The Power of Tea: Tekuno Invites Us Through The Harvest One Leaf At A Time

During this pandemic, tea drinking has been on the rise. For those looking for a new caffeine crutch or a way to find peace and balance through all of this mess. Catherine Jue, owner of Tekuno, believes in tea that is healing, uplifting, ethical, sustainable—a tea that can do it all.

Jue grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, the daughter of small business owners who ran a Taekwondo school, she saw first hand the entrepreneurial spirit. Having taken to the martial art at age 4, she went on to become a Taekwondo world champion at 18. Looking to her parents for inspiration in the entrepreneurial sense, Jue began soaking in all the knowledge that she could. Working with another tea brand based in San Francisco, finding the right growers, finding the right outlets for the tea, and trying to encapsulate it all into a distinct voice came with the challenge. Jue was, however, ready to meet it like the fighter she was. Now as 2021 rears itself at the possible tail end of the pandemic, Jue is excited to reopen her doors at her gorgeous tea studio in the Sunset District.

Jue began Tekuno with tea-tasting pop-ups in like-minded San Francisco galleries and boutiques, before moving into her own brick and mortar in the Dogpatch in March 2020. Though she had to shutter the location due to COVID-19, Catherine migrated her store online, creating an opportunity to expand Tekuno’s reach nationally. We caught up with Jue over email before a busy day to chat about her upbringing, her inspiration for Tekuno, and the surprise tea guest she’d love to steep with.

Q

For those who may not be familiar Tekuno—give us the rundown of how you came up with the concept and what is it today?

A

Tekuno is a San Francisco-based company that works directly with producers to showcase the quiet, expansive breadth of Japanese teas. Each year, we source a small collection of Japanese teas that are expressive in aroma, flavor, and texture. We specifically look for teas that reshape how we think teas should taste and seek small scale producers with whom we can have a close relationship.

I stumbled upon tea by chance when looking to switch into a more meaningful career. I didn’t grow up with tea but happened to do a tea tasting at another specialty tea shop here in San Francisco and was blown away by the history and nuance in a beverage not often talked about here in the States. I knew immediately that this was what I wanted to do.

Tekuno has always been about sharing and introducing high quality green teas and matcha in a way that is approachable. Though, at first, I wasn’t sure if anyone would be interested in that concept! I was fortunate that several small businesses lent me their space for pop-ups throughout San Francisco in 2019, and that is how Tekuno found its voice. The customers I met at those initial pop-ups shaped the teas we source and how we communicate our producers’ stories. Most importantly, they showed me that our community was willing and interested to learn more about single origin, directly sourced Japanese teas.

Q

How did you get started in working with tea growers generally? How did the process come about?

A

I had some knowledge about how tea producers operate through my time at Song Tea (a local specialty tea shop I worked at), but forging my own relationships with Japanese producers is an entirely separate skill. On my first sourcing trip, I essentially knocked on doors to houses that had a tea garden in their backyard, and some producers were kind enough to answer. They also guided me to other producers and shared a breadth of knowledge that got me off the ground.


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(Left) Jue serves her tea and accessories at a pop-up at the former Legion store in Nob Hill. (Right) Jue demonstrating good technique when whisking matcha. Photos courtesy of Tekuno.(Left) Jue serves her tea and accessories at a pop-up at the former Legion store in Nob Hill. (Right) Jue demonstrating good technique when whisking matcha. Photos courtesy of Tekuno.

(Left) Jue serves her tea and accessories at a pop-up at the former Legion store in Nob Hill. (Right) Jue demonstrating good technique when whisking matcha. Photos courtesy of Tekuno.

Q

You have a wide selection of teas and only the very best—how do you go about the selection? What are factors you look out for in a great tea.

A

Over 90% of Japanese teas are green teas, and Tekuno’s aim is to source a collection that is cohesive and representative of tea culture in Japan. Flavor profiles will range from grassy, fresh, floral to deep, earthy, umami, vegetal. In any particular tea, however, I look for a few things: Is the tea balanced, or does it skew in a specific direction? Is the tea complex, with layers of nuance that harmonize? Is the texture soft on the palette, and does it have a pervasive finish that lingers?

Q

You mention your family when it comes to starting your business and the inspiration behind, elaborate on that for us.

A

My parents are small business owners in the Bay Area, so entrepreneurship has always been a clear path for me. I didn’t grow up desiring to have a stable job at a large company. For my parents, life and work—and the community they built at their business—was one and the same. Growing up at my parents’ business also exposed me to the challenges of being a business owner (working weekends, even cleaning the bathroom!). That environment conditioned me to expect and even enjoy the less glamorous sides of running a business—and there can be a lot of them!

Q

Is there a type of tea or a leaf that’s super hard to come by and that you would love to have in the shop?

A

I’m always on the hunt for a phenomenal oolong tea from Japan. Only a tiny percentage of Japanese teas are oolong teas, and it’s difficult to find a producer crafting at the level of high quality oolongs from other countries. I’d like to find one that isn’t simply a “good oolong for Japan” but a great oolong, period.

Q

Can you give us a time / anecdote about when you felt that this was the right path and the right calling for you? If you haven’t felt that, what moments clicked for you in starting this business?

A

I feel this almost every day when I talk to customers and hear their experiences with Tekuno’s teas, or even just tea in general. I can be having the worst day, and one meaningful chat with a customer turns everything around.

With the pandemic, it has been hard to live with so much chaos and uncertainty, and brewing a cup of tea—pausing for a moment—became a daily practice for myself and some of our customers. I feel grateful when I hear how much Tekuno’s teas have impacted customers’ lives and am honored to be a small joy in someone’s day.

Q

Also tell us more about the physical store space as well? What can readers expect when restrictions are loosened?

A

The physical showroom is my joy in life that I will never give up—even if the pandemic continues for a while longer! The goal of the space is to provide a welcoming, peaceful respite from the outside world. Readers can browse our teas and ceramics, ask questions, or receive a recommendation. Our showroom will be available by reservation starting March 10th! Once it is safe, I’m excited to offer tea tastings, in which we will brew and discuss multiple teas side-by-side; this is, in my opinion, the best way to uncover the world of Japanese teas.


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(Above) Tea wares stretch across the new storefront found at the Sunset District. (Bottom) Jue in Japan sourcing teas directly from the farms. Photos courtesy of Tekuno.(Above) Tea wares stretch across the new storefront found at the Sunset District. (Bottom) Jue in Japan sourcing teas directly from the farms. Photos courtesy of Tekuno.

(Above) Tea wares stretch across the new storefront found at the Sunset District. (Bottom) Jue in Japan sourcing teas directly from the farms. Photos courtesy of Tekuno.

Q

Ok, on a more personal note, what are some of your favorite Bay Area haunts—the go-to’s for Catherine?

A

This is a hard question, because there is so much to love in the Bay Area! For sandwiches: Palm City Wines. For a pandemic takeout feast: Daeho. For coffee (I do love coffee too): Ritual. For a date spot: Piccino. (Was this supposed to be all about food? I’m making it all about food.)

Q

We feel that tea is having a renaissance mid-pandemic, is that fair to say? Why or why not do you feel that way?

A

We knew even pre-pandemic that we spend too much time on our devices and not enough time enjoying the present. Alongside other trends, the pandemic has highlighted these challenges, and I definitely think people have sought out tea and other mindful practices to counteract them. I also see a surprising amount of tea sent across the country as gifts, like a cozy hug sent via mail.

Q

We think it’s cursed to say that “2021 is our year” but we optimistically want to ask, what’s something you’re excited for that you can share from your work, personally, or just in general in the world?

A

I am hopeful that our small business community will come back stronger than ever. Those that have made it this far are passionate about what they do and are committed to seeing it through. It hasn’t been easy, but the most resilient people I know are in our community, and I’m excited to see new businesses (Tekuno included!) thrive and reshape this place we call home.

Q

If you could have a cup of tea with anyone, living or deceased, who would they be and why?

A

Serena Williams is my ultimate role model. She’s powerful, strong, and relentlessly pursues her dreams. Maybe we could have strawberries and cream with our tea (I’d recommend a rich, savory tea to complement)!

// Check out Tekuno on their site and make sure to shop teas for you, friends, and then you again; teawithtekuno.com. Photography courtesy of Tekuno.


The Power of Tea: Tekuno Invites Us Through The Harvest One Leaf At A Time
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