Vital Tea Leaf

Sorry, but you’ve been killing your tea.

The young woman flicks back her long, black hair and pours hot water into a ceramic bowl containing a lump of twisted brown tea leaves. “Tea should be brewed with water that’s between 180 and 195 degrees—not boiling.”

Moments after pouring the water, she places another bowl over the top and flips the duo over to deftly drain the copper liquid. “Never use the first pour.”

Clearly, I’ve been doing this all wrong.

She pours in more water and spoons the leaves into a swirl with a clink, clink, clink of the second bowl. “This one is called Golden Horse.”

“We don’t put any horse meat in it—don’t worry” chimes in the other woman behind the counter as she scoops tea out of a big glass jar for a customer.

“…no horse meat, but horse hair” says the woman call-and-response-style, still swooshing the tea. They both burst into giggles.

*

Shelves of uniform glass jars neatly line shelves spanning the entire length of the shop. Opposite, a man with a handlebar mustache and a lip ring sits in one of the little wooden folding chairs along the counter. Without looking up, the woman behind the counter pours him tea from a small glass pitcher and tells me to take a seat and join them.

“This is a red tea. It’s what you would call black tea, but in China, we call it red.” She douses the leaves with a shallow splash of water and tilts the cup to us. “See? Red.” She dumps out the water then immediately pours in more. “In China, the name of the tea is ‘Golden Eyebrow,’ but here, we call it ‘Golden Horse.’”

“Why?” I ask.

She shrugs and places in front of me a tiny wooden platform topped by a Barbie-sized ceramic bowl. Into the bowl is poured a tea radiating a rich, golden-ruby glow. I take a sip.

Sweet mulch. Teaming with budding seedlings, burrowing worms, heat of combustion. Swallowing brings a washed, clean feeling.

“Don’t put sugar in your tea. Or milk. It doesn’t need it.” She pours out the rest of the tea into a larger bowl and hands it to her colleague. “This is her favorite tea. She loves this tea.” The woman cuddles the bowl against her cheek, smiling and nodding her head.

The man and I finish our tea as another bowl containing a small lump of wet, green leaves is prepped with hot water.

“You can re-use your tea. One tablespoon—about five fingers’ worth—will give you four or five cups” she says, raking her fingers through a pile of tea and drawing out a generous lump to illustrate.

After a steeping of swooshing leaves and water (“10 to 40 seconds—it doesn’t need any longer”), she pours out a pale, new-growth-green liquid into our bowls. The man smiles and sighs almost imperceptibly.

Heady and sweet, the blossoms unfurl, tickling my nostrils. Jasmine. I cup the bowl up beneath my nose, letting the nectar seep inside, trickling down inside my lungs where it balloons golden and lacey. I take a sip.

Astringent. Crushed, withered, pesticide-dusted petals. What a shame. Lucky for the fellow, he’s still in love, and he holds out the bowl for more.

The next tea is Blue People Ginseng. “Hangover tea” the women tell us, grinning and giggling. “Good for when your head feels like this,” and they begin swaying and staggering before dissolving again into laughter.

We try Pu-erh (Deep earth. Primordial earth.). And Genmaicha (Toasty). And more. Many more.

As she’s washing out the last of the bowls, one of the women tells me “You shouldn’t mix teas. Green, white, black, red… they end up fighting it out.”

“So I’ll be in pretty rough shape later, huh?”

“Yep—good luck with that” she laughs. Any tea you’d like to take home?”

I glance around the shelves—Golden Horse, my favorite, is $55 for 4oz, at $220 a pound. “I really liked the Golden Horse, but it’s quite a bit more than I was thinking of spending.”

“It’s really not that expensive when you think about it. It just depends how much you love yourself.”

Now all of us are giggling.

*

Vital Tea Leaf is located at 1044 Grant Avenue, and is open 10:30 to 7 p.m. Tastings—a crash course in Tea 101, really—are free. If you’re already a tea aficionado, you can also place orders online.

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