Winnie Yu, co-founder of Teance Fine Teas in Berkeley, and a woman whose influence on American tea culture was quiet but pervasive, died in Berkeley on September 11 after a year-long illness. She was 47.
Yu was born in Hainan, China, in 1970. Her parents, who were artists, emigrated first to Hong Kong and then to New York when she was in grade school. She came to Berkeley to attend college, then completed a master’s at the Haas UC Berkeley Haas School of Business and worked as a financial advisor.
However, friends say, Yu was not your average business school grad. She had grown up immersed in art and traditional tea culture, and was a student of both Buddhism and kung fu. Inspired in part by Roy Fong’s Imperial Tea Court, which opened in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the early 1990s, she mulled over the idea of opening a tea room that would pour — and sell — whole-leaf teas sourced directly from tea farmers in China, Taiwan, Japan and India.
Around the turn of the millennium, she brought the idea to Fu Tung Cheng, a designer friend. He asked her how much she would charge for such teas, and she told him anywhere from $50 a pound to $400 — in an era when many customers considered a $10 tin of loose-leaf teas an extravagance. “I said, Americans are going to have to come into a shop that represents that quality,” Cheng recalled. “She said, great. You do it!”
Yu and Cheng opened a tranquil, stylish tea room called Celadon on Solano Avenue in 2002, which drew a devoted clientele but was too tranquil, perhaps, to generate a profit. In 2006, they moved to Fourth Street in Berkeley, reopening as Teance (the name came from the combination of “tea” plus “ambiance”). Cheng designated more of the space to shelves of teas and teawares. In the back, they installed a circular tea bar with a polished concrete top for tastings and educational events.
Each year, Yu revisited Asia in search of higher-quality teas. Darius Moghaddam, who started as a dishwasher at Teance and rose to store manager and close friend, traveled with her numerous times. He remembers long and perilous trips into the tea mountains of China, arriving only to stay up all night to watch tea farmers process the new harvest.
“Anything Winnie did she did 150 percent,” Moghaddam said. “We’d hit two to three farms every day, with nonstop travel, trying to absorb as much knowledge and information as we could. She was tenacious and ferocious.”
Red Blossom Tea’s Alice Luong added that the patriarchal nature of many tea farms in China and Taiwan pose an additional layer of challenges to women who do business directly with them. “As one of the few women in the tea business I will miss her presence and positive influence on the Bay Area tea scene,” wrote Donna Lo of Far Leaves Tea.
Teance soon exerted its own influence on the tea world. Jesse Jacobs, owner of Samovar, said Yu educated Bay Area drinkers that their seasonal, organic and artisanal culinary ideals should apply to the tea they drank as well. “She has helped deliver tea in that same vein in a contemporary way without bastardizing it with, say, bubblegum and banana,” he said.
In the United States, Yu raised the bar, both in terms of quality and the price that American connoisseurs were willing to pay, said James Norwood Pratt, author of “The Tea Lovers’ Treasury.”
“Once you’ve had a Taiwanese baozhong (oolong) from Teance, you might have others elsewhere, but you could usually say, well, it’s good but it’s not up to Winnie’s,” Pratt said.
Yu’s passions were not restricted to tea. She continued to study martial arts, and was an avid fan of kung fu movies, particularly any starring Donnie Yen. Cheng said she would host big gatherings in her house to drink high-mountain oolongs and watch mixed martial arts matches on television. She mentored several young adults, particularly those who had lost their parents.
According to Cheng, four years ago Yu began playing with a process to make cold-brew tea and coffee rapidly without sacrificing the flavor. Engineers translated the method she came up with, involving a drill and a glass jar, into machinery that could produce 50 gallons every 30 minutes. Yu and Cheng attracted enough investment to begin producing FogDog Cold Brew teas and coffees, with production facilities in Brooklyn and Berkeley. They began selling in Bay Area stores in June.
By that time, however, Yu had fallen ill. “She fought so hard through it,” Moghaddam said, “and as much as she went through, she didn’t complain once.” She died on Monday, September 11.
“It was a brilliant career cut short,” Pratt said.
Winnie Yu is survived by her parents and a brother. Friends and associates plan on holding a memorial in the future; check the Teance Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/TeanceFineTeas/) for updates.