Today we sit down to chat with Vincent Liu. A startup entrepreneur, Vincent has returned from the US, where he finished his education, back to his roots in China to follow his newfound passion for Chinese tea. During the process, he managed to tour several famous tea-producing regions, introduce local artisan teas to the public, and create the world's first tea app!
Hi Vincent, nice to have you here today.
Thank you, Boyka, for having me here.
Let's talk about you and your interest in tea. I notice tea exerts a profound influence on some people – so much so that tea lovers tend to have their "before tea" and "after tea" life stories. Let's start with the "before" – what was going on in your life before you discovered tea?
Well, I was in my junior year of high school when I became interested in tea. I knew very little about tea back then. Before the summer of 2016, when I took lessons on tea, my interest in tea was just a seed waiting to grow. I knew I wanted to learn more, but I didn't have the opportunity and time during my busiest year of high school.
In fact, my primary interest in high school was bioengineering. I was involved in my high school's lab and then applied for Duke's Biomedical Engineering program. However, I didn't end up pursuing that path and switched to Computer Science in my second semester.
* Vincent on a trip to Mengding Mountain
Before returning to China, you lived in a completely different landscape in the US. Tell us more about the journey back to your roots and towards the tea culture and heritage.
Right, I studied in the US for about seven years in total.
I lived with a host family in high school, and often I would be asked by my host family and friends about Chinese culture. And guess what, sometimes I didn't even know the answer. I think this is normal because while living in our own country, we often take it for granted regarding what we do and how we do things. So, being in a foreign country allowed me to learn more about Chinese culture from an outsider's perspective.
Also, since I missed two years of Chinese class, I bought many books in Chinese to read during my free time. That's how I came across a fascinating story about tea and its philosophy. It made me want to taste some tea. I knew my parents had given me some tea packets that I placed on my shelf. So, I quickly grabbed one and brewed a cup. That was probably the first time I brewed and tasted tea so attentively. Shortly after, I found on the internet that one should use 80 degrees of water to brew green tea. That was the start of my tea journey.
What were your first encounters with tea?
As a Chinese person, I probably had my first cup of tea when I was very young, but I couldn't remember. When I was a child, I had a few stereotypes about tea. First, it's something that elders like my grandpa would enjoy at tea houses almost daily. Second, it's very bitter. But not long after I got into tea, I found out why it's bitter: those teas were super cheap, like $10 per pound. Plus, people used boiling water and steeped it for too long. Our family often served tea when guests came to our house, but I just didn't like its taste.
So I guess the first encounter with tea was what I described earlier. However, following that, I was exposed to many different types of tea in a structured way. It helped me improve my understanding of tea.
How about your teachers? Who accompanied you on your tea journey?
I took lessons from a teacher in 2016 when I returned to Chengdu for the summer vacation. I was fortunate to meet Mr. Zhou, who's knowledgeable and experienced in tea education. He introduced me to different types of teas, pottery, and porcelain, the history of tea over many dynasties, and techniques for tea brewing. Not long after finishing the lessons, I took a test to become a certified tea art specialist. Then I embarked on a journey of self-learning as I came back to the US for my last year of high school.
Besides Mr. Zhou, I don't have any other teachers. I do have many tea friends though, or I should say TeaPals. Indeed, I could improve my tea knowledge by tasting tea by myself or reading tea books. Still, learning from experienced tea drinkers helped me deepen my understanding of tea.
I got to know several tea shop owners in Chengdu and a few Chinese tea enthusiasts in the Research Triangle Area and Boston. Each of them specialized in different kinds of tea such as Sheng Pu-erh, White Tea, Yancha, Taiwanese Oolong, etc. When seeing a young tea enthusiast like me, those experienced tea drinkers were pleasantly surprised, treating me with their best teas. I was grateful for those opportunities. I stayed humble and tried to learn from others as much as possible. That was all before the pandemic.
I came back to China in the middle of 2021. Then, I would travel to tea regions to learn from tea producers. They are, in a sense, my teachers because I'm able to gain first-hand knowledge about tea growing and production from them. I also have a few like-minded tea friends in China, and we often taste tea together or mail each other tea samples to try.
*Gushu forests in Menghai
So you created MyTeaPal - the world's first tea-based app. Tell us more about this project of yours.
For those who don't know, MyTeaPal is an all-in-one app for tea drinkers to catalog tea, time tea infusions, keep a tea journal, and connect with other tea enthusiasts. I started building a prototype in 2020, and I released the first version on the App Store and Google Play at the end of 2020. Over the past one and half years, I added many new features to the app based on the user feedback I received. There will be more new features this year, too.
It actually started as a side project out of my passion for tea. Before MyTeaPal, the most popular tea app on the market was a tea timer with a few hundred ratings. I wanted to contribute something unique to the tea community using my skills in technology.
Initially, I wanted to address a problem that many other tea enthusiasts have, including me. It is about tracking teas and taking notes, so I built a tracker, timer, and journal function in the 1.0 version. Then I added the social feature later in the 2.0 version for users to connect and discuss tea.
After college graduation, I decided to work on the app full-time rather than working at a tech company to stay focused on MyTeaPal and do it well.
What's MyTeaPal's unique advantage?
Compared with all the other tea apps out there, I'm confident that MyTeaPal has the most complete set of functions for anyone interested in tea. But most importantly, I think our community function stands out. No other tea apps have a social network that encourages sharing tea tasting notes for the benefit of learning and discussion.
I built the community function because I considered a tea community crucial to anyone's tea journey. Besides having a community on the app, I also run a couple of tea communities myself and manage a big tea group.
What is it you hope to achieve with this project? Where do you see it - and yourself a couple of years ahead in time?
I definitely hope to keep growing and expanding MyTeaPal, eventually turning it into my career. But I'm a solo founder, and I could only go this fast with my limited time and resources. I have many ideas that I want to try out in the years to come. In terms of the app, I'm aware that it now targets a niche group of tea drinkers. However, to spread tea culture and introduce tea to more people, I need to figure out how to make the app more beginner-friendly and reach a wider group of tea drinkers.
* maocha from LaoBanzhang
What was your most transformative experience(s) on your tea journey? The one that left an imprint on you and changed you from the inside?
My trip to Mengding Mountain last year was very transformative because of the people I met there. One of the producers I met there ended up becoming a good friend. He generously shared his experience and advice with me. He's also dedicated to making high-quality teas affordable to the public, and I respect his intention and craftsmanship.
Through him, I got to know about Tibetan teas produced in Ya'an and some basic knowledge about green and black tea production. This experience partly motivated me to feature these three types of teas from my home province.
How about the most exciting thing that happened to you since you entered the world of tea? The one that gave you goosebumps and you're bound to remember ever since?
That is a tough question. With MyTeaPal, every time I launch a new version of the tea app or the website, I feel the excitement of having created something innovative. With my tea communities, I become energized and excited to work harder every time I host virtual events and meet old and new tea friends online.
But if I have to pick something that gave me goosebumps, I'd say it was during my sophomore year of college. That's when Duke's Board of Trustees invited me to discuss tea and students' mental well-being. I was excited yet nervous about presenting to a few high-profile people my college tea club and the benefits that tea could bring to our student group. The meeting ended with Duke's Vice President shaking hands with me. At the same time he said: "I should drink more tea in your honor". That was pretty interesting.
Favorite tea? Why?
Sheng Puerh. There's always a lot to be learned when comparing different terroirs and vintages. It has much depth and complexity as it ages, especially those from ancient trees.
What's down the road for you next? Where to?
I've been traveling a lot recently. In about a week, I'll be heading to Wuyishan for the second time, where I'll immerse myself in the world of Yancha. There are a few other places I plan to go in the next few months, too. I'll stay in China for tea, at least for this year. I'm not sure when I will go back to the US.
How do you incorporate tea into your life? What practices help you do that?
Nowadays, my life is pretty much about tea: visiting tea regions, experiencing tea processing, tasting many samples, hosting tea-related virtual events, etc. It is both my hobby and work, and it naturally blends with my daily life.
I often invite friends over to taste tea together during my free time. I take occasional Gong Fu Cha breaks when working at my home office. I prepare a pot of tea inside my steamer kettle - or sometimes simply have a glass cup of tea brewed in Grandpa style.