TeaSource has been bringing tea from around the world to Minnesota for 20 years

It’s been 20 years since TeaSource, the Twin Cities-based tea company, started in Highland Park.

It has since expanded to several locations (Highland Park, 752 Cleveland Ave. S., St. Paul, 651-690-9822; St. Anthony Shopping Center, 2908 Pentagon Drive N.E., St. Anthony, 612-788-4842; 561 Prairie Center Drive, Eden Prairie, 952-767-3648; teasource.com) and offers a selection of more than 100 teas from key tea regions.

We recently caught up with founder Bill Waddington, 63, about the world of tea and more.

What did you want to be when you grew up? I wanted to become a history teacher, and I became a history teacher.

What was your first job in food? My first job in food was hauling sacks of flour at Sisters’ Bakery on the South Side of Chicago when I was 13. It was on Saturday mornings. That was a great job because they made doughnuts all day long.

What’s your first tea memory? I was never a huge coffee drinker, even when exposed to really good coffee. I never really liked it. So I started drinking tea in high school and college to stay awake. You need some caffeine to study for exams.

How did you wind up in the business for good? I used to buy the cheapest teas. But then when I was about 21, I thought there had to be great teas out there — just like with prize-winning chocolates and olive oil.

I started getting more into tea and tracking down names of tea growers in India, brokers in Shanghai and exports in Hong Kong. This was in the mid-to-late-’70s, before the Internet. I would send dozens and dozens of letters asking if I could buy a pound of tea. Most of them wrote back. The tea industry is a very collegial industry.

I sampled teas from all over the world this way for 10, 15 years while meeting people in the industry who taught me the different styles of leaves and types of teas. When I was getting closer to the age of 40, I thought this was an amazing world I’ve stumbled into. I was getting some of the best teas in the world. I was buying directly from growers. I had a great job in the corporate world. I knew I wasn’t going to get any braver as time went on. So I left the corporate world and started TeaSource.

How has the business grown over the years? It started out as a mail-order catalog business that I ran out of my spare bedroom and packaged the teas out of a rented warehouse. Eventually, we opened our first retail store in Highland Park. Sept. 5 will be the 20th anniversary. We now have a headquarters and three retail locations. We’ve also grown from offering 20 teas when we started to 220 now. They come from five different countries that produce the best teas in the world — China, India, Sri Lanka, Japan and Taiwan.

What’s your favorite tea on your menu? Grand Keemun. It’s a deep, dark, rich, thick black tea from China with a sweet coco note. If you compared it to wine, think Bordeaux. It’s very fragrant and aromatic, too.

If you had to eat or drink only five things for the rest of your life, what would they be? One would be Grand Keemun black tea, without a doubt. Another would be a Taiwanese oolong tea. It’s like drinking lilacs — it has this sweet floral aroma. I guess I should get some food in there, too: fresh gently stir-fried veggies and fresh berries right out of the field, such as strawberries or blueberries. The fifth would be an Italian beef sandwich from the South Side of Chicago.

What’s next? I just got back from China and Fuji, and I ran across three new teas that I’ve never seen before that we’ve brought here. One is a style of white tea, another an oolong and the other a black tea. It’s wonderful to bring them to Minnesota.

We’re getting ready to host Nigel Melican, an internationally renowned tea scientist and founder of London-based Teacraft consulting. It’s part of a Tea Masters series I put together. I fly tea masters in from around the world, and they give a presentation, and we sample teas from around the world. This upcoming event will address climate change, labor shortages, globalization and other topics.

The event is from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday, June 17, and is open to the public. It will be held at the TeaSource warehouse (2616 N. Cleveland Ave, Roseville). The event is $20 a person, and people can register by calling the warehouse at 651-788-9971.


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