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Tea date in Seattle

November 23, 2009

Warmly dressed for the November wind and rain, my husband and I set out for Seattle Saturday, with the joyful mission/distraction of procuring spices, tea, and perhaps a Japanese teacup, one without a handle, that I could hold comfortably. The happy agenda included Uwajimaya, a massive Asian grocery and gift complex in the International District; World Spice, and, if necessary, Market Spice, the holiday hub of the human hive known as Pike Place Market.

I am much worse than a kid in a toy store in places that have Olympic-size displays of tea and tea-making things.  I am much worse because, unlike the kid in a toy store, I have the awesome power of VISA. Fortunately, World Spice does not accept credit cards, and we carry little cash, and so my passion was providentially constrained for the good. The good in this case was the serendipitous discovery of a new tea shop, and this one does except VISA.

But I don’t buy everything I see. Tea is a discipline, and it would be obscene to be undisciplined in procuring the stuff of a discipline. Decency and discipline are essential elements of proper tea acquisition, preparation, and consumption.

As we walked from our car to World Spice, I noticed a new storefront along Western Avenue. Vital T-Leaf has been there over a year, but I’ve not been in that part of town in a long time, so the shop was new to me. Their sign was certainly inviting: “Free Tea Tasting.” The offer was beyond resistance, and we decided to continue to World Spice and stop at Vital T-Leaf on our way back.

World Spice was packed with Saturday shoppers, and efficient, friendly order takers were employed to full capacity. Once you know what you want, you stand in line, recite your order to one of the efficient, friendly order takers, and wait to pick it up. Spices are upstairs, and teas are downstairs. I hadn’t been to the shop in several years, and I didn’t remember to go downstairs and look at the tea selection before I placed our spice order so that I could present my full order for tea and spices at one time.

An efficient, friendly order taker downstairs let us know that the line was backing up, and hoped that we could give him our tea order soon. Feeling a little rushed, I became overstimulated and my brain froze. I selected two smoky tea varieties and relayed them to the efficient, friendly downstairs order taker. Then I had to go back upstairs for ginger that I had thought, since I planned to add it to a black tea blend, would be down with the tea, but it was up with the spices. I met with another upstairs efficient, friendly order taker to request the ginger. After reciting three orders at mind-numbing speed to three efficient, friendly order takers, we secured our collection of spices and teas, handed over all the cash we had, and retreated from all the efficient friendliness into the halcyon bracing cold.

Now I was ready to taste some tea. We entered Vital T-Leaf and a new world. The shop was colorful, beautifully decorated, and quiet. We were warmly greeted by Vin and Becky, who emanated the high aesthetic ethos of Chinese hospitality. I was immediately comfortable, and we sat at a long tea bar where, for the next three hours, we were treated to Becky’s cheerful company as I sat transfixed, observing the beautiful tea leaves, beautifully simple tea ware, and Becky’s graceful hands deftly preparing tea in the traditional Chinese style. We talked a bit; I asked a few questions, and she exclaimed delightedly, “you know tea!” Few share my passion for the manifest vitality and aesthetic of tea, and we forged a bond.

I still think of the wonderful couple who owned a tea and coffee shop in Santa Barbara when I was in college there in the 1970s, who initially kindled my interest not just in making and drinking coffee and tea, but in excellent coffee and tea, and their precise preparation. I meet so few people who work in the area of their true passion as these people did, and as Becky does.

Becky explained every step she performed. Making tea is not mere ritual. Every step has a purpose essential to the outcome. Tea is a living entity and must be treated properly to be properly enjoyed. She handed us tiny cylindrical “smell cups” to appreciate the tea’s delicate fragrance before she poured tea into tiny half-ounce cups for us to taste.

I realized I had flunked a dimension of life, because I had not previously mastered proper preparation of green and oolong teas, and consequently had not enjoyed them at all. In addition to improper preparation, my experience was diminished by poor tea. I had not sustained the standards I learned from my Santa Barbara mentors. I had succumbed to a false economy and betrayed a sense of excellence, when I had acquired the discernment to apprehend true economy and real excellence. There were times in my life when I could not afford to uphold my sense of excellence, but there were more times in my life when I simply succumbed to lassitude toward excellence. My time with Becky, during which my husband had to leave twice to refuel the parking kiosk, disarmed my lassitude. I recommitted to excellence.

A jasmine flower comes furled in a tightly wound ball of oolong tea. The flower comes to life when boiling water is poured over the ball and covered a few minutes. The bloom is a dramatic testimony that tea is alive.

Although Becky used a draining tray and several attractive and useful implements, it is not difficult to follow her method of preparing tea without elaborate special equipment. First, she poured boiling water over the leaves in a filter to rinse them, and poured off the water. The reason for rinsing the leaves is to activate, or “awaken” them before brewing. Rinsing also reduces the concentration of caffeine. Green and oolong teas are brewed for just five seconds, but the leaves can be infused again as many as eight times. Subsequent infusions should be for ten seconds, then fifteen seconds, and up to a minute as the leaves lose strength with each infusion. The filter containing the leaves can be stored between infusions in a covered cup for up to a full day, or overnight in the refrigerator. Since some rare teas can cost up to $12 an ounce or even more, it’s a good thing the useful life of the leaves is longer than five seconds!

The amount of caffeine in tea depends on several variables, all of which matter more than whether the tea is black, green, oolong, or white. Soil conditions contribute significantly to the caffeine content of tea. I had always wondered whether the same amount of loose tea had the same amount of caffeine brewed in eight ounces of water or 16 ounces of water. Becky had researched this and was able to answer my question. More water equals more caffeine. With more water, more caffeine is extracted. It does not matter that the amount of tea remains constant; the amount of caffeine extracted depends on the amount of water extracting it. So, if you’re trying to cut back on caffeine, watering down your tea is not the way to do it. The way to cut down on caffeine is to rinse the tea, even twice, before brewing, to brew very briefly, and to drink — as un-American as it seems — small amounts. Really good tea is satisfying. I learned that I can enjoy and be satisfied with four ounces of tea. I bought some two-ounce cups. I can make a four-ounce pot of tea, sip a cup slowly, have another, and feel like I’ve had a really good cup of tea. I can easily drink sixteen ounces of gutless tea, and by gutless I don’t mean weak. Overstrong tea is not good. By gutless I mean insubstantial, a subjective sense of being unsatisfying. So good tea is good economy, especially when you can use the same leaves to make several pots.

As we tasted our tea in our half-ounce cups, Vin taught us that it took three sips to taste our tea properly. He taught us that the Chinese ideographic character for “taste” is three mouths. Anyone can drink down half an ounce in one sip. The tasting cups are the size of the little glass communion cups some churches use. The point is, you don’t taste your tea if you don’t savor it.

Another life-changing thing I learned at Vital T-Leaf is that I love pu-erh tea. I have never tried this rich and delicate type of tea before, mostly because I thought it would taste like dirt. Pu-erh tea is cached in earth for years, maybe decades, to attain an earthy flavor. But its flavor is very delicate and yet more complex and no less rich than a good Assam. It is a deep red-brown color, and tastes a little bit like chestnuts. It is unique and well worth trying, because it is a potential favorite for a tea aficionado. I think it is my new favorite tea. An entire wall of Vital T-Leaf is dedicated to shelves with canisters of different varieties of pu-erh teas.

I participated in a working study tour in China in 1987, and one of the free-time activities I was able to attend was a tour of a tea plantation. It was a beautiful place, and very clean; everything was done by hand with great pride and discipline and care. Seeing shelves and shelves of canisters filled with tea leaves hand rolled into tiny balls, and learning that Becky grew up on a family tea plantation, brought back fond memories of my time in China. The kindness and hospitality of people toward foreigners who expected to find telephones and elevators everywhere, was ubiquitous. Nanjing’s streets don’t follow a grid pattern. I don’t know what they follow, if anything. I consistently got lost when I ventured out from my hotel for a walk. I carried matches with the name of my hotel on them. When I wanted to return, I showed my matchbook to a stranger, and he or she invariably took my arm as if I were a small stupid child, and walked me back to my hotel. One of my colleagues and I were invited to a doctor’s home for dinner. The doctor and his wife treated us to delicacies that must have set them back several months’ wages — literally — since a doctor made $30 a month. They had a bed, a table and two chairs, a chamber pot under the bed, and a floor brazier on which they cooked. Liz and I sat in chairs, and the doctor and his wife sat on the bed. We had a feast, and afterwards, they walked us back to our hotel, disappointed that we knew no way to get them to America.

I kept a journal for the six weeks I was in China, with notes from conversations, excursions, and interactions with local people. I have the few pictures I took before my camera fell in the Hong Kong airport and went brain-dead soon after my arrival. I filled in the blanks with postcards. I haven’t looked at the journal in years, but renewal of my memories of this adventure was another fruit of my time with Becky at Vital T-Leaf. It was a full and fruitful day.

I returned home with three precious packets of tea: Blue People, a ginseng oolong; Jade oolong, and a house pu-erh; some small cups, a bamboo tea scoop, and new knowledge. I also acquired new things to appreciate, a new ally in tea, revived memories, and a renewed sense of excellence. I read through part of my China journal and recalled many wonderful forgotten adventures.

Oh yes, we did go on to Market Spice just to see if it was still there. The crowd was reminiscent of the buses in Nanjing, which prompted one of the members of my group to believe that the buses, which we only observed as pedestrians, had no seats. Not wishing to corrupt my peace of mind, and having no desire for the usual de rigueur free cup of Market Spice tea, we hiked back to Western Avenue to our car, and headed home while the memories were good.

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9 Comments
  1. Laura K permalink
    November 23, 2009 8:48 pm

    I am no tea connoisseur (though I finally acquired a taste for various herbal types when visiting Ruben and Heidi) but I didn’t need to be to enjoy reading about your tea date. Sounds like it was a very worthwhile outing.

  2. November 24, 2009 4:45 am

    Thanks for a heartwarming article. I liked reading about your time in China as well as your adventures in the tea shops. And Puerh–what can I say? It’s also my favorite tea though I favor the young, green kind. That doesn’t even taste earthy because it isn’t aged at all. You’re a real tea lover when you’ve discovered Puerh.

  3. November 26, 2009 2:08 pm

    Lauren what a lovely outing — it was extremely pleasant just to read about it. & I wanted to add to the above that I *loved* the green color on the walls in the photos :-) I imagine it contributes greatly to being able to sit in a place for three hours peacefully and enjoy flavors.

  4. Becky permalink
    December 1, 2009 7:38 pm

    Hi Lauren!

    It was wonderful sharing tea with you the other day. I’m still surprised you understand it so well!

    A few comments for your readers:

    1. A number of times, you mention pouring boiling water over tea leaves. It’s important to note that not all boiling water has the same temperature, and that water for delicate green and white teas should be slightly (and sometimes more than slightly) cooled after having been brought to a boil, whereas water for less oxidized oolongs should be brought to a low boil, and water for dark oolongs, black and puerh teas should be brought to a full boil.

    However, even a full boil generally shouldn’t be more than what Chinese refer to as a “fish eye” boil. If the water makes bubbles bigger than fish eyes, it is called “old man water” and considered over-boiled; no longer suitable for tea.

    2. You mention that both green and oolong teas are brewed briefly, but can be brewed repeatedly. This is generally true, but please note that most green teas can only be brewed 3-4 times, depending on quality, whereas superior oolong and black teas can be brewed 8 or more times. Good puerhs can be brewed basically indefinitely (until you just can’t drink anymore).

    There are special green teas (such as Anji Baicha) that don’t become bitter even when brewed for long periods, but these are exceptional.

    3. About tea and caffeine, the most important thing to remember is that not all caffeine will have transferred from leaf to brew in any given infusion. In general, the longer you brew a tea leaf, the more caffeine you will have in the liquor. So, more tea = more caffeine, more water also = more caffeine, longer brewing time = more caffeine.

    You’re right that soil and other conditions (weather, pests) can affect how much caffeine a tea plant will accumulate in its leaves. There are many factors, and truthfully I don’t know them all. I just have a general idea, and I’m so happy that you do too!

    your tea friend

    Becky

  5. December 2, 2009 7:15 am

    Becky, I am honored!

    Thank you so much for providing more precise details; your good counsel will enhance the enjoyment of good tea even more. I love your tea imagery, too. The idea of a “fish eye boil” makes a certain impression on the memory!

  6. December 10, 2009 11:08 pm

    Wow, you’re honored! I’ll have to tell my husband that.

    In fact, “fish-eye boil” is the traditional term for water boiling at a certain temperature. I didn’t make it up. If I remember correctly, the first use of the expression was by Lu Yu in his book Cha Jing(hopefully the links will work).

    Chinese is full of poetic (or at least colorful) expressions like that, especially when talking about tea! It’s an honor to have a new tea friend like you.

    Best wishes

    Becky

  7. December 11, 2009 7:38 am

    Actually fish-eye boil is very descriptive and useful!

    And now, after reading your blog, I have to say that I’m honored and awed. It’s absolutely beautiful, Becky. Your knowledge of green tea is a little beyond encyclopedic….

  8. January 1, 2010 8:13 pm

    Dear Ms.Fellow Prisoner,

    I am so thankful for this post. This article had did a wonderful job at demystifying the making of tea. I know that I have still a lot to learn, but this was just a wonderful stop on the beginning of my journey.

    Thank you, Becky also for your kindness and wellingness to share(and educate).

    Yesturday I brought my first loose leaf tea, and today I drank my first loose leaf tea. What a great start of a New Year. I grabbed Tea Forte’s rare teas (Tai Mu Silver Needles). I feel somewhat like an infant learning to crawl and you have started me on my way.

    Thank you once again.

  9. January 2, 2010 8:30 am

    Thanks for writing, DJ! Enjoy the journey.

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