Under the Sun: Ben Marcus-Willers, Tea Master – Sonoma Sun

Posted on July 13, 2019 by Sonoma Valley Sun

You grew up in Sonoma, didn’t you?

I was born right here at Sonoma Valley Hospital in 1994 and spent my school years there as well. I attended Sonoma Charter School and then graduated from Sonoma High. I was the student body president in 2011-12.

But then your upbringing took an unusual turn, I understand.

Well, you could say that. I took a year off after graduating from high school and was selected to join a program created by the US Department of State, a national security language initiative to develop a generation of culturally literate young people . We had a choice of seven languages. Because I chose Chinese and have always been interested in Asian culture, I ended up spending a year in Taiwan in a Mandarin Chinese immersion program. No English was spoken in the classroom program, and I lived with a host family and went on excursions. Within three months I spoke at a survival level, and after ten years I had mastered an intermediate level of conversation, both reading and writing in Mandarin. It was also at this time that I was introduced to Chinese teas and the tea ceremony by my host family “brother”.

But after this year, so what?

I then went to Abu Dhabi to attend a four-year college established by New York University but funded by the government of Abu Dhabi, which is part of the United Arab Emirates. A friend of mine a year before me in Sonoma had registered, I applied and was accepted to Taiwan. I was there from 2013 to 2017 and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Film and a minor in East Asian Studies. I had 150 classmates and I had the chance to travel to India, Florence, Turkey, the Philippines, Switzerland and Qatar, among others. Now my little brother is registered there.

Back to tea.

Tea is still hugely popular in China, although millennials are turning to Starbucks coffee. For those interested in tea, however, it’s amazing. I did a story on Chinese tea when I was a freshman at Sonoma High, where it all started for me.

What’s interesting about Chinese tea?

All teas are derived from one type of plant, Camelia sinensis. The variety of Chinese tea – and there are six categories, Oolong, Black, Green, White, Yellow and Puerh – are all created by different methods of processing, microbial fermentation and/or oxidation. Puerh is a collector’s item, and an auction of seven century-old Puerh “cakes”, 2.5 kilograms in total, sold a few years ago for $7.2 million. The other factors influencing the taste and quality of tea are, like wine, linked to its “terroir”. Regional differences, altitude, topography, sun and shade exposure, harvest season, etc. all play a role. Regular basic tea, that of tea bags, is chopped during the summer harvest. Premium quality tea is always made from whole leaf.

Tell me more about the tea ceremony.

The Chinese ceremony is not like the Japanese, which is more ritualistic. The Chinese ceremony is more about the brewing process and the right way to produce the best flavor. So there are three basic vessels used: the infusion vessel of a small teapot or covered bowl called “gai wan”, a pitcher called “cha hai” meaning “ocean tea”, and finally, the teacup,” cha bei. The teacup is intentionally very small to draw attention to the flavor of the tea, not its volume. No milk, no sugar, no flavorings, ever.

And has tea become your job?

It’s too early to tell, but I’m employed by Red Blossom Tea Company in San Francisco, where I’m a tea specialist in their shop and do their video production. I recently traveled to Taiwan and Mainland China on a shopping trip, tasting different styles of teas; I had the chance to speak Chinese again there. I confess to feeling the “bug” of travel and I would like to live in Taiwan one day. For now, I still live in Sonoma and am developing a program to provide education and tea tasting for those interested in the area; I can be reached through BenMarcusWillers.com.

—Interview with Larry Barnett

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