Bridging the Gap: Josh Chamberlain’s Journey Into Tea

BY AARON MARINEAU

Josh Chamberlain’s hands sweep across the modern, black countertop of his shop. His rough fingers gesticulating nimbly in a delicately detailed dance that not everyone would recognize.

Swish. Swish. Swish.

His digits flash into positions with a precision and ease that only comes with thousands of repetitions. This finely refined routine all set to the soundtrack of water fighting to bubble its way out of a metallic teapot.

Ping. Ping. Ping.

With a flick of his wrist, Chamberlain kills the heat. The bubbling stops, replaced by the sounds of steaming water hitting the bottom of a porcelain teacup as yet another cup of tea is ready for one of Chamberlain’s budding customer base.

Based out of a small, converted house in the Friendly neighborhood that he calls his, “dream teahouse,” Chamberlain now makes his living helping others discover an affinity for the thing he’s spent the better part of two decades getting to know better. Tea.

Yet, strangely enough, his obsession didn’t start the day he fell in love with tea, but something else entirely. A country.

And boy, did he fall hard.

************

A graduate of the University of Oregon in 1997, Chamberlain’s post-college work took him all over the Pacific Northwest as he bounded from job to job.

Having picked up the Chinese language during his studies, Chamberlain made a point of speaking the language any opportunity he got, especially in the work place.

“It was really important to keep Chinese with work,” Chamberlain says, remembering his days working in a Chinese restaurant in Seattle, where he would hone his skills by chatting with staff members any chance he got.

But after a while, just speaking Chinese on the job wasn’t enough. Chamberlain was 25 and wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with life.

“I just wanted to go into something that I was wholehearted about so if I worked 60 hours a week I knew what it was for.”

Clearly, bussing tables at a restaurant wasn’t it. And one day, Chamberlain’s friends gifted him with an opportunity that he couldn’t turn down.

Five friends. One house. Living in Taiwan.

Just before the turn of the new millennium, Chamberlain took a chance.

“If I don’t do this now and I wait, then I’m just going to be older and not know what I want to do,” Chamberlain explains.

With that, he picked up and moved to Tainan, Taiwan, the cultural capital of the Taiwanese South.

And it was there that Chamberlain fell in love. With the people, the feeling of the city, Chamberlain felt completely at ease in his new found home.

“My friends and I, we would go out and learn about tea at various places and come back and share.”

Living with his four childhood friends, their adventures helped move Chamberlain one step closer to his future life as their small house rapidly became an informal tea commune. Reveling in each other’s discoveries, it wasn’t long until Chamberlain had established himself as the one with all the right tea connection.

“Whenever we’d have tea, it was always Josh had the good tea,” Chamberlain says, laughing to himself.

Of all his friends, Chamberlain was the one who had met all the right people, getting in with several Taiwanese tea masters around Tainan. And for the next five years, Chamberlain would spend every moment he could learning the intricacies of the drink he used to approach with a casual fascination.

************

Now, nearly a decade later and Josh Chamberlain can be found nearly everyday tucked behind the black tea bar of his, “dream teahouse,” helping each and every one of his customers discover the same passion that sparked his drive.

Some things have changed. Chamberlain opened a business. J-Tea International, one of Eugene’s only teahouses, opened it’s doors to the public in 2007 as an ode to Taiwanese tea. He’s married, as of last August, but still manages to visit the country he loves at least twice a year, this time bringing along the woman he loves to share in the experience.

Chamberlain never planned on being where he is now. “It was a series of accidents,” he laughs. But while Chamberlain’s journey was unexpected, it shaped him in ways that he’s at a loss for words to describe.

Staring out through the door-sized windows lining the front of his teahouse, Chamberlain pours himself a cup of the beverage he’s spent so long getting to know. The pings of water boiling against their silver kettle cage slowly fade. Taking a deep sip, he gathers his thoughts.

“Tea is a bridge. It’s trying to get back to Taiwan culture.”

And for anyone who visits Chamberlain’s teahouse, that bridge is always right in front of them just waiting to be poured.

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