San Francisco is a great place for tea – I went there to attend the Specialty Tea Institute (STI) Level 3 Oolong seminar and check out some tea rooms.  A caveat:  I know next to nothing about Oolong tea.  I’ve tried some, but they hadn’t really been that exciting to me to this point, so they hadn’t made it onto my permanent tea rotation list.  However, since most of the teaophiles I know rave about Oolongs, I figured I was a philistine and needed to delve more deeply into the Oolong scene to find out what they were all about.

Long story short:  I now am fascinated by the complexity and variety of Oolong tea, and have already bought a bunch to sample, compare, and contrast.  A day of drinking Oolong, led by Richard Guzauskas and Donna Fellman from the STI, who were both passionate about the subject, will do that to you.

The seminar was held on Inauguration Day, and started off in a bit of a rush.  Since a couple of class members wanted to watch the swearing-in ceremony live at 9:00 AM, we had to get started very quickly on our tastings.  So the rules and conventions were laid out, and we started tasting tea.  It was a bit stressful at first, but once we got the first one going, we settled into a rhythm and it was more relaxed.  Once everyone had returned from watching the inauguration, we had a toast to President Obama!

Throughout the day, we tasted about 12 or 13 different Oolongs, ranging in style from the lightly oxidized Pouchongs, through the “Champagne” types like Eastern Beauty, and on to the more heavily oxidized and smoky Wu Yi rock Oolongs.  Understanding the differences between them, and how the styles developed, was an exciting journey for me.  I had always been a bit put off by the more “vegetal” types of Oolongs –  first one I tried reminded me strongly of broccoli – but the ones we drank at the seminar had the flavors of fruit, chocolate, bread, tobacco, and many other things you don’t necessarily associate with tea.

I loved listening to the descriptions that all of the class members came up with to capture the essence of the tea.  I think my favorite one was “an orange studded with capers”.  Not sure what that would taste like, but you get the idea they were trying to express!

Experiencing how much variations in growing region, elevation, and processing can change the character of the tea, even though they are all Oolongs, has started me on yet another fascinating tea journey.  I worked my way through many of the most recommended tea vendors in San Francisco, including the  Blossom Tea Co., the Crown & Crumpet, Teance, the Samovar Tea Lounge, and the Imperial Tea Court.

As always, the owners and staff were very welcoming and helpful, and were able to guide me to some interesting tea choices.  I can’t wait to get home and start sampling my new Oolong teas!