Leaves in the Stream
Jenny Tse was born in Hong Kong but made the journey to Fairbanks, Alaska, with her mother when she was just one month old. Her father had immigrated some years earlier to work as a chef during the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, and he eventually opened his own restaurant.
In her family’s early days in the United States, Tse’s grandparents would take turns babysitting her and her younger sister. “My grandfather had a ritual every morning: tai chi, a Chinese tea ceremony, and then a walk,” Tse shares. “One morning while he was out for his walk, my sister dared me to take a sip from the cup he left on the table. I didn’t even know it was tea, but I remember thinking it was pretty good.”
Tse was an avid coffee drinker for years before she steeped her toes into the world of tea, but she was very familiar with different types of local herbs and plants thanks to time she spent with her mother. “As a child, I would help my mom collect different botanicals that we would dry on tarps, and then we would take them to a meeting place where other people would sell their goods,” she says. “I didn’t even think about it until after I started my tea company!” [Laughs]
Despite all this early exposure to tea, the spark that ignited Tse’s interest didn’t develop until her time at the Boise State University while studying sports medicine. After reading case studies on various rehab techniques, she came across reports on the benefits of tea in the healing process. When Tse returned home to Fairbanks to work as an athletic trainer, her patients and colleagues became fascinated with her flourishing knowledge of tea and encouraged her to pursue this new interest.
As Tse’s interest in tea developed, she decided to travel to the town in Hong Kong where her father was born to visit tea farms. “When I flew to the very first tea farm, I realized that landscape was what my father saw growing up,” she says. “The trip started to heal who I was and make me more comfortable in my cultural identity as an American, and I realized that it’s OK that I’m different and unique.”
After her return, Tse began teaching online tea classes and tea courses at the local university. “People started telling me about their experiences with tea, and I could see how this common medium was allowing people to reflect on and heal their relationships. That essentially became the theme of my business.”
A Community Focus
Tse started Sipping Streams as an educational class over fifteen years ago, but she quickly realized its potential to foster connectivity in her community. The town of Fairbanks was, and still is, a very tight-knit community, Tse says, and growing up in this environment, especially around other people who worked in the restaurant industry, gave her the confidence to open her own business and inspired its purpose as a gathering place.
Sipping Streams has become a safe space for all kinds of people to visit, enjoy a cup of tea, and get to know one another. “Our town and culture are all about supporting each other,” she says. At the Sipping Streams tea house, guests can select from a variety of tea experiences, including Victorian Tea, a classic afternoon-tea experience with sandwiches, pastries, and scones; Simplicity Tea; and Children’s Tea. Visitors looking for something less structured can choose a cup or pot of over forty different varieties of tea, as well as other tea-based beverages like bubble tea, tea smoothies, and tea floats.
Fostering community is the mission, but tea is the medium. As a certified tea expert, Tse has worked hard to create exceptional tea blends that have been recognized as some of the best in the world. Her teas have won first-, second-, and third-place awards at the Global Tea Championship (formerly known as the North American Tea Championship). “My first award-winning tea was one that my mom and I made,” Tse shares. “A student gave me a book on local botanicals, and I told my mom we should try to make an Alaskan tea. People responded really well to it, so we decided to enter it into the North American Tea Championships and won. It was so amazing to win with Alaskan ingredients that we picked ourselves.”
Tea for the Future
When the pandemic began, Tse decided to send all her virtual tea class students a tea plant to nurture that could be used in their lessons. At the end of the course, her students started asking about creating a tea farm. “I said, ‘I already have this tea program, we package tea, and we do wholesale.’ I thought there would be no way,” Tse says. But Tse’s husband encouraged her to reach out to Bernie Karl, a friend of theirs who owns the nearby Chena Hot Springs Resort, about using one of the resort’s greenhouses. Tse and her former high-school students had already volunteered at the greenhouses years earlier, so she was familiar with the growing process and logistics.
Over the past year, with some trial and error and a few roadblocks along the way, Tse has managed to sustain this endeavor, making it Alaska’s first tea farm and the first to be run on geothermal heat. Although tea plants are not native to Alaska, nor do they typically grow well in that type of climate, the ground temperature at Chena Hot Springs has allowed the plants to thrive.
As much as it’s a feat for Tse, she says it’s also one for science and the future of tea production. “We have extreme changes in daylight, and this forces the tea to grow differently and gives it a high density of nutrients,” she says. “My friend, the former chairman of the Tocklai Tea Research Institute of India, told me I was going to make history—not because I’m in Alaska and it’s cold but because of the sunlight.”
An Emphasis on Education
Tse founded her business wanting to educate people about the power of tea, and she has continued that vision in a variety of ways. In addition to teaching courses, Tse has published a book about her tea journey called The Essence of Tea, hosts free tea workshops on the company’s YouTube channel, and even started The Essence of Tea podcast.
“The end goal of my business is always to transform people’s lives and help them grow in their personal development so that they can be a positive force,” Tse says. “I want people to look at Sipping Streams for encouragement in what they can do, not just for themselves, but for their community and the people that they love.”
For more info, visit sippingstreams.com and subscribe to Sipping Streams Tea Company on YouTube