Photo by Kevin P. Casey
If you're going to visit Shiuwen Tai, proprietor of Ballard's Floating Leaves Tea, make sure you've cleared your calendar and turned off your Blackberry. Tai is obsessed with all things tea, and she is more than happy to share her wealth of knowledge.
Most of the teas sold at her shop (which focuses on Taiwanese oolongs) are hand-picked, seasonal, unblended, single-estate teas—a far cry from the blended finings you'll find in most grocery-store tea bags. Tai visits Taiwan every year on buying trips, working directly with the farmers, learning as much as she can about her product. As with wine grapes, she says, "the tea plants vary in quality and flavor depending on the varietal, the climate, the soil, the processing...Like fruit and vegetables, if a farmer cares, you will know."
Like a good bartender who wants to help educate your palate, Tai steered me away from the bergamot-flavored tea I'd come looking for. "I don't want to criticize blended teas or scented tea," she explained. "Though if the tea is this good, why do you ever want to add flavor?" And she'll tell you how to take your tea, too, though very nicely.
"You don't want sugar, right, do you?" Tai says, smiling. She's very direct about her preferences, which are informed by her time in Taiwan, both as a child and in her yearly visits.
Though fine tea is obviously Tai's first passion, a close second is the creation of a shared space where people can spend many hours in conversation over a series of small pots, as she remembers from her visits to teahouses outside Taipei. She's always pleased to see her customers lose track of time. "My focus is to slow people down," Tai explains. The complicated rituals go some distance toward creating a more meditative experience.
When I met with Tai at her shop, she immediately sat me down with a pot of tea. Telling me about her teahouse, she poured pot after tiny pot of delicate loose-leaf Taiwanese oolong, a prize-winning Baozhong variety, served in a ritual I'd never experienced before.
A slew of tea-making accoutrements crowded our table: a thermos of hot water, a hollow bamboo tray with slats cut into it, a porcelain cup with a cover, and a small pitcher. We each had two more tiny porcelain cups on their own miniature trays. To warm the porcelain surfaces, Tai dashed hot water into each of the many containers, and emptied the water into the tray. She rinsed the tightly curled tea leaves as well, letting them unfurl. Then Tai poured hot water over the green leaves, splashing a little into the bamboo slats. A few moments later, she poured the steeped water off into the pitcher: This was our pot of tea. From here, she poured the liquid into one tiny cup, and asked me to place the other one over it, hold tightly, and turn the cups upside down. Finally revealing green tea in the last cup, she asked me to smell. It was grassy, with floral notes, delicious.
"I like to brew tea this way," Tai explained. "So short, you have to pay attention. You don't turn on a timer and leave the room." Quick, yes, but it was a carefully orchestrated process.
If all goes as planned, by the time this goes to print Tai will have moved her shop into a new location just three blocks up Market Street. The new space will focus more on the shared aspect of tea drinking, with a floor plan more suited to sharing Tai's expertise. Her new teahouse will be more Eastern, more traditional. It will be a communal space, without individual tables for people to sit at alone, as they did in her old venue.
"Is there going to be anywhere to sit in the new place?" one dedicated customer asks Tai.
"With me," she replies. "People will sit with me."—Adriana Grant