It wasn't until I backpacked around India that I gained a true appreciation for real tea that was properly brewed. Since then, I've never looked back, drinking at least two (or maybe three) pots of black tea a day.
Indian teas are but a small sample of the tea world. It just so happens that New York City is having a tea-volution serving up teas from all over the globe. Here in San Francisco, Samovar Tea has christened their Hayes Valley location “Zen Valley” and provides an oasis of calm and serenity which echoes those in the nearby Zen Center and Yoga Tree studio. When I hear Taste tea lounge has come to the neighborhood as well, I decide it’s time to turn over a new leaf.
I settle into a large, cushioned area by the window and notice Taste’s attention to detail in their décor. The interior design (by Ed Ng and Andrea Faucett) is minimalistic and modern and still manages to incorporate a warm sense of tradition. An oversized Buddha head made of stone presides over the space. Out front, there is seating in the shade under the trees, making it a perfect spot to enjoy the soothing power of the leaf.
The owners of Taste, Vincent and Rebecca, are a young couple from the Bay Area of Chinese descent. Their goal is to share their passion for the tea culture they grew up with, helping spread a "slow drink" movement in a city where slow food is already popular. Although tea has a very long history in China (drinking tea was first recorded there in the 10th century BC), Rebecca explains that it has been perfectly integrated into the modern-day life of even the busiest cities.
Drinking tea in China is so common that it's almost like a greeting form; a way to welcome someone who walks into your store, home, or office. With Taste, they want to extend that hospitality to anyone who needs a moment of relaxation. Their logo is made of three little cups, and is based on the Chinese character for the word “to taste.” Vincent explains that it stands for the three steps of drinking tea: holding and smelling the cup, looking at it, and then drinking from it.
I’ve had a long week and I'm ready to start my slow Friday afternoon of introspective tea sampling. The menu sports a wealth of over 30 Chinese teas I’ve never heard of, so I order a flight of three, which means Rebecca will pour for me (as is standard for this level of tasting). What distinguishes Taste from other tearooms is not only their focus on high quality Chinese teas, but the fact that they’re served in the elaborate, 300 year-old Gong Fu Cha method. Gong Fu literally means, “making tea with efforts.”
I start out with an Oolong with a badass name that sounds like it could hold its own in a street fight: the Iron Goddess. My tea comes on a beautiful bamboo brewing tray with holes for spills, accompanied by a hot water kettle and an intricate set of preparation tools. The delicate green leaves are presented in a porcelain scoop, next to a covered Gaiwan bowl with matching drinking cups. A petite glass pitcher and a strainer complete the set.
Each time Rebecca steeps the leaves, a new set of wonderfully deep flavors come out. The Gong Fu tea method is all about giving careful and consistent attention to the brewing process, so that the water and the leaves can perform their magical chemistry and the taste of the tea evolves with each cup. This is quite a different experience than my usual home brewing process, which involves a basic strainer placed over an IKEA mug.
Once I finish the Oolong, Rebecca quickly washes all of the implements with boiling water and sets up for the next tea: the Yellow Mountain Hairy Hilltop. This time around, I become very in tune with her process. Each steeping is repeated countless times because of the small size of the cups. I start to enter an almost meditative state, letting my inner calm come into focus. I'm loosing track of how many cups I've already had.
The tasting process is meant to take a while when you order a flight, so Rebecca offers me food to enhance the tea-drinking experience. They have quite a few steamed bao (pork, chicken, veggie curry, red bean, mango, and plain), handmade for them by a local Chinese lady. Although pork buns are usually my favorite, I try all of them over the course of the afternoon, and they are simply delicious. At one point, a couple comes in exclaiming, "We’re obsessed with buns. We heard yours are amazing, so here we are!"
They also have a few sweet options as well, such as mini green tea scones and macarons made in-house by Rebecca herself. The latter are absolutely to die for, even by macaron-rich Hayes Valley standards. Additionally, for those leaning more towards a bite than just a nibble, they have banh mi sandwiches from Little Paris, which is exciting considering there aren't any places with Vietnamese food in the neighborhood.
Despite the hustle and bustle around all the shops and restaurants a few feet away and a neverending to-do list nagging in the back of my mind, Taste allows me to escape all of this for an afternoon. Who knows, next I might even try out yoga after my tea.
Step out of the rat race for a second, visit Taste, and indulge your senses in all that the leaf has to offer. Taste is located at 535 Octavia Street (at Ivy) and open every day from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Like them on Facebook to hear about what’s new. If you'd like to take their experience home, you can buy some of their loose leaf teas in 40gr packs, as well as a few other tea accessories.