This past weekend I had a fabulous tea weekend with my friend Julie Carlin. Julie and I met about 8 years ago at Magnolia and Ivy’s Tea School in Florida. She actually lives in San Diego, but we met in Florida because we both wanted to open tea rooms. She has been a dear friend ever since. Many of you might have met her. She always flew up for my special events at the tea room. She was there in the beginning helping me paint and set up and she was there at the end for the final sale. Currently Julie owns 2 tea companies-Fleur De Tea and The Tea Cart.
Anyway, this past weekend she came to visit and talk tea. She arrived on Friday. After a great lunch we headed over to the Antique Trove where I showed her my tea booth. On Saturday went to San Francisco. I took her to Samovar Tea Lounge at Yerba Buena for lunch where I had a Wuyi Dark Roast and she the Yunnan along with a delicious turkey sandwich. Then we headed to China Town for an afternoon of tea tasting. We started with Vital Tea Leaf which is one of their tea shops on Grant St. (they actually have 3 shops on Grant St.)! As we walked in, Uncle Gee (as they call him), invited us to sit down and join a tasting. He entertained us for well over an hour and we tasted about 4 teas. I wanted to show Julie the shop, not for the tea, but for the experience. It’s so fun to listen to him talk and entice others to join the tasting. You can’t believe exactly what he says, it’s definitely a tourist attraction, but fun nevertheless.
After our tourist experience, we headed over to Red Blossom. This is the Crème de la Crème of tea shops. They sell limited premium and rare teas from Asia and around the world. I was after an oolong called Ancient Tree Shui Xian. I had bought an ounce of it back last fall when my son Jacob and I had visited. When we walked in we had asked if we could do a tasting of the Scarlet Robe teas they had. The owner Alice, whom I had met once before, said, “Why don’t you join us over here? We’re just getting ready to do a tasting on those teas”. I was thrilled to death to join the others- as usually you are not invited to join a group already in process.
The Heritage Grand Scarlet Robe was delicious. There is a famous story which has many versions but the one I like best tells of a scholar who made tea from this tea plant before taking his examinations. He was the only scholar to pass the exams. In gratitude, he wrapped the tea plant with his scarlet robes. The tea is also called Da Hong Pao. This plant is the “holy grail” of Wuyi Oolongs. This tea is charcoal roasted which causes the intense toffee and caramel notes. It’s rich, fruity, floral and sweet all at the same time. I had bought a Wuyi Grand Scarlet Robe from them a few months earlier but I was anxious to see how this one differed. As it turned out, they are completely different. I liked them both but nothing could compare to the one I had come for-my Ancient Tree.
When I couldn’t find it, I asked Alice. She said she only had a very small amount of it left but that I would be able to buy it. She explained that the famous restaurant owner, Charlie Trotter, purchased the bulk of it for his restaurants. He had high end customers who requested superb tea after dinner and this was the one he wanted. Later when I returned home, I looked up this tea and found out that they only make about 30 pounds of it per year. I felt so honored to have purchase her last little bit! The tea leaves are hand-bruised and roasted over fruitwood charcoal. It’s absolutely divine! It’s $450 per pound which is high compared to the other teas I purchase, but so worth it. Because you can get multiple infusions, it actually isn’t as expensive as it sounds.
Now back to the tasting-After the Heritage Grand Scarlet Robe, we tasted a Song Zhong which is a varietal of the Phoenix Oolong. I can’t even give words to describe the tea. It’s best described from their website: “The dry leaves carry a hint of cantaloupe and honeydew, lychee and brown sugar. Initial mouth feel is smooth and elegant, with a clarity that sets the stage for a heady mid-palate release of flowers, lychee fruit , honey and Eiswein. A remarkably long finish soon follows, anchoring these flavors long after the tea is gone.” Wonderful!
The next tea we tried as called Aged Phoenix. It was crafted in 1996 and then stored until 2001 where it was roasted again and allowed to further age. It’s sweet, smooth and roasty and tastes like black walnuts. I have never tasted a tea quite like this.
Last but not least came the crowning experience of our day. The people with whom we had joined the tasting were friends of Alice’s. One in particular, Shea, was a wine connoisseur and had worked out a trade for his wine with Alice for one of her own personal Pu-Erhs. This tea was in brick form and was brought back from China by her family in the 1980’s. It was carefully wrapped in paper. You could see how the oil of the tea had over the years seeped through to the outside of the paper. By the way she handled the tea, I knew this was something special. She carefully unwrapped the paper and laid the tea in a special silk-lined cardboard box. Then she took her pick and delicately cut off a tiny portion of the tea. She then placed it in her Yixing pot and rinsed it with hot water quickly. After making the tea she carefully poured out a tiny cup to each person. The timing was a bit unfortunate because right at the point where she began serving the tea, the conversation became a bit lively over another subject. By this time you see, we had gotten to know each other a bit and right at this moment a few people were engrossed in conversation. For me though, I felt very fortunate I was able to share this experience with her alone. I knew what it meant to share this tea and I felt extremely honored. Eventually the others focused on the tea, but I was happy to have had my special moment with Alice.
After our ecstatic experience at Red Blossom, everything else paled in comparison. We stopped at a linen shop where Julie purchased beautiful handkerchiefs and linen bags. Then we hurried over to the Ferry Building as we had planned on making the Imperial Tea Court our last stop of the day. We arrived there at 6:00 thinking we would have 30 minutes before they closed, but as we walked in we discovered they were no longer serving tea for the day. We could get something to go if we wanted. I was very disappointed as I had wanted to end the day by having them do a Gongfu demonstration for Julie. Sadly we settled for a Yunnan to go. It was then that Julie said, we should have ended with Red Blossom. I agreed. The evening did revive however, as we happily talked tea all the way home while eating our left-over turkey sandwiches from Samovar and drinking our “to go” tea. Despite our experience (or lack thereof,) at Imperial Tea Court, it was the perfect tea day!