An Interview with Zach Mangan of kettl

From a shop on Manhattan’s Upper East Side to the fields of Fukuoka, tea has taken Zach Mangan on the journey of a lifetime in less than five years. The musician-turned-tea importer stands at the forefront of the drink’s transformation from afterthought to staple of high-end restaurants’ menus and discerning drinkers’ cups.

Kettl, the company Mangan co-founded, is where high-end restaurants known for forward-thinking menus turn for tea. Sourced from Nagano’s famed buckwheat, the hills of Hoshinomura, and elsewhere in Japan, kettl’s top-tier teas are served at New York restaurants such as Atera and Brushstroke and sold online for at-home consumption.

Mangan — a trained jazz musician who turned his passion for tea into a flourishing full-time business — shared with the Independent Collection his thoughts on tea, Japan, and the best restaurants in his adopted home town: New York City.

Gyokuro plants in Jouyou Village, Fukuoka, Japan

Gyokuro plants in Jouyou Village, Fukuoka, Japan

Independent Collection (IC): What is your background and what inspired you to get into the tea business?

Zach Mangan (ZM): I actually come from a music background. I was and still am — though less so these days — a working musician. I studied jazz performance in college and have traveled all over the world playing music. When I first moved to NYC after graduating college I was looking for work, and being a somewhat serious hobbyist when it came to tea, figured a job in tea would be a great way to learn more about it. There was a beautiful Japanese tea store owned by Ito En on the Upper East Side that I loved visiting, so I figured I’d try them. I sent them my resume and heard nothing. So I just kept sending it and they finally gave me a job.

IC: kettl works closely with purveyors outside of the U.S. How did you build that network of connections, and how have others (in Japan or elsewhere) inspired or informed you?

ZM: While I was working at Ito En, two Japanese tourists came by the shop. They were really open people and wanted to connect, so I made them some tea and we started chatting in the store. Turns out the tea I made for them was from Fukuoka Prefecture in Japan, the same place they were visiting New York from — a coincidence. They immediately gave me their business card — they owned an IT company in Japan — and offered to show me around Fukuoka if I ever made it to Japan. Six months later I booked a month-long ticket to Japan to run a marathon and perform at an improvised music festival with two Japanese musicians — and I remembered the two gentlemen from the store and emailed them. They immediately replied and set up a visit for me to some local tea farms. When I arrived in Fukuoka, they had brought their entire IT company staff to meet me and we all hopped in some rented vans and toured a few tea farms. The beauty of the farms, quality of the tea, and the incredible hospitality left an indelible impression on me. Upon returning to NYC I helped a friend run a three-month Matcha pop-up in Soho and soon after realized this was a pursuit I wanted to undertake: Creating a new kind of tea company centered around simple, high-quality teas and beautifully designed teaware which lead to a more focused and inspired life. I immediately called those two Japanese tourists in Japan and asked if they wanted to start a business with me. They agreed, and we have been working together since 2011. So this business started largely by chance with little planning!

One of our team members in Japan grew up in the tea world and has made numerous introductions to producers, farmers, and artisans. We now personally work with over 10 different producers and consider them our network, our team members and our friends. I’ve been lucky in that regard. I am inspired literally daily by the incredible hospitality of our staff, partners and friends in Japan. I’ve found inspiration in many Japan-based brands, including Japan Hand Made, Kyoto-based bag makers Ichizawa Hanpu, Brooklyn-based OK Baggu and my good friends at Burrow Bakery. Running a successful and interesting business is based on trusting yourself, and all of these brands do that to an inspiring degree.

Zach Mangan of kettl

Mangan with a pair of kettl’s producers and friends, Shinya San and Inoue San, in Hoshinomura Village, Japan. Tea grown in Hoshinomura is considered some of the finest in the world.

IC: What does a typical day of running kettl involve for you?

ZM: When I am in NYC, it could mean anything. Typical is rare. I can be found doing lots of things. We manage the tea menus for many restaurants in NYC so I am typically training restaurant staff a couple days a week. I still do most of the deliveries throughout the city myself, so there is quite a bit of that. I will usually fulfill Internet orders in the morning and then taste new products by myself before lunch. My partners in Japan and I have Monday-night meetings on Skype and connect through Google Chat and Asana the rest of the week. I try to keep up with shooting the photography for our site and managing that while creating content for our blog. I will have meetings with artisans and designers to talk about new products, possible collaborations and meetings with retailers who are invested in our products. We are hoping to have a space in NYC soon too, so I’ve been working making that happen. I am currently in Japan for three months setting up our new fulfillment system, sourcing teas, and trying to get better at Japanese — losing at that! — It’s pretty full-on, but I love every minute of it.

IC: Do you have any teas about which you’re particularly excited these days? What makes these teas special?

ZM: We strive to have unique teas on our menu you can’t find other places, and I can honestly say we’ve found some amazing stuff in the last year. Right now my top three favorites are a Soba Cha (buckwheat) tea sourced from and roasted by a Soba noodle maker in Nagano. The sugars in the soba caramelize during roasting, making for a naturally sweet cup with a really beautiful aroma of toasted grain. Our honorable mention 2014 Hon Gyokuro, which is shaded for 20 days before being hand-picked, is incredibly round and deep with a lasting umami finish. This particular grade of tea has never left Japan before, so that’s exciting. Then my go-to tea is our houjicha tea bag, which is a deep roasted green tea from Yame in Fukuoka – it’s incredibly comforting and low in caffeine. It’s perfect paired with food and always in my cup while working at night.

green tea tasting in Japan

A green tea tasting session at the source of the tea. kettl’s teas are curated from sources across Japan.

IC: For the novice looking to get into at-home tea steeping, what are the basic tools you’d recommend acquiring to prepare the perfect cup?

ZM: The most important thing is good water. Japanese teas need soft water with a decent amount of minerals. NYC has pretty good water, but the Midwest, West Coast and Europe can be tough when it comes to brewing Japanese tea appropriately. Use bottled spring water if you think you have hard water. A nice teapot that has a wide inside to allow the tea to open up is also crucial. Tea balls, paper bags, and other shortcuts will always leave you wanting. I recommend picking out a pot and cup you really love and using it daily. Tea takes some practice to get the brewing correct, but once you do, it’s yours. I brew tea at least five times a day and I am always surprised at how day-to-day it’s always slightly different. It’s a learning experience and very interesting to take part in.

IC: Although you seem to travel often, your home base is Brooklyn, New York. What are a few of your go-to spots for food, drink, relaxation or fun in Brooklyn or NYC as a whole?

ZM: I’m partial to Japanese food, of course, and I love Hibino, which does traditional Obanzai, or Japanese small plates (locations in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn and Long Island City, Queens). I really love The Smile on Howard Street for a quick takeaway when I am running around the city. An Choi in the LES is a must for maestro Matt Le-Khac’s homestyle Vietnamese food. Mission Chinese and Nom Wah are great Chinatown spots. My favorite bars are Bohemian on Great Jones Street and the Lounge at Atera — check out both.

*****

To learn more about kettl’s tea, teaware, and restaurant partnerships, visit www.kettl.co.

Follow along on the kettl blog and Instagram as Mangan explores Japan in search of unique new teas.

Oboro San

Oboro San has been growing and producing tea in Japan for 30 years. NYC- and Fukuoka, Japan-based tea importer kettl relies on his expertise and friendship in sourcing tea from various regions across Japan.