tea drink will emerge? The Indians infuse their love of spices in a cup of masala chai; the Thai take their tea with star anise and condensed milk; Malaysians use the “pulling” technique to their sweet and frothy teh tarik. Could the Filipino version involve one of our local ingredients? Perhaps our homegrown black tea blended with evaporated milk and muscovado sugar; or with arnibal, the infamously thick and sticky syrup in taho; perhaps even with a hint of ginger, as a nod to the good old salabat?

“I have a Japanese friend in the La Trinidad mountains, and I asked her if there was tea growing in the area. She said, ‘Yes, I’ve seen them.’”<callout-alt-author>Tere Domine<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>

For now, we take our time as the birthplace of the country’s first tea plantation is nurtured. In the meantime, the milk tea and fruit tea movement look well-equipped to progress people’s experience of tea.

Renee believes the tea plant’s gestation period here will take five to ten years, a figure that scares off most farmers. But this is part of her mission: to begin at the roots and educate people about the wonders of growing, making, and drinking tea. It will take finding enough land, farmers, and entrepreneurs to get tea off the ground; but most of all, it will take time.

The Camellia sinensis assamica thrives in tropical and subtropical climates


Tea requires one to take time. The patient, unhurried pace and mindful attitude of tea-drinking has been fused together for centuries. A cup of coffee has twice the amount of caffeine in a cup of tea; we drink it for its energizing qualities to get more done, to power through, to look forward. Tea, on the other hand, is of a gentler nature. It is a necessary respite in between waves of productivity, a balm for the soul. Amid the endless activity of modern life, a cup of tea is a mild call to slow down and pause. It tames the wildness of the working day, provides a sanctuary to soothe anxieties. It asks you to linger; to stay in a single moment. If our days begin with the jolt of “Kape muna,” then perhaps we must allow ourselves for, “Tsaa naman.”

Our default states push us to keep up with the race instead of appreciating a different kind of pace. This thinking isn’t new, but it’s also not easily accepted. We go with the flow, even when it carries us away. In 1906, tea advocate Kakuzo Okakura expressed the same sentiment: “Industrialism is making true refinement more and more difficult all over the world. Do we not need the tea room more than ever?”

On her own, Renee is taking her first steps towards tea manufacturing as the next experiment in her long journey. She cultivates a small tract of soil, somewhere in the lowlands between mountains, and plants the seeds for her very first batch of green tea. It isn’t the ideal place to grow tea; in fact, it’s unlikely. The climate is hot, the elevation is nearly flat, but she does what she can: maintain the soil’s acidity, sustain water and sunlight, keep a watchful eye and a steady guiding hand. Though she is a tea master, she admits that she never stops learning. “I thought they wouldn’t survive because of the altitude but there they are; they’re growing.”

Rene Sebastian and Tere Domine walking down a path to discovery

--

This story was originally published in GRID Volume 08.

GRID Volume 08 is made possible by Toyota Philippines. Visit toyota.com.ph to learn more.

This story was originally published in

Volume 8 | Paths and Terrains

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