Quality. When it comes to food, what does it really mean? In my experience, true quality speaks for itself, without need for fanfare or idolatrous reviews. It sets the mark against which all other consumables in its category are measured against. Once you’ve tasted the best, an invisible bar of gastronomic expectations is raised. You’ve experienced the sensory delight of discovering what something should really taste like.
I had one of those eye-opening experiences courtesy of a tea-tasting at San Francisco’s Red Blossom Tea Company. Founded in the early 1980s by Chien Luong and his wife, what began as an apothecary business with a small offering of Chinese teas is now a thriving retail operation specializing in high quality Chinese and Taiwanese teas. The Luong children, Peter and Alice, took over the reins about a decade ago, slowly refining their vision for the business and, in the process, rediscovering their own relationship to tea.
“Tea has always been a part of my life, but I never gave it much thought,” Peter reflected. “We always had tea to savor and share, but there was no ceremony or ritual about it. I guess, as my appreciation for food grew, and I became more interested in learning about where and how what I ate was made and cultivated, that curiosity spread into the world of tea as I entered the family business.”
Operating from the same location for the past 27 years, the modest retail shop in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown offers a range of 80-100 loose leaf teas, neatly lined in silver canisters. Each is labeled with detailed stories about the provenance and crafting of its contents. These are not your average tasting notes; then again, these are not your average teas. Their Dong Pian (Winter Sprout) 2012 is described as “sublimely sweet and creamy, reminiscent of golden sugar cane, caramel, and cotton candy.”
“There’s a distinct lack of discussion about quality teas in the same fashion we talk about wine or coffee,” said Peter. “This needs to change. People need to ask more questions about the teas they consume – how and where the plants are grown, when the leaves are harvested, and how they’re crafted – this, along with an openness to taste and try new types of tea, is what’s going to help consumers make better choices.”
We tasted the Heritage Rougui (an oolong), the Taiping Houkui (a green) and the Aged Wenshan Baozhong (an aged oolong). The oolongs were delicate and subtle, with a sweet finish, while the green was unlike any other I had encountered. As I savored its creaminess and fresh, round mouth feel, Peter explained the process that goes into crafting each batch.
“Once the leaves are picked and cooled for 45 minutes, they’re wok-roasted by hand. Then each stem is individually shaped and arranged on a mesh screen where they’re flattened and baked over charcoal,” he said. “It’s time-consuming, but the result yields exactly what a green tea should taste like: round and sweet, instead of dry or astringent. You’re tasting the leaf, nothing more.”
He continued, “Most people don’t realize that tea production is actually a labor-intensive endeavor. It’s a craft. Our WuYi oolong teas, for example, requires the producer to roast the leaves over charcoal, taking into account a variety of parameters. The ash needs to be at the right temperature for the type of leaves, which also have to be rolled to just the right size, in order to bring out the true flavor profile of each cultivar. The majority of oolongs on the market today are processed by machines and roasted in a convection oven, obliterating the unique characteristics of each variety.”
The focus on quality explains why Red Blossom Tea remains at its small Chinatown location with no plans for expansion. Instead, they are focused on educating consumers about quality tea.
“We held a tea demonstration for the Society for Asian Art a few months ago. The next week, one of the attendees visited the shop to purchase a few teas and said that we had changed the way she savors and thinks about tea,” Peter said. “This may sound cheesy, but, for me, hearing something like that makes it all worthwhile.”
What are some of your favorite teas? Do you know how they’re made?