One of my favorite places to go in San Francisco is Red Blossom Tea in Chinatown. They have an extensive selection of green, oolong, puerh, black, and white teas, all carefully selected and presented. The experience as you walk into the shop reminds me of tea shops I’ve visited in China. You are warmly welcomed as you come in the door, and one of the salespeople immediately asks you what you’re looking for. If you’re unsure, they are always happy to sit down at a traditional tea table and prepare tea for you to sample.
I was shopping for oolong tea on my last trip, and the saleswoman guided me to the oolong section on the tea shelves. Once there, she proceeded to ask me if I favored any particular types of oolongs, and then gave me detailed explanations of the differences between them. I told her that I preferred Anxi or Wuyi oolongs to the lighter Formosa and Phoenix oolongs. She led me through the various teas, allowing me to sniff the aromas of many of them to see if there were any that clicked with me. I chose a Monkey-Picked Tieguanyin as an “everyday” oolong, but then she opened the canister of a charcoal-roasted Tung Ting, and I was in love.
Even though it’s a Formosa oolong, the additional charcoal roasting gives it a completely different flavor profile. As I learned (and as is detailed on their website), “the slow roasting gradually caramelizes the natural sugars in the tea and sweetens it, while the charcoal imparts a depth and complexity to its flavor and aroma.” That only begins to describe the experience when you’re drinking it! With the first steeping, you have a slightly smoky flavor mixed with a hint of sweetness. The smokiness is not as pronounced as in a Lapsang Souchong. I would compare Lapsang to a campfire smokiness, whereas the Tung Ting had more a note of a backyard barbeque. It’s pronounced, but not overwhelming at all. The tea is smooth on the palate, with very little astringency.
What I enjoyed most about the tea is that it was a surprise to me – a little outside what I had initially been looking for, but completely to my taste. The salespeople at Red Blossom excel at listening to their customers and guiding them along a path that they might not have walked themselves. It reminds me of the first time I had oolong tea at a tiny market stall in Shanghai. My colleagues took us to the shop because they knew the owners, and the owner himself sat down to prepare the tea for us. During that trip, we tried a few different green teas, and then he suggested that we try an oolong.
My first impression of that oolong was that it tasted like broccoli! I’ve learned now that there are some oolongs that have a light, vegetal taste and aroma, while others – like this charcoal-roasted Tung Ting – have more depth and complexity. Some even have buttery notes, like the famous milk oolongs.
I’m enjoying my oolong journey, learning about the range of flavors and strengths that you can find in one type of tea. Red Blossom in San Francisco is always a great place to continue that journey – their knowledge and warmth bring me a little closer to China.