http://www.flickr.com/photos/seanhobson/5571349906/Once again, the World Tea Expo was a beautiful collection of tea courses, tea tastings, and some very worthwhile exhibitors.  In particular, I was lucky to attend a Yan Cha (Dark Oolong)-focused tasting course taught by Philip Parda.  We sipped six of these famous “rock teas,” which varied in flavor from deep smoked to lighter caramel, with peach pit and stone nuances.  

Phil shared with us that the plants average over 100 years old and the harvest season is very short, from April 19-21 into May 5-7.  Leaves that are too old, or too tender, are not used; the tea picker must only pluck the leaves of a certain maturity and never in rain or dew.  The time of day the tea is picked is also important – between 9:00 and 11:00 in the morning or between 2:00 and 3:00 in the afternoon – to ensure the least moisture on the leaf.

The process, as Phil explained, has the following steps:

  1. Plucking
  2. Withering in the sun or in an interior sauna
  3. Twisting or swaying in bamboo to bruise the edges of the leaves
  4. Firing
  5. Rubbing the leaves lengthwise
  6. Initial baking
  7. Removing useless material
  8. Special charcoal baking to finish the tea leaf and seal the flavor to a perfect balance

These are complex teas with both green and black flavors and are best between the third and sixth steepings.  Phil’s course was wonderful – I could have stayed, learned, and tasted for at least a day!

After sipping my way through the Chinese section of the World Tea Expo, I tasted and voted on teas as part of the World Tea Championships.  One thing struck me immediately – these were all tea importers; there were no tea growers – Rishi, Art of Tea, and Q Trade, along with Intaba Kenyan teas.  I missed having the actual people who make the tea there.  The importers will win credit for their teas and get the trophies, but really what they did was taste it, import it, and maybe blend it.  Shouldn’t the actual growers be the ones to win the prizes?  But perhaps that’s just me.

At the Expo, I was once again impressed with Tyler Gage and his company, Runa, which imports a delicious herb from the Amazon called Guayusa.  They are truly the best entrepreneurs in tea I have seen in a decade!  Passionate, sustainable, and unique, these guys are the only importers of this herb in America and they are really giving us a gift.  Guayusa delivers a mellow flavor with a nice finish and some caffeine; their ginger blend is great for after meals.  I have actually switched from Mate to Guayusa when I want my South American flavor fix!

A few days after the show, I scheduled a day-long tour of the tea shop universe of Los Angeles to taste teas and be inspired by the tea purveyors who spend their days educating their customers on the art of loose-leaf teas, tea accoutrements, and the culture of the beloved leaf.

I started my treasure hunt at the T-Shoppe at the Los Angeles Farmers Market.  I chose this location because of the great reviews on Yelp and Chow Hound.  A little tea pocket wedged between a crepe shop, a bakery specializing in the decadence of meringue, and an Italian market, the T-Shoppe has a great selection of oolongs and flavored black and green teas, as well as tea accoutrements.  It is perfect for those of us who want great Chinese varieties, like Dragon Pearl and Lung Ching.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/sgt_spanky/3993973823/Next, I ventured to Beverly Hills, where every aspect of my tea-loving self was overjoyed by the experience at the American Tea Room on Canon.  The owner took me on a tea tour that the Queen of England would have envied and served me the best Milk Oolong I had ever tasted.  The tea service was perfect and the patience and love the owner has for his products and for educating the consumer were evident.  I walked out grateful for the Earl Grey Shanghai, Milk Oolong, and Bao Zhong Royale Oolong, as well as some samples he threw in my bag of a delicious, flavored Russian ode to citrus black tea.  Impressive is an understatement when it comes to this brilliant purveyor and shop that has survived eight years in Beverly Hills.  It can only be because his tea, knowledge, and grace are all of the highest caliber of any tea room in the U.S. I have visited during my career.  Definitely worth visiting!

Continuing my wonderful trek, I ventured just a few blocks to Ron Teeguarden’s Dragon Herbs.  Sitting at the tea and tonic bar, Daniel, the tonic and tea master, asked if he could see my tongue.  Familiar with Chinese medicine (it cured my chronic migraines!), I stuck out my tongue.  He looked for a second and then was off making me a tonic for tired adrenals.  It tasted like intensely concentrated Dong Quai and Ginseng, but I felt amazing within minutes, bought a ton of it to go, and was off to the next location.  I do recommend Ron’s herbs if you have any issues with your health.  He has the highest integrity from what I could tell, and his endocrine enhancer blend of herbs in capsules has changed my life for the better.  Six a day and – even after ten cups of tea – I can sleep at night!

From the American Tea Room and Ron’s Dragon Herbs, I opted for a “mall” experience at the Century City Mall, visiting both Teavana and Lupicia.  Teavana has retail tea figured out.  But the fact that all of their pre-brewed samples have German rock sugar added shows that the mall crowd may not be ready for straight tea yet, … or?  I asked the employees what their bestselling teas were and they proceeded to guide me through a mix of blends ranging from Dragon Pearl with popcorn-laced peach oolong to a white tea chai blended with black tea for weight loss.  They told me that one blend would help me lose weight, another would balance my blood sugar, and a third would boost my immune system.  Between the sugar and the promise of perfect health, I would have been totally sold if I were not an herbalist and a tea maker.  Is this the story we tea purveyors want told?  I do think so in some ways.  The health benefits are real, but isn’t it risky for a public company to act like a doctor?  Although they looked at my tongue at Ron’s and gave me a tonic, they made no claims or promises.  Teavana does have gorgeous tea gift sets and amazing tea pots.  I bought an iced Yin Zhen to go and was on my way to Lupicia.

Lupicia is a sleepy tea shop with walls of wooden tea boxes on display, a total pleasure to walk into as its appearance was quiet and meditative.  The employee there was not making any promises about health benefits or offering sugar.  Instead, she gave me a pleasant sample of Sencha Uji.  I loved smelling the black varieties of Kenilworth and Kilimanjaro.  Lupicia has several traditional Japanese barley blends with apple, apricot, and plum flavors that were quite refreshing and perfect for brewing in the summer heat.

I hope you visit these reputable and passionate tea vendors and come away with your own impressions, whatever your tea path may be.

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