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Teatime in the 21st Century

Relax in the tea "time zone" with the varied offerings at tea bars around the Bay Area


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Teance in Berkeley

Photo by Jennifer Sauer

Tea is the new wine. Connoisseurs drink it in flights at tasting bars. They slurp to aerate the tea, and they talk about tannins and mouthfeel and finish. Tea sommeliers guide the experience, suggesting oolongs for a particular palate and pairing puerhs with dim sum.

Like fine Cabernet, some teas get better with age. The truly devoted may hunt for a promising young tea—one they can invest in, set aside for 10 years, then enjoy, or sell, later.

For decades, tea has graced the East Bay in the British tradition, where scones and doilies take center stage, and a pot of Earl Grey might as well be a pot of dirty rainwater. But experts wince at the thought of putting milk or sugar in many teas. “Good tea has a naturally sweet note that you don’t want to cover up,” says Eliot Jordan, tea director for Peet’s Coffee and Tea. But, Jordan adds, drinking tea is as much about the culture it comes from as the tea itself. “Tibetans put salted yak butter in their tea after they boil it,” he says. “There’s always a cultural aspect to it.”

The Imperial Tea Court in Berkeley serves tea in the formal Chinese gongfu style and the informal gaiwan. For the latter, servers present loose leaves in the bottom of a covered tea cup for customers to smell, rinse with a bit of water, then drain. The next pour is the first cup, to be sipped through the lid or poured into a second cup. And with a large pot of water left at the table, the leaves can be resteeped four to six times—sometimes even 12—with each cup presenting a different character of the tea.

That’s what makes tea tasting much more interesting than wine tasting, says Imperial’s owner and tea expert, Roy Fong. Adding more tea leaves, adjusting the water temperature, or fiddling with the steeping time changes the flavor of the tea, making it more versatile when pairing with food. “Strong-flavored tea actually goes well with not-so-strong-flavored food,” he says.

Just like butternut squash in the fall, new green teas will come out in the spring, whites in the summer.

Fong and his staff suggest matching their green onion pancake fried in tea-seed oil with jasmine pearls tea. For some dishes, tea is infused into the food. Shrimp are marinated in jasmine tea, before being wrapped into dumplings. Hand-pulled noodles are made with jasmine tea broth, or with a beef broth best paired with a reserve puerh.

Puerh teas (pronounced poo-air) have been popular in China for centuries but are just now coming into their own in the Bay Area, says Reem Rahim, cofounder of Numi Tea in Oakland.“Puerh is very bold and earthy, almost malty,” she says. “We weren’t sure if the American palate was ready for it.”

Numi has developed a line of puerh teas: unblended Emperor’s Puerh, mint, magnolia, and chocolate, available at its tea garden and in stores. Puerh is grown on 500-year-old trees, fermented, and either aged in bricks or left loose to be enjoyed right away. Puerh is believed to have greater health benefits than green and black teas, with more antioxidants and probiotics, thought to break down fat and reduce cholesterol.

That’s why Teavana, a loose-leaf tea shop in Pleasanton’s Stoneridge Shopping Center, sells three diet puerh teas: Weight To Go Puerh Tea, Skinny Chai Puerh, and Strawberry Slender Puerh. Teavana doesn’t offer a sit-down experience around tea, but beginners can get started by smelling the varieties stocked in tins, and buying four-ounce portions of loose-leaf tea to make at home.

Or you can dive in at Teance in Berkeley, where customers sit at a tasting bar attended by trained experts who narrate flights that combine a series of three white, green, oolong, black, or puerh teas, pointing out the flavor differences and describing the misty mountain cliffs where much of the tea grows. They also talk about harvesting seasons: green and white teas generally come out in early spring, oolongs in late spring and early autumn. Winters tend to be dry, but look for a special osmanthus tea from Peet’s in January. This Chinese black tea is blended with golden osmanthus flowers, which are harvested in autumn and add a chamomile-apricot aroma that is fruity, but not cloying.

In addition to tea-tasting rooms and commercial shops are numerous cafés that offer a place to read the paper or tap on your laptop while sipping a quality cup of tea, such as L’Amyx Tea Bar in Oakland and A Cuppa Tea in Berkeley. Tea au Lait in San Ramon carries a variety of fruit teas, such as Cranberry Wonderland, a pure fruit tea made of cranberry pieces, apples, hibiscus, and rose; and Green Tea Maui, raspberry and strawberry pieces mixed with Japanese sencha. Owner Rosanna Lim also keeps plenty of loose-leaf teas in stock, including high mountain oolong, from her family’s tea plantation in Taiwan.

And if it’s an anti-Starbucks vibe you’re after, go to Far Leaves Tea in Berkeley. “Tea is about slowing down, totally the opposite from coffee,” says owner Donna Lo. “It’s not a quick fix.” The process of taking your shoes off, sitting on a pillow or tatami mat, and waiting for the water to boil is all part of the tea ritual, she says. The tea “time zone” relaxes people and brings them together. “It’s about a lifestyle, not just a tea bag.”

Far Leaves Tea, farleaves.com; Imperial Tea Garden, imperialtea.com; L’Amyx, lamyx.com;
Numi, numitea.com; Peet’s Coffee and Tea, peets.com; Tea au Lait, teaaulait.net; Teance, teance.com; Teavana, teavana.com.

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