Marin Independent Journal Newspaper Article – October 3, 2018

Lagunitas’ exotic Last Resort seeks reprieve from auction block

By Richard Halstead
(link)

It appears the final chapter has not yet been written for David Lee Hoffman’s so-called “The Last Resort,” a Tibetan-style experiment in sustainable living in Lagunitas.

Marin Superior Court Judge Paul Haakenson on Friday rejected a request from a receiver — whom he appointed in 2015 to bring Hoffman’s funky compound into compliance with the law — for permission to tear down two buildings at the site.

Haakenson also rejected a request by Hoffman’s attorney to validate the Marin County Architectural Commission’s determination in 2016 that all 36 of The Last Resort’s structures have “architectural significance.” Under state law, such a designation would mean that the buildings would be subject to the California Historical Building Code, which is less stringent than the county’s building code.

Instead, Haakenson directed the receiver, Eric Beatty, and Hoffman to meet and confer in an attempt to reach agreement on which of The Last Resorts’ structures are architecturally significant and thus should be evaluated under the Historical Building Code.

After settling on the property at 2 Alta Ave. and 230 Cintura Ave. in 1973, Hoffman, an importer of exotic teas, modified existing cabin-style residences that had been built in the early 1900s and made a number of other improvements. He added storage buildings, ponds, retaining walls and ornamental structures — including a full-size replica of a fishing boat suspended in a pond of rainwater — all without permits.

The style of his building was influenced by a decade Hoffman spent backpacking through Tibet, Nepal and elsewhere in Asia.

County health inspectors were not impressed, however, by Hoffman’s unpermitted outdoor composting toilet or kitchen composting system that utilized worms and a series of open-air moats. They said the moats were a breeding ground for mosquitoes and the toilet threatened the aquifer and nearby streams with contamination from sewage.

“There is no urgent need to deal with those buildings; they’re not unsafe,” Hoffman’s attorney, Peter Prows, said after the hearing.

Prows said the building of most concern should be Hoffman’s tea house, which he said is also the compound’s biggest and most architecturally significant structure.

“It’s built into and off the side of a hillside,” Prows said, “and the concern is if there is an earthquake it will just come tumbling down and people might get hurt. If you’re actually trying to solve a real problem like addressing things that are unsafe, let’s start there.”

In his filing, Prows stated that Hoffman has commissioned a plan from a San Anselmo architect, Adam Posard, to make The Last Resort safe, while preserving its historic structures, consistent with the Historical Building Code. He asserted that Posard’s plan should be made the basis for the receiver’s renovation of The Last Resort.

In his tentative ruling, Haakenson wrote, “The court is not opposed to modification of its 2015 order, and allowing the restoration of the property to occur under the less onerous regulatory requirements of the Historical Building Code, should the property be designated accordingly.”

But Haakenson also stated that any restoration plan that rests upon application of the Historical Building Code “will require the county to accept this designation.”

“It is not for the court to direct the county to apply the Historical Building Code in permitting construction, or approving any construction or restoration,” Haakenson wrote.

Haakenson noted in the ruling that Hoffman has twice before ignored court orders to bring his property into compliance with the law.

The Last Resorts’ application to the Marin County Architectural Commission in 2016 was supported by three experts. Sim Van der Ryn, former California state architect, lauded the “advanced ecological design” of the compound, comparing it favorably to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. Mark Hulbert, a licensed conservation architect and cultural resources consultant, compared The Last Resort’s historical importance to that of the Marin County Civic Center. And Jo Farb Hernandez, director of SPACES, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of historically significant art spaces, wrote that “there could be no better example of a site worthy of preservation.”

Hoffman still faces an uphill battle, however, to preserve his ecological Shangri-La.

A previous ruling against him for ignoring building codes has left him saddled with more than $226,000 in fines. After the receiver was appointed in 2015, the court granted Beatty a $93,000 lien to cover the cost of carrying out the order. On Friday, Haakenson granted the receiver’s request for an additional $205,000 lien.

According to Beatty’s filing for Friday’s hearing, this lien “may not be extended unless the more than $385,000 in delinquent property tax assessments from 2014 are paid by Mr. Hoffman.”

Beatty, who could not be reached for comment, states in the filing that if the tax assessments aren’t paid, all of The Last Resorts’ properties could be sold at auction in 2019.

Point Reyes Light Newspaper Article – October 4, 2018

Lagunitas tea seller denied ask, gains time

(link)

Surrounded by more than a dozen friends and neighbors in a hot courtroom last Friday, tea purveyor and longtime Lagunitas resident David Lee Hoffman strained in his seat to take in the proceedings but soon retreated to the back, where he resigned to not being able to hear—and resumed his usual serene expression.

In trouble with the county over decades of unpermitted building, Mr. Hoffman, 74, filed a motion in Marin Superior Court in August in defense of the continued applicability of the Marin County Architectural Commission’s 2016 designation of architectural significance for his property—a fighting argument for the preservation of his dozens of structures.

Adding urgency to his case, the county can auction off the property next year should he fail to pay outstanding taxes and penalties, which amount to over $800,000.

But at Friday’s hearing, Judge Paul Haakenson took guidance from county counsel Brian Case, who laid out the county’s position that the 2016 architectural significance designation was invalid. In the end, he finalized a tentative ruling that denied Mr. Hoffman’s motion, though he added some sympathetic orders.

Mr. Case explained that the architectural commission’s designation of significance was void because a court-appointed receiver who has been in control of the property since 2015 never approved it. Mr. Case provided a letter from April 2016, dated a few weeks after the commission made its determination, from the deputy director of the Building and Safety division as evidence of a timely invalidation.

Yet in a strange contradiction, Mr. Case also said the county was in favor of the receiver considering the architectural and cultural significance of Mr. Hoffman’s property, though only at his discretion and “at the appropriate time.”

For his part, the receiver, Southern California attorney Paul Beatty, deferred to the judge for direction, expressing concern about how he might both fulfill his duties and recognize the site’s architectural significance. Mr. Beatty said that in 2015 Judge Haakenson ordered him to bring the property into compliance with all state and local codes—including the state’s residential, plumbing and electrical codes—and to correct its deficiencies and violations, including by demolition.

Of particular concern to him was that unpermitted structures interfere with Alta and Cintura Creek watercourses, a violation of county code. “With respect to this much larger issue, the receiver is given to wonder: is Mr. Hoffman suggesting that the county is required to issue permits… without any restoration work being performed because a designated-architecturally-significant structure is in the way?” he wrote in a filing to the court on Sept. 28.

In his final ruling, Judge Haakenson made a few key concessions. He ordered Mr. Beatty to meet and confer with all involved parties about the possibility of reapplying to the architectural commission to consider significance on a structure-by-structure basis. Practically speaking, a designation of significance allows a structure to comply with the state’s historic building code. That code is more lenient than the building code, which has thousands of pages of prescriptive technical requirements.

Softening further, Judge Haakenson told Mr. Beatty to temporarily postpone the demolition of two structures that encroach on an adjacent public road, pending the conversation among concerned parties.

According to Judge Haakenson, this was the best he could do for Mr. Hoffman, given the county’s position. “Regardless of Marin Architectural Commission’s decision, the county seemingly is articulating that it will not approve permits, or sign off on legal compliance of any final construction, unless the structures comply with the Marin County Code, and unless the many other legal deficiencies are remedied,” he wrote in his tentative ruling. “The court is powerless to direct the county how to issue permits or approve the future construction and development. Thus, absent county agreement to ignore codes and regulations already found to exist, and apply only the Historical Building Code, it would amount to a waste of time and resources to direct the receiver to apply the Historical Building Code to guide his restoration efforts.”

This argument was perplexing to Peter Prows, Mr. Hoffman’s attorney, who not only argued that the architectural commission’s designation was never formally appealed and invalidated but also that the judge had the authority to weigh in on the matter.

“What are we doing here? We are trying to solve a problem. We have put forward a plan that was very expensive, as Your Honor can imagine, to try to make this property safe,” Mr. Prows said, referencing plans Mr. Hoffman commissioned from a San Anselmo architectural firm that delineate how the property might be brought into compliance with the historic building code.

Mr. Prows went on, “We can go down a path of finding issues that aren’t related to safety and are technical violations of this or that, and we can spend a lot of money and a lot of time and get a lot of liens on this property until Mr. Hoffman is run out of his home. Or, we can actually solve a problem—and that’s what we are trying to do.”

But Judge Haakenson was steadfast. The receiver will report back to him again in March.

After the hearing, Mr. Hoffman and his crowd of supporters convened outside the courthouse, assessing whether it had been a loss or a win. The general consensus: at least there was more time.

Mr. Hoffman, who is suffering from Lyme disease and has turned much of his attention toward his health, told the Light that he is trying to keep his stress minimal.

He continues to be supported by his community in the San Geronimo Valley and beyond. On Friday, San Francisco cinematographer A.J. Marson was documenting the most recent chapter of Mr. Hoffman’s story, and a neighbor recently took up the task of forming a nonprofit that may be able to better fund and take care of the property, dubbed the Last Resort.

John Torrey, a neighbor who partnered with Mr. Hoffman in 2016 to apply for the designation of architectural significance, said he thought the decisions at the county level were political in nature. He put pressure on District Four Supervisor Dennis Rodoni to weigh in.

“He would be a hero to the community if he did that,” Mr. Torrey said.

Point Reyes Light Newspaper Article – August 15, 2018

Lagunitas tea seller hopes for historic building code

Video series by A.J. Marson, The Last Resort: A Call to Action

A.J. Marson has made a beautiful series of three short films called, The Last Resort: A Call to Action that are well worth the time to explore. Many other short documentaries in the Video section.

Point Reyes Light Newspaper Article 11/30/17

Lagunitas man given time to save structures

By Anna Guth
11/30/2017

(PDF here)

Amid fierce community support for tea purveyor David Lee Hoffman and his legendary Lagunitas property, a superior court judge is moving cautiously to address the problems posed by its dozens of unpermitted structures.

In a hearing late last month, Judge Paul Haakenson largely overruled the lawyer he appointed to help bring the property up to code, postponing any demolition and allowing Mr. Hoffman continued access to much of his property—with the exception of his teahouse, which will be roped off for the time being.

The property, which Mr. Hoffman calls “The Last Resort” and built as a model for sustainable living, features many Asian-inspired creations stemming from Mr. Hoffman’s trips to China to buy his choice pu-erh tea. But with its roughly 30 unpermitted structures and illegal gray and black water systems, the property has troubled the county for  decades.

Judge Haakenson took over the case after Mr. Hoffman refused to comply with a 2012 court order that both levied $226,672 in fines and mandated that he demolish all the illegal structures on the property at his own cost. In 2015, using a different tactic, Judge Haakenson placed the property under the control of a receiver tasked with bringing the property into compliance.

In the meantime, though Mr. Hoffman moved much of his tea business, the Phoenix Collection, to a brick-and-mortar shop in Lagunitas, he has continued to live and work—and, despite a court mandate, build—on the property. His fines have continued to mount: he has roughly $350,000 pending on his property tax bill, reflecting the court’s administrative penalties, as well as a $93,000 lien on the property from Bank of America to cover the costs of the receiver’s work.

At a hearing on Nov. 17, the receiver, attorney Paul Beatty, after two years spent consulting numerous federal permitting agencies and consultants, made his first report on the measures he wanted Mr. Hoffman to take to address “immediate health and safety concerns.” These included demolishing two buildings that encroach on Alta Avenue and roping off access to a variety of others—including Mr. Hoffman’s residence, storage shed, teahouse and workshop. He also proposed prohibiting Mr. Hoffman from having guests on the property.

Yet Judge Haakenson, responding to requests voiced by Mr. Hoffman’s lawyer, Paul Smith, settled on an overall less impactful ruling—though he also made clear that his patience was wearing thin. “At some point this court has to say enough is enough,” he warned.

“At some point we might be compelled to put a gate around the property, make Mr. Hoffman leave, let Mr. Beatty do his work.” Under the tentative ruling, a large swath of one of Mr. Hoffman’s two adjoining parcels will be roped off to remediate safety hazards. Mr. Hoffman will maintain access to his residence, workshop, storage shed and garden.

During the hearing, Mr. Smith, the attorney, effectively argued that the buildings themselves were not safety hazards, and that more precise fencing around elements like a retaining pond and a water feature could allow Mr. Hoffman to continue to live and work on the property.

Yet the judge did ultimately prohibit Mr. Hoffman’s access to his teahouse—a roughly 600-square-foot building that serves as a ceremonial convening place for tea drinking—as it was deemed structurally unsound.

Additionally, rather than forcing him to demolish the two structures— a garage and a storage building—flagged by Mr. Beatty, Judge Haakenson allowed Mr. Hoffman the opportunity to provide plans and obtain the necessary permits to modify the structures so as to comply with the required setbacks. The receiver was instructed to oversee those modifications.

The judge was also amenable to Mr. Hoffman’s request to hire his own consultants to evaluate all of the structures together—as opposed to the receiver’s piecemeal approach—and prepare a comprehensive master plan to bring the property up to code. He clarified, however, that though Mr. Beatty could evaluate this plan once it was finished, the effort was not part of a formal court order and would not supersede the receiver’s continued task of evaluating the property.

Lastly, Judge Haakenson emphasized that Mr. Hoffman was prohibited from any further construction on the property. That mandate has been in place since at least 2012, but at the judge’s recent site visit, he walked onto wet concrete—clear evidence of Mr. Hoffman’s continued expansions.

Mr. Smith, after the hearing, made clear that a compromise had also come together for the final ruling on the subject of guests. Although  Mr. Hoffman will not be able to host organized tours or other large groups of people, his assistant can continue to work at the property, and friends and family can visit.

Support for the Last Resort

Around 30 neighbors and friends joined Mr. Hoffman in the courtroom. Richard Lang, a neighbor and longtime friend, expressed relief at the outcome and spoke highly of the judge in particular. Judge Haakenson had visited the property in early November, and Mr. Lang felt he was starting to understand the significance of the Last Resort. For Mr. Lang, his neighbor represents the spirit of West Marin in the ’70s.

While the legal battle over Mr. Hoffman’s property has simmered, community members and friends have been working on a way to acknowledge the historic significance of Mr. Hoffman’s work. John Torrey, a Lagunitas resident and advocate for the site’s preservation, partnered with Mr. Hoffman in 2016 to apply for a designation of architectural significance from the Marin Architectural Commission.

The commission, a relatively new group created by the Board of Supervisors in 2015, provides a level of recognition for properties determined to be “essential to the cultural fabric of Marin.” Commissioner Bruce King, a structural engineer, told the Light in January that sites can be deemed significant if they are important to the historic, architectural or cultural importance or well-being of Marin.

A commission designation is not an endorsement of a site’s structural safety, and it does not mean it must be preserved precisely as it is, Mr. King said. In fact, the owner of a property that the commission designates as significant is free to tear it down. But it does mean the property falls under the California Historic Building Code, which offers greater latitude in adhering to traditional code requirements.

In April, the commission unanimously voted to approve Mr. Hoffman’s application. “We enthusiastically thought David Hoffman’s house qualified. It’s a walk-through sculptural garden,” Mr. King told the Light at the time. Yet within days of the commission’s vote, the designation was suspended—apparently because the application had not been filed properly with the receiver.

In a recent conversation, Mr. Torrey said he is still working to get the designation reinstated. “I’m pretty frustrated by this whole process,” he said. “The county is not listening to historic architects and is  willfully ignorant of folk art environments such as what David has created. It’s time they listened to what the community wants. This is our county as much as it is theirs, and this is what we want in West
Marin.”

Around 2,000 people signed a petition to the county back in 2012 in defense of the property, Mr. Torrey said, and another 1,500 signed a 2017 petition in support of reinstating the historic preservation status.

The most recent court ruling will likely be finalized in the next few weeks. Judge Haakenson scheduled another hearing for March 29; at that time, Mr. Hoffman will provide a status report and the receiver will be welcome to give a report. Mr. Beatty, who is based in Southern California and has to travel to complete his duties, will continue evaluating the property and billing Mr. Hoffman for his time.

Mr. Hoffman, who is battling Lyme disease, said the prospect of rearranging his home life—in any capacity—was daunting. “I’m sorry all of this has made me an outlaw, but I’m proud I can tell my grandsons I did the best that I could,” he said. “I always believed that I was working on solutions, not creating a bigger problem. We can’t rely on government and big business to fix the problems in our world; we need people who understand the problem to do our part to make the planet a better place. The laws of nature just conflict with those that politicians make.”

This article was corrected on Dec. 4, 2017.

San Francisco Chronicle Newspaper Article

By Jonathan Kauffman

David Lee Hoffman will not show me his tea cave.

The Lagunitas cave where Hoffman, owner of the Phoenix Collection, is aging tens of thousands of pounds of tea is well- known in the industry. “All in This Tea,” Les Blank’s 2007 documentary about Hoffman, pictures him loading boxes into it. Marin County, which has been suing Hoffman for more than a decade to bring his 2-acre estate to code, has listed the cave in its extensive complaints.

Yet Hoffman still treats it as a secret. “It’s not open to the public,” he tells me. That may be because most of the teas

stored at the Last Resort, his home and “ecological research center” in the Lagunitas hills, are puers, a genre of Chinese tea equivalent to cult Cabs or single- malt scotches. Hoffman is one of the most storied tea vendors in the United States, and his puers may be worth millions of dollars, albeit to a minuscule cadre of collectors.

As the Phoenix Collection spends down the tea Hoffman has accrued, these serious collectors have found their way to him. Sales, he says, are growing, as is Hoffman’s sense of urgency. Lyme disease, a recent diagnosis, has inflamed the 73- year-old’s joints and sapped his energy. At the same time, Marin County is fed up with Hoffman, who has built 36 structures on his property over the course of 45 years without county permits. Since 2015, the property has been under court-appointed receivership.

At some point, the tea party will end. Hoffman doesn’t know whether he’ll emerge with any money, a home or tea.

***

It takes determination — which, in the Internet age, means a phone call — to learn that the Phoenix Collection actually has an office in a strip mall down the hill from the Last Resort, and that it is open to the public on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

When I visit, then, the hubbub inside comes as a surprise. Six of the carved stools around the tea station have tiny white cups set before them. Two women in their 60s sip from theirs admiringly, watching their partners saw through a 6-foot-long cylinder wrapped in palm leaves and stuffed with Hunanese hua juan tea. A young woman in a peasant dress stops by to give Hoffman vinegar she has made from his apples. Another couple peruse a display of puer tea cakes on display in the shop’s Tea Museum, murmuring over the rounds, the bricks, even a wizened pomelo stuffed with fermented leaves.

Dressed in a blue shirt with Central American embroidery and his customary pageboy cap, Hoffman beams genially at the bustle, calling customers back to their cups each time his assistant, Nawang Tsomo, pours a new round. Part instructor, part host, he regularly darts outside to reposition a silvery solar cooker in the parking lot, returning with warm whole- wheat breads baked inside.

To find so many people interested in tasting esoteric teas is due in part to Hoffman’s proselytizing. When he started Silk Road Teas, his first tea company, 25 years ago, puer (sometimes spelled pu’erh, and pronounced POO-air) was even more rare in the United States than it is today.

Puer comes from Yunnan province in southwest China. In the 14th century, cosmopolitan tea culture in China began brewing loose-leaf tea, but remote Yunnan continued to press tea into cakes for easy transport.. By the 1970s, the tea was almost a curiosity, prized mainly by Yunnanese locals, Tibetans and Cantonese. The latter discovered that as the cakes traveled to southeast China’s sticky, sweltering climate and lingered in storerooms, their flavor became deep and robust, the ideal complement to dim sum and rich stews.

According to Jinghong Zhang, author of “Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic,” in 1973 one tea factory, recognizing Cantonese appetites for these earthy older teas, developed a method for fermenting tea leaves to replicate many of the effects of aging. Since then, puer has been divided into two classes, the artificially fermented or “cooked” (shu) and the “raw” (sheng).

Cooked puer, which brews up almost as dark and opaque as cocoa, can smell like wet leaves or moist humus, with a fruity sweetness and a viscous, satiny body.

Young raw puer resembles green tea, orchids and honeyed stone fruits floating over base notes of hay and toast, with a bitterness that nips the tongue. When it ages naturally, the leaves oxidize and microbial residents get to work.

As the 10-year mark approaches, the aromas of dried tobacco, camphor, dried fruit and incense overcome the flowers and vegetal notes. Every year adds to the tea’s smoothness and depth. The best puer can linger in the throat and flush the chest and forehead, occasionally to a psychotro- pic degree.

It is almost impossible to fall in love with aged puer without wanting to collect it.

***

In 1972, a 28-year-old Hoffman returned to the United States after almost a decade abroad, with the seed of his vast collection in his backpack: a mushroom-shaped cake of puer.

A former engineering student at San Jose State and son of a successful wallpaper manufacturer in Oakland, Hoffman had left the country just after Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. On his destination-less pilgrimage, he traveled to more than 100 countries, staying the longest in Nepal, Afghanistan and India, where he lived in Tibetan refugee settlements and fell in love with tea. “Most of the world are tea drinkers,” he recounts. Each time he says “tea,” his voice rises and falls, resonating like a chime.

He returned to the States to recuperate, wasted away after successive bouts of hepatitis and paratyphoid fever. Accompanying him home, too, was a sense of mission. Traveling, “I felt like I was just a sponge soaking everything up,” Hoffman says. “I came back here and wanted to let it all out.”

Soon afterward, he bought a 11⁄2-acre parcel in the steep Lagunitas hills for $38,000, adding another half-acre later. Like many of his back-to-the-land neighbors in West Marin, Hoffman set out to transform the property himself. Unlike them, he never stopped.

A chicken coop appeared, then became a bedroom. He razed a carport to construct an ornate tea room. The structures multiplied, whimsy inseparable from function: A retaining pond and well whose pump was housed in a mock tugboat. A “Solar Power Shower Tower.” An elaborate system for filtering rainwater, gray- water and blackwater through pools, worm beds and terraced organic gardens.

Hoffman attributes his 45-year fascination with organic farming, vermiculture and wastewater systems to his time in India and Nepal. Other fascinations developed over the years. “I’ve been cursed with too many passions in life,” he says. He planted 5 acres of heirloom wheat varieties and milled the grains himself. The garden plots filled with rare potato plants he imported from Peru. When he switched from wood-fired stove to solar cooker, he discovered that cooking in stone pots gave him the best flavor (“I hate plastic,” he adds, with malice), and so he flew to South Korea to commission pots of his own design.

A series of businesses helped fund the construction. Books. Rugs. He invented a method to clean ancient textiles for museums with sonic vibrations. Scouting tea was a hobby that grew into another enterprise.

“I made my first trip to China because I couldn’t find any good tea here,” he says. In the early 1990s, Hoffman sold the textile-cleaning equipment he’d invented and traveled even more widely — to Zhejiang province for flat-bladed Dragonwell, to Guandong for spindly, floral Phoenix Mountain oolongs. He began collecting puers in Hong Kong teashops and ended up visiting farmers in the mountains of Yunnan.

Despite the fact that he was not fluent in spoken or written Mandarin, each trip brought him to new regions and rarer teas. As the export market opened and his reputation grew, the Chinese feted him with television profiles and industry banquets.

Silk Road Teas, operating out of Hoffman’s property, primarily sold to retail brands like Republic of Tea, but also tapped into an audience willing to pay for premium Chinese teas. Sebastian Beckwith, co-founder of the New York City- based In Pursuit of Tea, says that where other companies would import a couple varieties of green tea, Hoffman would sell 30. He’d spend half an hour on the phone with a curious collector who’d end up spending $30. “David did more for education in the early (U.S.) market than anyone else,” Beckwith says.

Hoffman added to his construction projects a cave where he could age his teas without requiring electricity for air circulation or climate control. He excavated into the hills, pouring 100,000 pounds of concrete to line the walls. There, from the 1990s to the mid-2000s, Hoffman filed away teas by the tons — actually, tens of tons.

* * *

By 2002, Silk Road Teas was doing $1 million in gross annual sales despite the fact that, as Hoffman frequently jokes, he had no innate talent for business. When he decided that the company had grown too unwieldy, he sold it to Catherine and Ned Heagerty, the latter a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur.

The negotiations, Ned Heagerty says, took two years, partly because of Hoffman’s lack of business acumen. Yet the new owner adds that the long courtship, in which the two traveled to China numerous times, was “something wonderful.”

“The beauty was that we were drinking some of the best tea China had to offer,” Heagerty says. “Not only was it a great introduction to tea, my introduction started at the top.”

The sale, finalized in 2004, did not include the contents of the tea cave, which Hoffman attributes to Heagerty’s disinterest, and Heagerty to Hoffman’s unwillingness to part with his puers. Hoffman consulted for the new owner for a few years, but eventually parted ways.

Supposedly, he turned his focus back to the Last Resort. Instead, he returned to China to buy more tea. Hoffman says he saw the collection as an investment that could help sustain the Last Resort. “I’d rather have a good stash of puers than a stack of money,” he says. “At least with tea I can enjoy it and share it.”

In those days, puer was so cheap that he amassed 200,000 pounds of it. Many of the teas he bought, like the baskets and logs on display at the Tea Museum, were heicha, or non-Yunnanese fermented “dark teas,” which were little known even in China.

Around 2010, Hoffman started the Phoenix Collection, competing directly against the company he’d sold just six years before.

***

In those short few years, the Chinese puer market had changed.

In 2006 and 2007, a frenzy of speculation on puer cakes gripped China, akin to the 17th century Dutch tulip craze. Farmers picked every bud that sprouted, trying to meet the demand. Fakeries proliferated. Investors tracked the skyrocketing price of their holdings in the puer press. As Jing- hong Zhang chronicled, unpressed tea from Yiwu, one of the most famous mountains, shot up from 50 to 120 Chinese yuan per kilo in 2005 to over 400 yuan ($92) in 2007. A year later, the market collapsed, and the price dropped by three-quarters.

The boom and bust, however ruinous to speculators, signaled to all of China the value that Cantonese and Taiwanese collectors had long placed on aged puer. Prices slowly rebounded, eventually surpassing the heights of the boom. Merchants now compete for the best leaves, valuing those from older, wilder trees over Communist-era plantations. As incomes in China have risen, so, too, has the Chinese market for high-end teas. “The domestic market has become my biggest competitor,” Heagerty says.

Since the boom, too, an American community of puer collectors has coalesced. “The common trajectory that people go through with tea drinking is they start on the lighter end, and then they get to dark- roasted oolongs,” says Max Falkowitz, a writer and editor at Saveur magazine. “As they’re drinking more with their bodies and appreciating the somatic and emotional effects of tea, that’s where puer starts to interest them.”

Americans, Brits, Singaporeans and Europeans — many of them in their 20s and early 30s — now discuss tea on English-language websites like Steepster as well as in Facebook groups, private Slack channels and Reddit boards. Falkowitz characterizes the online puer community as “fractious, competitive and often pedantic, but at the same time, really generous with their knowledge and experience and generous with their tea.”

A new generation of tea producers and vendors, many based in China, has arisen to supply this market, selling through their own websites or via eBay. Online, specifics are everything: which mountain a tea comes from, whether the trees came from a plantation or a semi-wild arbor, even the name of the farmer. In the case of older puers, vendors may specify whether the tea was stored in dry or humid conditions, considering how significant the effect humidity has on the taste of aged puers.

Hoffman professes ignorance of the online community, and for the most part, they ignore him, too.

The Phoenix Collection accepts orders only via telephone, but the real disconnect is in its approach to tea. Hoffman says, “You should never buy a tea you haven’t tasted.” The online community can’t visit Lagunitas.

The lack of specifics in his catalog is befuddling. Hoffman makes regular forays into the cave, excavates another haul, then figures out what he’s discovered. He doesn’t read much Chinese, so he briefly names and dates the teas based on the sketchy information he remembers about their provenance, trusting in his palate. (His palate, several people in the industry confirm, is excellent.) There is no Chinese equivalent to Hoffman’s Northern Californian tea cave, either, so only those who taste his teas in person can verify whether they are aging well.

At the same time, the Phoenix Collection’s mailing list has grown to 1,000. Chinese merchants have sniffed out his collection, too. They fly to the Bay Area to snap up choice older vintages, selling them to wealthy collectors back home for thousands of dollars.

***

When I visit the Last Resort for a tour, Hoffman won’t even point out where the tea cave is.

Instead, we sit on a terrace looking over his property and the wooded valley below. A breeze through the Lagunitas hills directs the wind chimes in a fairy-bell cantata. Hummingbirds buzz our ears. We can feel the vibration of their wings.

After 45 years of construction, the Last Resort resembles a village in the Himalayas, or perhaps the set of “Game of Thrones” a few weeks before filming. Buildings push against one another as if they are huddling for warmth, linked by walkways and steps that require caution to navigate. Pot shards, boards and doll heads are heaped in random corners. The canted, tiled roof of Hoffman’s unfinished magnum opus, his tea room, may dominate the view, but it’s easy to get distracted by other sights. A boat. A baby bulldozer. The Grand Pissoir, his compostable toilet, to which the county of Marin particularly objects.

Court records show that the county issued its first stop-work order in 1988. The county issued new violations in 1999, then again in 2000, 2001, 2007, 2009 and 2011.

Hoffman waved them all off. “Back then there were people in the county that loved my place,” he says. He claims when he asked the senior building inspector what he needed to do to bring the property into compliance, the guy winked and told him to get out of there.

As Hoffman tells of his fight with Marin County, a trickster theme keeps bubbling up — the wily rascal who has spent his life flouting authority in Afghanistan, China and Lagunitas. The inventor as stubborn iconoclast. The visionary, forging ahead of thelaw.

Those old Marin bureaucrats have all retired. Now, according to county counsel Bryan Case, the county just wants Hoffman to make his property safe.

The violations aren’t limited to bad wiring or overly steep steps. According to a December 2016 evaluation that building forensics consultant LaCroix Davis prepared on the Last Resort, the self-taught builder has constructed houses that might collapse in an earthquake and wells that might drown someone who accidentally falls in. Environmental health inspectors have also expressed concern that Hoffman’s blackwater system would contaminate a nearby watercourse and the San Geronimo Creek.

After the county court ordered Hoffman off the property in 2012 and levied $226,672 in fees — he refused to pay, he kept building — it finally appointed a receiver in 2015.

The receiver, Eric Beatty, is charged with bringing the property up to compliance, using its value to pay all fees and expenses. Some structures may need to be demolished for safety.

Hoffman claims that, with interest included, the county wants him to pay a half- million dollars and worries it could easily acquire the money by razing the land and selling it, bare. Beatty asserts that he is proceeding slowly with the evaluation and remediation. He has let Hoffman live on the property, only insisted the Phoenix Collection move off-site — hence the shop and Tea Museum down the hill.

In the meantime, hundreds of Hoffman’s supporters and neighbors have rallied around his eccentric estate.
They’ve filed petitions, met with county supervisors and appealed to the county architectural commission, updating supporters through a website, thelastresortlagunitas.org. They are trying to secure historic preservation status, although the property is six years short of the required 50-year mark. Another trick for the trickster.

Jo Farb Hernandez, executive director of Spaces, has joined their crusade. Spaces is a nonprofit that advocates for “folk art environments” like the Watts Towers in Los Angeles or Nitt Witt Ridge in Cambria (San Luis Obispo County). The Last Resort, she argues, doesn’t just deserve to be preserved for its cultural and artistic merit. She also sees great value in Hoffman’s model of sustainability. “Given the water issues that we have in California, people have to pay attention to forward-thinkers. And forward- thinkers are often breaking the rules.”

Hoffman says that love for the planet fuels his passion for the Last Resort and his willingness to flout the law. “As much as the county is condemning my work, the fact is, (these systems) work!” he says. “I can demonstrate the usefulness of this. And it’s easily adaptable to large-scale environments.”

After fighting the county for a decade now, however, he’s exhausted. Lyme disease has shrunk his ambitions even further. “My goal is to sell off all the tea and then close the doors,” he says, staving off demolitions and evictions long enough to do it.

He has 100,000 pounds to go.

Phoenix Collection Tea Museum, 7282 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Suite 1, Lagunitas; (415) 488-9017, thephoenixcollection.com.

Read the entire article here

The Californian king of pu’er tea

David Lee Hoffman is an American man who popularized pu’er tea (普洱茶 pǔ’ěr chá) in the U.S., and is even credited by many with inspiring a cult-like devotion to the fermented tea variety amongst tea connoisseurs in China itself. The San Francisco Chronicle has published a profile of Hoffman that tells the story of his rise to pu’er fame, his extraordinary collection of tea, and the threats he faces from the Marin County government for code violations on the property where he stores his tea in a cave.

By Jeremy Goldkorn
Jeremy Goldkorn is co-founder of the Sinica Podcast and currently edits SupChina and its daily newsletter

Point Reyes Light Newspaper Article

VALLEY: David Lee Hoffman’s property in Lagunitas, two acres of technical innovation and architectural whim, has been placed under the control of a court-appointed receiver who is charged with deciding the fate of its dozens of structures.

Article “Tea Purveyor Faces New Twists, Mounting Bills” published on 01/05/2017 in the Point Reyes Light about David’s current situation.

http://www.ptreyeslight.com/article/tea-purveyor-faces-new-twists-mounting-bills

September Newsletter

September, 2016

Dear Friends,

We’re still here! And, at least for the time being, it’s business as usual. The new tea harvests are all in and Jeannie is ready to take your order.

Just as in everything else in life, there’s good news and bad news. Since our last newsletter was over three years ago, there’s a lot to report.

Many of you have heard about my travails with the County of Marin (www.thelastresortlagunitas.org). Forty-three years ago I began a project to create a living model of sustainability. In that I have been wildly successful.

With a big help from earthworms and vermicomposting, I can grow my own food, enjoy wonderfully healthy and delicious meals and have tasty fruit throughout the year (and still have plenty to share with friends and neighbors!). It is fertilized exclusively from local inputs and watered by stored rainwater and greywater. My use of municipal water from MMWD is a fraction of county averages. Food is cooked from current sunlight, both direct and stored. I live in comfort, create almost zero waste, and have successfully demonstrated viable alternatives to archaic and obsolete septic tanks. My unique vermicomposting, grey- and -black water systems have been inspected and evaluated by two prestigious environmental engineering firms, ENGEO and Questa Engineering. They both wrote up favorable reports.

I’ve turned trees into timber, built with stone, earth, and metal by the labor and sweat of my own hands. The byproduct of all my work has been a magical transformation, regeneration, and proliferation of life in the environment around me. Frogs, snakes, lizards, birds, bats, even Great Blue Herons, have all become frequent visitors. It’s always a pleasure to observe the ever-changing sights, sounds, and fragrances. And to enjoy a nice cup of tea…

The Good News

We have opened a showroom and soon to be The Tea Museum right here in downtown Lagunitas.  Our first exhibit will be,

Tea & Bamboo:

Rare Collection of Bamboo Fragrance Pu-erhs & Ceramic Bamboo Teapots.

The collecting of Bamboo Fragrance Pu-erhs has been a personal interest of mine for more than a quarter of a century and I think I’ve amassed a very exciting selection. The bamboo Yixing teapots complement the tea and are stunning by themselves. They show the creative mastery from many treasured artists. The best part is you will have the opportunity to taste each one of the twenty-five Bamboo Fragrance Pu-erhs, some dating back to the 1980’s, and have a chance to take some home. Stay tuned for the opening date.

In the meantime, please drop by our show and tasting room and try some of our rare, collectable, and Original Lagunitas Cave-aged Tea. Taste before you buy is always the best way to purchase tea. Currently we’re open only on Saturdays between 10:00 am – 2:00 pm. All other times are by appointment. In case we still don’t have signage up by the time you receive this newsletter, we’re easy to find. We’re right between the Lagunitas grocery store and Arti’s Indian restaurant, both nice places to have good food. You can order some up and sit at our outdoor table to enjoy.  Our address: 7282 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Suite 1, Lagunitas, California, 94938.

This is a good time to purchase one of our Preparation Tables. Choose from more than 30 styles in bamboo, wood, and stone. You can see some of them on our website. If you enjoy Gongfu style of tea preparation (method of using lots of leaf in a gaiwan or small tea pot with short, multiple infusions) or simply want to expand your tea experience, come and check out our selection. We’re downsizing our warehousing in San Rafael and reducing our inventory. We’re offering a half-off, 50% discount, on our entire inventory of Preparation Tables if picked up in Lagunitas. This is all old stock merchandise and we will not be importing them again. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. If we have to pack and mail to you we can only offer a 20% discount but our $10 flat rate shipping will save you on shipping costs. If you purchase a Preparation Table, we can also give you a 20% discount on any tea accessory with your order: scales, cups, gaiwans, serving pitchers, strainers, etc. Everything you would need to prepare and serve tea like a pro!

But what good is having nice tea gear without some special tea leaves to brew? We can definitely help with that.

Pu-erh drinkers will be pleased to hear about some of the recent teas I’ve been pulling out of the cave. Two of them have become a couple of my favorites and I’m drinking a lot of them these days. The first is No. 5420 Menghai Shou Brick from the Langhe Tea Factory. It weighs 250 grams and the date of production was May 11, 1999, pressed from leaves picked in 1996 from Nannuo Mountain. This factory has a reputation for some of the best ripe/cooked pu-erhs in Yunnan and this brick is an excellent example of such. The price is $80 per brick. This tea has become rare and collectable in China. The last I heard was these bricks were selling for ¥999 (about US$150) in Guangzhou which is almost double from our price. If you want it packed in an attractive hinged and latched hardwood box (No. 8506) we’ll include one for an additional $25.

My other pu-erh recommendation is for our raw (sheng) cake, No. 5122 Yiwu Mountain Old Tree Wild Beencha. This tea is now selling for $126 in China. Our price is $100 / cake. We can include a hinged hardwood box (No. 8505) for an additional $30. This is a full-size 357-gram cake from the Xinghai Tea Factory and was produced in 2002. Located next to the Langhe Tea Factory in Menghai Town, the Xinghai Tea Factory was started by a group of engineers and technicians who left the state-run CNNP Menghai Tea Factory to start their own business. This was their first year of production. They had collected tea leaves from several mountains. I choose Yiwu after tasting their choices. It was good back then. It’s now been cave-aged to perfection here in Lagunitas for thirteen years! But don’t just trust my palate – you can purchase a sample of either one to try yourself for five dollars (after meeting our minimum order of fifty dollars).

The Not-so-good News

My life’s work of 43 years was all constructed without any building permits. Now the County wants to punish me. Their position has been for me to get a demolition permit, level the property, pay the $350,000 in fines, penalties, court costs, and County hours and then I can apply for a building permit. I declined their offer.  In spite of documented testimony from three historic experts and contrary to what other California communities have done with historic properties, the County decided to require an impossible 100% code compliance.

The Judge has now turned my property over to a “Receiver” who has the power and authority to bring the property into compliance by whatever means necessary. This includes demolition as an option for structures that can’t be made to conform (all?).

I’m always eager for good news that might give cause for optimism. So it was, when after touring my property, all five members of Marin County’s own Architectural Commission voted unanimously to “approve a designation of architectural significance for the site in its totality, including all 36 structures, to preserve its intrinsic artistic value as a site of local importance to the history and culture of unincorporated Marin County”. This would invoke the State Historic Building Code, give weight to the State Historic Landmark Application under way and would keep the County’s bulldozers at bay. But the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing. When the Receiver caught wind of this, he invalidated the application (as he is now in control of the property) as this had proceeded without his authorization.

Wouldn’t this be a good time for another cup of tea?

We are presently charcoal firing some very special Phoenix Mountain Oolongs using traditional bamboo ovens.  These teas will be sold under No. 3205 Phoenix Mountain Oolong, Private Reserve.  Please call for price and availability.

Or how about a nice fresh green? No. 2201 Dragon Well, the traditional pan-fired by hand green tea is very good this year and the price is lowered to just $20 / .25 lb bag. If you prefer a green tea in an oven-roasted, more “bakey” style, try No. 2802 Meizhan Green for $25 / .25lb bag.

Feel free to give us a call if you have any tea questions or just want to say hello.

Our office hours are: Monday – Thursday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tel: 415 488-9017

The Bad News

All this action the County has taken against me has cost a lot of money in which I’m expected to pay. I recently received another bill from the Receiver that was more than $100,000. This amount requested is just an advance for the Receiver to begin his work. He went to the Judge, got his signature, and proceeded with a lien on the property with Bank of America so he can get paid now and later for work done in the future.

Eventually, the bank will have to sell the property to recoup their money. My attorney says the bank won’t care about the 36 structures, which will be seen as a liability. “It’s in the bank’s interest, with land prices what they are today, to simply level the property and sell the land to a developer”. I’m reminded of the words by Woody Guthrie,

“some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen”.

Enough with the bad news. There are still a few more good things to report.

The black tea harvests were very, very good this year. We’re offering three special ones grouped together as the Triple Gem Black, Cat. No. 9400. This will consist of a quarter-pound each of No. 4503 Qi Lan Black @ $30, No. 4507 Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong @ $30, & No. 4804 Jin Jun Mei @ $40. Ask for the Triple Gem Black and we’ll give you a 20% discount on all three teas. This selection is best consumed straight. If you’re a milk tea drinker, I suggest you go with No. 4105 Guizhou Black @ $20, No. 4301 Yunnan Gold @ $20, No. 4601 Golden Monkey @ $20, or (Jeannie’s favorite) No. 4401 Golden Bi Luo @ $30.

The future of The Phoenix Collection, The Last Resort, and my pu-erh tea repository remains uncertain, as it seems apparent my time here will be limited.

The County has only recently discovered the existence of my pu-erh cave. I wouldn’t allow them inside without a court order (but now they have one). It doesn’t matter that this may be the only pu-erh cave in North America (the Fort Knox of the pu-erh world?). Nevertheless, the cave was constructed without a permit, as was everything else here, and therefore must be torn down! If you’re interested in a quantity purchase of some pu-erh tea for investment, aging, or just to insure a supply for your future, please give me a call and we can talk.

A very big thank you to everyone who signed the petition and wrote letters of support. Over 1800 signatures and letters from the community and friends were passed on to our Supervisor Steve Kinsey, including an application for Historic Landmark Status submitted by City Planner John Torrey and his team.

The hopes for a compromise were high especially for the Historic Landmark Status which would preserve the unique historical structures which are a piece of Marin’s living history and which need to be preserved for future generations to enjoy and find inspiration. Marin County aspires to be the greenest in the country and they have a property that is a living testament to this goal. The county’s actions will speak to their legacy.

Our planet is in crisis, and the problems will not be resolved through anger, fear, and outdated methods. To that end, I’ve tried to do my part and dedicated my life to help envision and create positive solutions. We can’t change the past nor predict the future, but we do have the present to live the changes we want to see in the world. We can all do our part, as best as we can, and live with the hope that the sum of all our efforts will tilt the scales to benefit future generations.

At the end, life is short, come friend – let us drink some tea and just be.

David Lee Hoffman, CDO

More Letters of Support

A letter in support of David Lee Hoffman's 'Last Resort' efforts.

A preview of the letters inside this PDF.

Click here to open the PDF containing these Letters of Support.

David and his grandson Theo.

“Theo reads about his grandfather’s ordeal with the County in the Saturday edition of the Marin Independent Journal, October 3, 2015″

David Lee Hoffman and his grandson.

David Lee Hoffman and his grandson, Theo.