Volition Tea Ceremony hosted by Annie Xiang
Annie Xiang hosts a tea ceremony for Volition Tea at the Moonwalker Cafe on March 27, 2022. Xiang's goal with her tea company is to inform consumers about the lifecycle of tea and encourage people to think of the humans and farmers behind the production of tea. Credit: Kathleen Hinkel for Chicago Reader

Annie Xiang’s son answered her morning coffee with violence.

“He was just kicking me in my belly,” says Xiang, at the time a tax manager at a Big Four accounting firm downtown. Hoping to advance to partner, she worked 70- to 90-hour weeks fueled by 32 ounces of Intelligentsia coffee per day—no cream, no sugar. She’d tapered down to a cup a day after she became pregnant, but “he would kick me nonstop right after coffee, so I went cold turkey. After giving birth I did need something to sustain me because of all the sleep trainings. I thought, ‘Maybe I don’t need 32 ounces of coffee but I could start drinking tea again.’”

Xiang’s coffee habit came late in life, after a long caffeine-free pause in her teens. She was born into a tea-drinking family in the U.S. commonwealth of Saipan but grew up in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province, where black brick tea with salty yak butter was the preferred m.o. “My mom actually was a Lipton drinker for the longest time, which is ironic because in China, you have abundant access to all the great teas,” she says. “It’s because of marketing. They marketed Lipton tea as this high royal English tea that’s supposed to be better. But we all know that’s not true. Luckily she did have a lot of serious tea friends who introduced her into all the great teas. Just like all my fellow Asian Americans growing up, we just drank whatever our parents had.”

Volition Tea Ceremony hosted by Annie Xiang
“I was looking for tea companies that matched the quality that I am used to growing up,” Xiang says of her journey to starting Volition Tea. Credit: Kathleen Hinkel for Chicago Reader

Xiang lost access to yak butter tea and her mother’s stash of the good stuff when she attended boarding school in upstate New York, years during which youthful energy precluded the need for caffeine. “Actually most Chinese don’t know that tea has caffeine,” she jokes. “They drink tea at all hours and give it to their children.”

It wasn’t until college that she began to form a physical dependence on independent third wave coffee shops, along with their commitment to transparency in sourcing and processing.

When she started looking for single-sourced, loose leaf teas produced with comparable commitment to sustainability and fair trade, she found the marketing was murkier. “I was looking for tea companies that matched the quality that I am used to growing up,” she says. “I had a hard time. If you’re in a grocery store and you move left to the tea shelf, they’re not providing the origin. They’re not providing the farmer information. They don’t give you the same level of transparency in terms of roasting date as when you buy a bag of coffee.”

The handful of promising tea companies she did find were suspect as well, run by white guys who continued to market teas couched with the trappings of western colonialism (Earl Grey, English breakfast) or worse, employed industrial-scale methods. “A common practice the tea industry does is to blend multiple years of harvest together in order to push through inventory.”

Xiang began to envision her own tea company, focused on the six families of tea derived from Camellia sinensis that are native to China (white, yellow, green, red, wulong, and black), but she was daunted by her lack of connections in the business. Then the pandemic hit, and along with it the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes. Xiang saw the stories of the small, sustainable tea farmers she admired as tools to build empathy for her own community. “One other big thing people do when they say farm-to-cup is they erase all the people in the middle helping them, because very rarely can someone start a tea company and not use an importer.” She talked to several before she settled on Fujian-based Daniel Hong, a tea maker himself, who sent her some 50 samples from across China’s tea-growing provinces.

In October she launched Volition Tea with seven varieties of leaves ranging from refreshing Lu’an Melon Peel green tea, grown by fourth-generation farmer Xi Wei Hai, whose plants grow among rocks in the mountains of Anhui Province, and who plucks and dries leaves in three stages to maximize their sunflower and bamboo notes; to the Raw Jade wulong produced in Shuangyang, Fujian, by Zeng Pu Yu, a woman who married into the business and spent a decade building an organic tea garden and factory to yield the vegetal, orchidlike profile that she named after herself; to the Red Jade grown in Guangdong by Chen Yong Qiang, who fully browns his leaves for a dark amber tea that tastes like roasted squash and molasses.   

“It takes ten years to really have a sustainable tea garden,” says Xiang. “They have to go in day after day, month after month, year after year to make sure that they are truly respecting their land and the people that live nearby. That’s while looking at their peers having a higher yield because they use chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and to say, ‘That’s not who I am. I am willing to accept a lower yield if that means my tea is truly sustainable for tea drinkers and for villagers.’”

Xiang selected her teas based on what she thought might best appeal to western drinkers, and each tube of leaves is printed with general (but detailed) guidelines accounting for weight, temperature, and steeping time for someone in mind of a 12-ounce cuppa.

At the tea ceremony at Moonwalker Cafe, Xiang poured seven of her teas demonstrating how their flavors, aromas, and colors develop over several steepings. Credit: Kathleen Hinkel for Chicago Reader
Volition Tea Ceremony hosted by Annie Xiang for Chicago Reader
Credit: Kathleen Hinkel for Chicago Reader

But there is a better way to appreciate the dynamic way these teas express themselves over multiple steepings. Last week Xiang set up a traditional gongfu Chinese tea ceremony for a handful of folks at the Moonwalker Cafe in Avondale. There she poured seven of her teas demonstrating how their flavors, aromas, and colors develop over several steepings.

She started with the delicate, floral Colorful Peony white tea developed by her importer Hong and third-generation farmer Li Zhi Zhong in Fujian province. Zhong, like the other farmers on the Volition roster, doesn’t use chemical fertilizers or pesticides. He employs a shaking technique (common to wulong tea production) that oxidizes the edges of the leaves, which turn various shades of red and green, and brings out their fragrance. There was the nutty, High Mountain Dragon Well farmed in Pan’an Zhejiang by Kong Zhong Ming among forested mountain peaks and harvested late in the season. She finished with the malty, woody Girl Village Raw Pu’er tea, one of her most robust varietals, produced in southwestern Jinghong, Yunnan, by Yang Xiu Hai, a farmer whose path to the tea business mirrored her own. He left his corporate Beijing job to start a tea garden from scratch in iron-rich soil; it’s a radical late-life career change that sounds awfully familiar amid the great resignation.

You can find Volition tea at Moonwalker Cafe, where owner Arlene Luna plans to offer it cold-brewed this summer. It’s also in the cafe at Guild Row. It’s retailed at Oromo Cafe in Lincoln Square, Bone Femmes in Ravenswood, and City Scents on the near North Side, as well as on her own website.

Meanwhile, Xiang plans to focus on her small lineup of teas for now, taking them around to cafes and farmers’ markets, preaching the gospel of unblended, unflavored loose leaf tea. “I want our business to cause more people to pause before purchasing a tea that comes from a toxic supply chain, that treats tea as a commodity.”

As for her son, he’s a two-year-old tea drinker now. “He had a lot of opinions before he was born,” she says, noting that he still does. “He likes the Colorful Peony.” 

Volition Tea