My tea came in pulverized-dust form. It was enclosed in a permeable bag attached to a string that could be wrapped around bag and spoon – used to mix the honey, milk, and tea to achieve desired sweetness and consumption temperature – in a neat little maneuver that would squeeze out any remaining liquid and provide for an easy disposal of said bag. No leaves, no multiple steepings, and no sitting around forever waiting
for the damn stuff to cool off – just a splash of fridge-chilled milk and a few minutes in the winter-dark, upstate New York morning, and you’re ready to drink.
I’ve since moved out to San Francisco and graduated to loose leaf. I even have a tea guy. Haymen Daluz and his wife own Aroma Tea Shop and offer free tastings at their Inner Richmond location as well as the newly opened store on Washington Street in Chinatown –
the premium tea capital of San Francisco, the Bay Area, and the entire United States.
But even so, 24 years of drinking over-steeped, low-grade, prepackaged tea-dust has left a stain. On a quest to traverse beyond my Anglo-Saxon tea notions, I decide to get properly steeped, and Haymen is the perfect combination of witty entrepreneur and tea wizard to start the brewing.
The Inner Richmond branch of Aroma Tea Shop is comfortably huddled in the fog on Clement Street – an extension of the official Chinatown on the other side of the city. Haymen is a good-looking, fast-talking, 29-year-old with a swooping, slightly highlighted hairdo. In his spare time he designs “tea shirts.” There’s one hanging behind the bar. It reads: Tea Master.
The tea-making area is crowded with steeping cups sloshed with water and strewn with tea leaves; but the disorder comes from frenetic energy. If there is one thing Haymen isn't, it's lazy. As soon as I sit down he starts brewing a pot of water and tells me the story of his inadvertent fall into the tea business.
Haymen has a history as a salesman. He's been working retail since his job at RadioShack as a teenager. His most recent venture before tea was a brief stint selling cell phones. As he says, if you can sell cell phones, you can sell anything. He doesn’t consider
himself a connoisseur, but a tea hustler. Halfway through the first tasting of a Dragon Well green, I realize he’s being modest. The man knows his teas.
We spend an hour discussing tea retail and sipping high-quality brews. He guides me through two oolongs – a Monkey Picked and a Phoenix – and his descriptions match exactly what I’m tasting. When he first opened shop, he sold only Thai iced tea and flavored teas, but he says Americans are now starting to catch on. Now he's selling Phoenix oolongs, Dragon Well greens, and expensive pu-erhs – green teas that have been aged and fermented, sometimes for decades. At the same time, Haymen hasn’t abandoned flavored teas. He’s no purist. As long as they continue to sell he’ll continue to offer them.
If there is one thing Haymen doesn't sell it’s pretension and undue ceremony. I ask for something special and he pulls out a crumpled brown package from under the bar. The secret stash is a 30-year-old cake of pu-erh that sells for 300 bucks a pound. As he breaks the cake into the vessel, I’ve a crack addict’s urge to pick up the small brown bits of precious leaves falling onto the counter. It’s work, but I tap into my non-capitalist Zen mode and resist.
He washes it hotter than the other teas to open it up before the first steeping. A serious hot water bath is required to shake a 30-year slumber. When he gives me the leaves to smell before he pours the first cup I'm expecting high Asian mountaintops, not awestruck nostalgia. The smell of the dark brown leaves brings to mind summers I spent as a kid making forts in an upstate New York barn – wet hay, dusty light shaft, horse shit, and rough snorts. That’s just the smell. The taste delivers intricately complex and subtle differences through the five steepings, and Haymen says we could keep on steeping and drinking long into the night. That is, if he weren’t closing shop.
This kickoff tasting at Aroma is just what I need before I head into the brewing bowels of Chinatown to indulge in high tea culture at my next stop, the Red Blossom Tea Company.
Tastefully sparse and subtly Asian, Red Blossom is different than the tourist-trap tea tasting venues that surround it. The teas are stored in silvery canisters that have a regal gleam against the delicately lit walls, each labeled with lengthy descriptions that include phrases like “long finishes,” “high altitudes,” “floral notes,” and “almond tones.” Within seconds of arriving I am approached and questioned about my tea needs, which I embarrassingly admit are still muddled. Thankfully, Peter Luong can help.
The son of the shop's founders and the current tea buyer, Peter speaks in soft-spoken paragraphs about tea with the practiced, confident affection of a self-made connoisseur. Calm and composed, the years Peter spent as a business consultant are evident in the way
he approaches the tea trade. The 37-year-old has distinct opinions about the over-pricing of cheap teas by competitors, the marketing of teas as tonics for cure-all-thirsty Americans, and the English tea tradition of "rescuing bad teas by adding milk and honey" from whence our iced-tea-chugging culture has descended. He couches those disagreeable remarks in carefully wrought, litigation-proof statements of his desire to not rock any boats. Well, he's rocking boats, and he's doing it with a library of tea knowledge and a palette that would shame a master sommelier. After cordial introductions, he methodically begins a tour of the painstakingly curated tea selection. We have white teas, often mis-categorized as baby-leaf tea (silly Snapple), and the Phoenix oolongs, distinguished in grade by age and elevation of the plant. There are a few flavored black teas for the casual tea drinker's comfort – oh, Lord Grey and your love of bergamot oil – and even a smattering of infusions.
By the time we get down to the flavored teas, Peter's gushing flow has dwindled to a lukewarm trickle. The multiple-paragraph descriptions have shrunk to a few barren sentences. Much to the chagrin of his marketing advisor, Peter has an inherent inability to arouse interest in “poser-teas,” and even though they are popular and can be sold at a high margin due to their low quality, Peter has happily decided to "be done with all that." He’s removing the limited selection at the end of the year.
After the survey course on tea production, cultivation, culture, and selection, we glide over to one of the low table, wooden-stooled, tea-tasting oases. It's time to get down to business.
Peter spreads a long thin mat over the delicately bowled tea, uncovers the simple, white gaiwan tea cup traditionally used for brewing, and carefully begins to measure out modicums of fragrant leaves. He uses a fluted spoon that looks like could have come from the deep ceremonial interiors of a pagoda, shimmering indecisively in and out of existence on the misty outcroppings of a silk and ink painting from the middle of the Song dynasty. We are in for some serious tea.
For deliberate tasting Peter proves that Red Blossom is the place in the city to go. He parses two Phoenix oolongs gently into different flavor profiles and builds confidence in my own ability to distinguish flavors. I’m no tasting genius. I stick to terms like bitter and sweet. By the end of the hour Peter has me describing floral accents and comparing finish lengths.
For the final taste, Peter brings out a Taiwanese oolong that won’t be produced next year because the government is reclaiming the plantation. The store imported a small quantity for the family’s personal use, and has surprisingly discovered that there is a retail market for the rare and expensive tea. I don’t think I will be shelling out 500 dollars for a pound of tea anytime soon, but I can say I’ve learned to appreciate precious leaves. At least, that is, enough to not pour in cold milk and honey.
Both the Aroma and Red Blossom tea shops offer free tastings. Aroma allows you to pick teas of your choice and has a selection that runs the gamut from flavored blacks at $40 a pound to $200 oolongs. Red Blossom gives a more structured tasting, guiding you through teas of a similar variety. It has a limited range of infusions and flavored teas, and premium leaves that range from $400 a pound oolongs to $46 a pound white teas. After you’ve discovered what you like, buy a gaiwan at either location for around $12 and start brewing at home.