Tea can be so many things. For some, this ancient brew can signal just another part of a daily routine, but for some it offers a chance to take a breath and enjoy the moment. For Sasha Lewis, a British sound designer/engineer and musician based in Gloucestershire, United Kingdom, this humble drink paved the way for him to discover a life backed by exquisite flavours.
In July 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic, Sasha and a group of friends in China and London launched an online tea company, called Black Cloud Tea. Since then, they have been united by their passion for tea culture and an aim to promote independent producers through high-quality, small batches of handmade tea; but for Sasha, the project also allows him to explore two of his greatest passions – music and tea.
Here, we speak to Sasha about what attracted him to the world of tea, and how it’s similar to music. He talks about the similar focus of attention required for field recordings and tea brewing, and shares a curated playlist for that next cuppa.
Q. How would you describe Black Cloud Tea?
We sell high-quality hand-made Chinese tea, but really, I like to think Black Cloud Tea is a platform to meet and collaborate with tea-obsessed and open-minded people in the search for a new ritual experience. My daily motivation is to try and introduce these flavours to unsuspecting palettes, whilst giving a glimpse into the cultures connected to the teas. Also, Black Cloud Tea is one big excuse for me to continue my love affair with China.
Q. What attracted you to the world of tea?
It sounds cheesy, but Chinese tea found me; it was an accident waiting to happen. In my mid-twenties I wanted to temporarily stop drinking alcohol to clean up my health (I’ve been temporarily tee-total for 15 years now) and so I went on a “healthy drink” journey. Nothing really satisfied me, juice was too sweet and sugary, coffee is horrible, and general teabags were (for me) like drinking cardboard. During this time, on a whim, I travelled to China and discovered Chinese tea. The flavours were incredible, which sent me on a long and continuing journey of exploration. Plus, I loved the way the tea was shared. The whole culture around it connected with me. I immediately got obsessed and wished we had teahouses in the UK like the ones I experienced in China. Chinese tea has everything you need, a way of life backed by exquisite flavours.
Q. What set your journey to starting a tea company into motion?
Some of my good friends from China visited me in London a few years back and encouraged me to start a tea business because of my passion for Chinese tea. I didn't really take it seriously at the time, but during my last trip to China in August 2019, I happened to meet some lovely tea manufacturers that specialised in producing small-batch teas using traditional methods. These tea gardens were closely linked to the economic wellbeing of their small villages and I found it really exciting to collaborate with them. It felt good to help give them an opportunity to sell their tea to a wider audience. The ultimate encouragement to start Black Cloud Tea was this enjoyable experience of meeting new people and hanging out with them. I'm not really a businessman so money doesn't really motivate me, but the people I met on my last trip really sold me on the Black Cloud Tea project.
Q. As a sound engineer/designer for the last 20 years, would you say music and tea are similar?
They are very complimentary, for starters. The joy of music is a gut feeling that is beyond your control, and for me, tea is similar. They can both overwhelm your senses to the point that you can't help but be in the moment. A long solo tea session is the same as a long listening experience, in that I can float from being actively present to diving into mind-wandering escapist thought. Also, music and tea feel like an endless exploration. One day I'll die wishing I knew more about both. Obviously, they both can be enjoyed cerebrally, as many people love to geek out over the details of the tea they are drinking, just as I love to read all the credits of an album cover.
Q. How would you compare field recording to brewing tea?
I love field recording. It's an incredible experience and a very privileged one. It's amazing to listen to “reality” in a hypersensitive way. Recording an environment with amazing microphones, whilst listening in real-time through accurate headphones, is pure modern magic. You're sucked into the surroundings in the most immersive way. Brewing tea in the gong fu style has a similar focus of attention. You have to be aware of the process and take care of every moment. Plus, if you're brewing for others it's like being a DJ for taste. You want your friends to enjoy the experience and get the same amount of enjoyment from it as you do yourself.
Q. Does sound play a role in how you cultivate your space as a company?
My experience with music has definitely taught me the power of collaboration. I often make music and sound on my own, but sometimes I get the opportunity to work with others. Nothing beats playing music with other people. I want Black Cloud Tea to be a platform for collaboration in every way possible. I've enjoyed sampling tea with tea farmers, and it's been great fun to work with local artists and photographers who help me make designs for the company. I love to make something from a blank canvas, so making this Black Cloud Tea “space” is exciting for me. I also love discovering independent musicians via word of mouth and learning through a community. It gives you more of an inclusive connection to their world. So, I'd love Black Cloud Tea to grow modestly, on merit, without the need to shout about it through aggressive advertising.
Q. Would you say drinking tea enhances the experience of listening to music, or vice versa?
My immediate response would be that both music and tea are so special in their own right that both these rituals are not required to mix to have a powerful effect. Having said that, a long tea session listening to music is a lot of fun. I'm not much of a TV or film watcher and the Internet has fried my attention span, so tea and music help me focus and slow my monkey brain down. Very much akin to meditation.
Q. What sort of music do you enjoy while drinking tea?
All sorts! I listen to everything and anything, I'll even listen to music I don't particularly enjoy as I'm always interested in unpicking how people made their music. But because I listen to a lot of music (and sometimes listen to looped edits on repeat for work) I mostly prefer to drink tea listening to the immediate environment. The sound of nature is wonderfully complex yet so simple. The world is an orchestra.
Q. What would you recommend people listen to during their next tea experience?
I'd recommend tuning into your surroundings. However, if you live in a sonically stressful space, I've made a playlist just for that purpose. It's 100 minutes long – the right amount of time for a quick tea break.
Cover Image: Courtesy of Black Cloud Tea
Writer | Brent Taalur Ramsey
Brent is an American writer who reports on the finer things in life, from books to fashion.