Sitting at Sea-Tac drinking tea, I realized just how passionate—er, obsessive?—I had become. I had brought my tiny travel tea set, and was brewing green tea with my gaiwan (an ancient tea-brewing implement, basically a cup with a lid and saucer). I had secured some piping-hot water from a nearby coffee shop, and—astutely aware that green tea brews best at a lower temperature—poured the hot water into my glass pitcher to cool it a bit before pouring it into the gaiwan. The result: a delicious, slightly nutty cup of sencha.
Maybe, dear reader, you’re thinking that “slightly nutty” might be used to describe something other than the tea? Well, perhaps—but there are definitely those in the Seattle area who share my affection for The Leaf, as I learned during my recent quest to explore some of the area’s premier tea shops.
My first stop, and a little-known gem: Guitian’s Tea Club (1531 First Ave., # 509, guitiansteaclub.com). Underground supper clubs are gaining in popularity, but an underground tea club? That’s a new one for me—and as it turned out, a delightful one. Proprietor Guitian Li doesn’t sell tea or tea ware; instead, she focuses on providing a serene and peaceful tea-drinking experience.
I meet her on a Sunday morning; elegantly dressed and welcoming, she kindly ushers me into her small space near Pike Place Market. Li’s calligraphy adorns her walls, and bookcases are lined with books on tea, philosophy, and literature. The space is warmly lit by Asian-style lamps, and soothing classical Chinese music plays softly. After taking off our shoes, we sit on floor cushions on bamboo mats. The low table is exquisitely arranged, and includes small plates of dark chocolate and dates.
Given the supreme tranquility of the scene, it’s admittedly a bit jarring when Li announces that our first tea will be “duck shit,” a type of oolong. Luckily, its taste in no way resembles its name. Indeed, the tea is quite pleasurable, and certainly greatly enhanced by my appreciation for Li’s delicate and mindful serving style. This style, called gongfu (or kung fu), refers to the Chinese tea ceremony, in which various tools and techniques are used to extract the best flavor from fine teas, as well as to foster harmony and refresh the spirit.
“It’s spiritual development through the presence of tea,” says Li. “Through the slow pace of the tea ceremony, you can connect with yourself, your consciousness—and then you become more aware of your surroundings, your community.”
Li serves a curated selection of very rare, handmade high-mountain teas from China, mostly oolongs and puerhs, to a maximum of four people on Friday evenings and some Saturdays. The cost of the two-hour session is $20 (prices vary for one-on-one sessions) and, depending on the group and the mood, often includes silent meditation or poetry. Li creates an especially restorative and relaxing tea experience. Although I’d arrived that morning a bit late and feeling semi-ragged, I leave nourished and uplifted.
Next I make the short drive to Phoenix Tea (902 S.W. 152nd St., Burien, phoenix-teashop.com), co-owned by Virginia “Cinnabar” Wright and Brett Boynton, both of whom are also tea bloggers. The first tea I sample is a tulsi blend (also known as “holy basil”), joining a tea session with two young women who have just finished the Clove to Clover 5K. Complimentary tea tasting is offered for patrons at a low, ornately carved, antique Chinese table.
I ask about an odd-looking device on the table. (Picture something like what is used on foosball tables to record the number of goals.)
“Customers would sometimes ask which infusion we were on, so I invented, designed and made this tea-infusion counter,” says Wright.
How many people—even in the tea world—have homemade “infusion counters” at their tea table? That Phoenix Tea has one is a true indication of the depth of their passion. After each infusion, Wright dutifully slides another bead.
Another item of interest on Phoenix’s tea table is the small “tea pet.” “Watch this,” Wright says, pouring hot water over the little sculpted animal. (It looks like a cross between a dog and a dragon, but is in fact a pi xiu, a Chinese mythological creature.) The moment the water hits, it instantly changes from a dull greyish-beige to bright gold. Another sign of the seriousness with which Phoenix Tea takes its craft: Customers have the option of recording tasting notes and maintaining that information in an index-card file on the tea table.
“Most of our teas,” Wright says, “are bought from people at or one step away from origin. We don’t use one big wholesaler to supply all the tea. Instead, we buy from companies and individuals that specialize in one particular tea-producing region. We also buy in fairly small quantities to keep our stock fresh. Although we sell 120 to 130 different teas . . . because we have smallish quantities, it makes it more manageable and ensures an interesting and seasonal selection.”
We sample a high-end Taiwanese oolong and then a “purple” hand-rolled tea from Kenya. When I inquire about the meaning of “purple” and about African teas, Wright shares her detailed understanding. It seems that no matter how esoteric my tea question, Wright’s range of knowledge is broad and deep enough to provide interesting, insightful answers.
In fact, Phoenix is so devoted to tea culture that it maintains a tea museum. “Perhaps the most interesting feature of our museum,” Wright says, “is our collection of nine different devices [braziers and other vessels] for heating water without electricity.” Ha! Heating my water over the glowing charcoal in a brazier: Yet another to add to my list of tea missions!
Finally, Phoenix’s tea selection is immense, and will satisfy even the tea connoisseur seeking rare yellow teas, hard-to-find Korean or African teas, and a wide range of loose-leaf oolongs, greens, blacks, puerhs, and many others.
Late in the afternoon, I arrive at my final tea destination, Smacha (14603 N.E. 20th St., Bellevue, smacha.com). Jason Chen started a wholesale tea business in Seattle about 16 years ago, and just last year opened Smacha, his first retail location, in a strip mall. Chen has wide-ranging and varied tea experience: In brief, he’s an author of two books, a winner of multiple gold and silver medals at international tea competitions, the owner of 3,000-plus acres of tea gardens in China, and even the inventor of a signature tea-brewing implement.
Incredibly, Chen personally manages the whole supply chain—from planting and harvesting to sorting, processing, importing, and roasting—for many of his products. Smacha combines the efficiencies of vertical integration with the attention to quality and craft of a small-scale artisan. More evidence of his impact in the tea world: Starbucks is one of his wholesale clients.
“I created [purchased, set up, and planted] tea gardens in 2000, 13 years ago,” says Chen. “If you want to sell high-quality tea, you must have your own tea gardens . . . You must do all the processing yourself, otherwise you cannot guarantee that you have good quality. . . . This supply chain is all-important. When I know the whole process, only then can I speak with confidence and honesty to my customers.”
Chen recently returned from another trip to China. In addition to overseeing his tea gardens, he sought high-quality sources of bergamot and hibiscus and made preparations to design and manufacture authentic yixing (clay) teapots in an 800-year-old “dragon kiln” that’s fired only once a month. (And I thought I was into tea. It was inspiring.)
Upon entering the tea shop, Smacha’s dedication to quality is immediately apparent: a wall of water; a gorgeous thick Brazilian rosewood custom bar with built-in drainage; a tastefully arranged and nicely illuminated tea-ware display—and, though it might seem minor, the clincher for me: a fresh bouquet of flowers.
Exquisite locally made tea snacks include oolong plum-paste tea cake, black-tea lotus-tea cake, fresh mochi, and more. The quality of the teas I taste is superb. The high-mountain oolong (Ali Shan) from Taiwan has the creamiest texture of any oolong I’ve ever tasted; the Phoenix oolong has a powerful honey/orchid fragrance and a pleasurable lingering on the tongue, not unlike a fine wine.
I’m excited to see this burgeoning tea culture in the Seattle area—of which the crowning event is the annual Northwest Tea Festival, held the first weekend in October. Although it’s fun to brew tea in unexpected places, maybe one day soon, instead of covertly brewing mine in the corner of the airport, I’ll be enjoying the airport’s new communal and artisanal tea bar.
White: lightly oxidized (a chemical process that browns tea leaves and contributes to flavor and aroma)
Yellow: fixed (oxidation prevented by applying heat)
Purple: produced from a newly developed varietal of Camellia sinensis in Kenya
Black: fully oxidized
Puerh: may or may not be oxidized, but is always fermented
Herbal: an infusion not made from the tea plant, Camellia sinensis.
This glossary was adapted from Tea Trekker (teatrekker.com) and from Phoenix Tea.