Heath Hillman, our certification manager, has traveled the world to learn about tea. Here he is in a tea garden in Sri Lanka!
Have you ever been sitting across from some guy at a dinner party who seemed kind of quiet, but when you started chatting with him you discovered he's had some really interesting life experiences, and suddenly you couldn't stop talking to him? At two leaves and a bud, that guy is Heath Hillman, our Certification Manager.
Heath is the definition of that unassuming guy, and when I first heard two leaves founder and CEO Richard Rosenfeld mention him, it was in this context: "Heath is coming in for a tea tasting. You've gotta meet Heath."
So now I'm telling you: Meet Heath!
Being certification manager means that Heath is in charge of making sure our teas are properly certified from every specification you see on our boxes — certified Kosher, organic and fair trade. It’s not the sexiest part of the tea business but hang on — we’re not done talking about Heath and his past lives here at two leaves.
Heath began working for this company when it was really, really small, back in the middle of the last decade (that’s right, we’re a young company). He only needed a job for about a month, and Richard needed someone to fill in doing things like order entry and data management. But as is typical with small, brand new companies, there's no shortage of work. Soon Heath was doing everything from server maintenance to working with the warehouse and learning how to sell tea. Before long, Heath had proven himself indispensable and accepted a full time job with this company.
And from day one, Richard asked Heath to help out with setting up tea tastings – an integral part of the tea industry.
“It was fun to set up those tastings, and then Richard would have me tasting with him so I could learn what he was doing,” Heath says. “It was nice to taste the differences in different teas.”
Heath at a tea facility in China, moving freshly-picked tea (bag by bag) to the area where it's processed.
As Heath’s job expanded, he found himself handling customer service for two leaves’ clients abroad, and then helping with imports. His on-the-job training came in the form of several trips to Germany, a tea hub of the world. “Wait a minute,” you’re thinking. “Germany is a tea hub of the world?”
“Not many people know that,” Heath says. “Almost all of the tea in the world goes through Germany at some point.” That’s thanks to the Port of Hamburg, located on the Elbe River, the second busiest port in Europe. The Elbe river has always transported tea from east to west across the north continent, to those countries that drink an astonishing amount of tea: England and Ireland. Family-run tea businesses in Hamburg have been honing their craft for generations, therefore it’s a great place to learn about tea.
It was one such family-run business where Heath returned many times to learn how to taste tea, and watched master tea tasters do blind tastings on 200 cups of tea at once. These master tea tasters are able to distinguish teas from different regions, different gardens and more.
“It’s unbelievable the kind of palates they have,” Heath says. “They can tell the teas that have been picked on different days, when there was more sun or less sun. It’s absolutely amazing.”
My main question for Heath when I talk to him about his experiences abroad has always been this: Can you be taught to have a palate like that, or is that an ability some people are just born with?
“Certain people are more inclined to certain abilities,” Heath says. “I think anyone can be trained to a point, and after that point, natural ability takes over.
“I remember talking to these guys who were training me and giving me tips, and someone said, ‘You need to sit down and drink this cup of tea every day, and then go back and drink it again and again until you can say somebody swapped it on you, and you know the difference.’”
Once he developed that ability, Heath was able to taste some of his favorite teas side by side, and try to focus in on the reasons – the specific tastes – why he liked one, versus why he liked another, and what made them different. This is something that anyone can do, he says.
A withering station for tea in China
There was more to Heath’s traveling for two leaves, of course, specifically to the tea growing centers of China and Sri Lanka, where he went several times to travel about, see tea gardens and taste tea.
“It was beautiful, pristine and serene,” Heath says. “Most of the gardens are relatively small — the majority of them you can hike in an hour and see the whole thing."
Heath helped out at the gardens, learning about how facilities process tea and appreciating the everyday work of the tea pluckers.
Nowadays, Heath works part time in the two leaves office, handling certification and also tasting tea with Richard. “We’re a great team,” he says. “Richard is an unbelievably great tea taster, and we’re just different enough to talk about teas, and bounce ideas off each other. I feel honored to have had these opportunities.”
After hearing all this about Heath, traveling the world to learn about tea, it may surprise you (as it did me) to learn that right now he’s pursuing a degree in mathematics at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, Colo. Someday he wants to teach math, he said.
The thing that I’ve realized about Heath is that he’s taking one day at a time, pursuing whatever dream is right in front of him with intense focus; a trait I admire. And, by the way, he’ll be a lifelong tea lover. He drinks black teas from Darjeeling or Assam in the winter because they keep better, and then starting in the spring he loves the freshest tea available as it's coming out of the tea gardens — starting with the young white teas and Japanese gyokuro, to more greens as soon as they're available.
Someday, Heath Hillman will be the math teacher with the finest taste in tea you’ve ever met.