I have a passion for tea. I visit a tea shop everywhere I travel and usually bring home a quarter pound of something delicious that I just couldn’t be without. Well that I could be without but where’s the fun in that? I have tea pots, cup and saucer collections, a gazillion tea strainers, and designated tea only to-go mugs. Coffee dare not touch them. My tea collection deserves an inventory and its own pantry. There is just that much tea in my house.
So, imagine my absolute delight that while we are on a walking food tour through the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown, and our guide informs us that we will be stopping in for a tea tasting. I practically danced the whole way there. Nothing to me is more comforting than a cup of tea, fresh brewed, loose leaf, and peacefully enjoyed in a moment of happy silence. That is one of my happy places. I was very prepared to get my tea on.
I was not, however, prepared for the brisk and oh so matter of fact tea maker that greeted us at Vital Tealeaf. Just a warning but he comes on strong. Don’t take it personally.
The shop was a long bar with low chairs with a small cup set in front of each spot. Behind the bar there were heated water stations and various brewing vessels with tea leaves in differing stages of brew. The walls were lined with canisters of tea, trays, teapots, mugs, and strainers. I couldn’t wait to get in my seat. I was ready for our tea sage, dressed like some ancient Eastern philosopher (it was Chinatown after all), to emerge and guide us through the magical world of tea and wellness. I was not anticipating Kenny.
Kenny did not welcome us in with what I would call southern hospitality but immediately directed us to sit and started brewing a small pot of our first tea. He was brisk and moved quickly behind the counter, deftly measuring out a scoop of loose leaf and pouring hot water over the leaves before dumping the tea down the drain. What the heck right?
“How do you go buying something if you haven’t tried it first?” No arguing with that logic and the try before you buy approach is central to Vital Tealeaf. They encourage you to taste multiple teas before deciding on the right one.
“Unless it’s like that strawberry kiwi tea…then just buy it. You know what that tastes like. Also get out.” Kenny was direct. We laughed nervously. If you were the one who liked strawberry kiwi tea, you were 100% keeping it to yourself. He quickly brewed a pot of ginseng oolong tea, for our energy, he claimed.
“You buy tea for what you want it to do. Not flavor. Tea doesn’t taste good unless you have flavorings in it or put milk or sugar. You don’t put milk of sugar in tea here. All tea is grassy or bitter.” He poured out a small taste, which was lightly scented with ginseng and had a delicate earthy hint. It was light and warming on the tongue, just spiced enough to let you know ginseng was in there. Ginseng tea, he said gives you energy, not wakes you up.
“That’s caffeine. That wakes you up but doesn’t give you energy, and all tea has caffeine. Caffeine-free tea doesn’t exist. It is not a thing.” One or two of our group looked around, not wanting to be the one to voice that decaf tea was listed on labels. They can’t print that if it isn’t true right? It did seem like if you brought that up you might get kicked out or smacked with the wooden measuring spoon he waived about. In the whole time he was talking he already rinsed the pot, changed strainers, and was measuring out our second brew.
"Chamomile is not tea. It's flower blossom you put in hot water.
Its blossom water, not tea"
“You don’t talk about caffeine with coffee, why would you do it with tea? It’s all crazy Americans trying to sell things and putting labels where they don’t belong, mostly cause they don’t understand and don’t want to learn.” He paused to toss back the tin he’d just pulled a tablespoon of loose leaf from. I sipped my tea, mesmerized. I was waiting on bated breath for every bit of knowledge my new sage was putting out, and semi-terrified to offer any commentary. Like I mentioned, he was brandishing that measuring scoop with ferocious intent.
“Like you call it chai tea,” he said pouring hot water over the leaves before briskly dumping it out and filling it again. He called this first pour waking the leaves up. It was always supposed to be dumped. I had never seen tea brewed like that but was not going to question him.
“Which is dumb. Chai is the Indian word for tea,” he rolled his eyes, setting the pitcher of our next brew to steep.
“When people order Chai tea, they literally order tea tea. That’s dumb.” Kenny was full of very strong opinions on tea. We quickly finished our first brew, not hard as the cups were scant an oz and a half at most. He had already grilled us about large tea mugs people used, which apparently weren’t for people who were actually serious about tea. I quietly put it on my to-do list to get rid of the over-sized mugs in my collection. I never seemed to be able to drink the tea before it cooled anyway. He poured out our second brew which was a jasmine green tea for relaxing. It had a heavenly aroma, heady with the scent of jasmine blossoms, and the base leaf was a delicate silver needle white which are the very young green tea leaves.
“Jasmine tea relaxes you and won’t keep you awake.” He finished pouring, “Or if it does, you call me and I’ll either send you back your money or send you a bottle of Jack Daniels. Then you sleep.” We laughed, and one of our party asked about chamomile tea. He rolled his eyes.
“No. Chamomile is not tea. Its flower blossom you put in hot water. It’s blossom water, not tea. Not everything you call tea is tea.” Empty strainer, new scoop, and a fresh splash of hot water.
“Don’t call that tea. We have rose blossom here, but unless its mixed with tea leaves which makes it a flavoring, it is not tea.” Again, dumped first splash, then fill up the pitcher.
“Who drinks tea?” As a two cup a morning, one in the afternoon, and one before bed, I felt confident that I fell into the “drinks tea often” category and raised my hand. Which was stupid. He asked me what kind of tea I drank. I believe the only points I scored for that question was mentioning that I drank different teas for different times and for different reasons. It felt like taking an exam I had barely prepared for. Give a vague, possibly right direction kind of answer and pray the teacher doesn’t make you explain further. I was definitely praying.
“Do you steep for a long time?”
I shrugged, “Usually what the tea demands, two or three minutes.” He shook his head again. Apparently, I know very little about tea.
“No you see this, we’ve been here what seven minutes? I’ve made two cups and working on the third. Tea doesn’t take long. The longer you steep, the more bitter. Maybe you like that. Maybe your tastes like the real bitter flavor, but you have to find that out yourself. I can’t do that for you.” I nodded and finished my jasmine tea.
“Do you use tea bags?” I shook my head. With his evaluating (possibly a little judgmental) gaze on me I wasn’t in a million years going to admit to having tea bags in my house. I also totally agreed that loose leaf gives a better flavor. Tea bags are just convenient.
“Good,” he said, “never use tea bags. When I sweep up the dust in the basement, I make tea bags and send it to people who ask for them.” He strained and poured our third tea. I seriously wasn’t sure he was kidding. It seemed likely. Gross but entirely likely.
“This is Pu’reh. Its roasted and fermented green tea and is good for your digestion. It tastes terrible, like grandma’s basement, but if you eat too much or have bad food, it will sort you right out.” The cup did smell of old books in a basement, something I remember from my childhood, but had he not said grandma’s basement, I might have just called it earthy. Being complimentary and all. It was dark rich in color, heavy on the palette, and definitely one that if left too long would have a ton of tannins.
Empty strainer, rinse, fresh scoop and splash hot water. This guy was a machine. Four cups brewed and I doubt we’d been there fifteen minutes.
“All tea is green tea. The leaves are all green. Pick young, okay white tea. Pick ripe, green tea. Pick and roast, black tea. Pick, roast, and ferment, pu’reh tea. All green. There’s so many varieties of green tea though, that gives us differences in flavor.” Set pitcher out to steep. “Still not good on taste, but its antioxidants and good for the body.”
He poured out our fourth tea, an Iron Goddess green tea which would help our body to detox. It was lightly grassy and had a slight minerality to it. Then he turned to the tins behind him and explained variety.
“This is one variety. This is the same variety roasted. This is a different variety. This is something different. Each has its own benefits from drinking. Some are hand-picked. Some are hand-rolled. Some are hand-roasted. See this one,” he pointed at a smallish red tin.
“It’s all three. You can take it home if you want. It’s a $1000 for a quarter pound. I trade your house.” He grinned, which prompted us all to laugh. I stared at the container, instantly wanting to taste what $1000 tea, that wasn’t supposed to taste good but would be good for me, was like. For that much it had better make me lose 10 pounds over night, sleep like a baby, and come with a winning lottery ticket.
Our guide mentioned we would be moving on shortly. He had been hovering in the corner after being banished from pacing behind our seats. Since he wasn’t tasting, according to Kenny, he could wait by the door. “Don’t bother me,” our sage had directed. Our tea wizard fluttered a hand at him dismissing, emptying the strainer for one last cup.
“We’ll try one of the flavored teas, so you know the difference.” He rolled his eyes, like we would ever fully appreciate the difference. In his mind, this was probably the tea we’d like best. He quickly steeped the final cup, telling us again about the teas we’ve already tasted, the benefits, and the deal he’d be offering.
“Today, you get $5 off whatever you buy. Unless its $5, then you pay $5 cause it’s not going to be free.” He poured the last tea in our tiny cups, a Lychee flavored black tea. “If you come back tomorrow, you pay double.” We laughed. As if it had been an option to walk out and not purchase anything. He still had the threatening scooper, and I was betting he moved as fast on the other side of the counter as he did when he brewed tea. We were definitely buying something. The Lychee tea had a tropical fruit fragrance, was delicate and lively. Not at all bracing and though I would never admit it to my new sage, was really delicious. I could easily envision drinking this in the morning, but I had already planned on buying tea accessories instead of having my tea choice judged. I could order online and be judged behind my back, which was definitely preferred here.
We made our selections. I purchased one of the daunting tea scoopers and the draining tea tray he kept dumping the first splash into. It had a little tray beneath the slots that could be emptied out later if something spilled on it, purposefully or accidentally. My mom purchased the jasmine and the Iron Goddess Green, which she totally promised to share with me. While the other members of our group checked out, I reviewed what I had learned.
1: All tea is green tea. Some young, some ripe, some roasted, some fermented, but all green.
2: You buy tea for what you want it to do, not the taste. Tea doesn’t taste good. It gives you benefits. Unless its flavored tea. Then it tastes good.
3: Tea doesn’t take long to steep. Longer you steep, more tannins and bitter you draw out.
4: Water for tea should be at 160-200 degrees F, depending on the tea. Boiling water will bring out more bitterness.
5: Tea bags are not an option. Don’t even think about it.
6: Same rule applies for milk and sugar.
7: Chamomile, peppermint, rose, lavender, and other blossom teas are not tea. Don’t call them that. There is no tea in there.
8: Decaf tea is a marketing ploy. All actual tea has caffeine. Don’t make me whack you with the scooper.
9: Try all tea before you buy. Unless its flavored tea, then just get it and don’t waste the tea shops time.
10: You know nothing about tea. Well before now you knew nothing about tea.
We thanked our tea sage for the lesson, vowed to never use tea bags, and swore we would never, ever, ever call blossom water a tea ever again. It was not tea.
He shooed us from the store, welcoming the next flock of unappreciative, unknowledgeable, and probably heathen tea bag steepers into his store. I kind of wanted to warn them, but encountering Kenny unaware seemed to be part of the education.
Celebrating all that we raise, sip, guzzle, clink, drinks and most affectionately cheers with!