For as long as I can remember tea has always been an accompaniment to Chinese food. First at various suburban restaurants it was bags of Swee-Touch-Nee orange pekoe. Later as I began to enjoy yum-cha at dim sum houses in Queens and elsewhere, the tea was decidedly better. I never gave all that much thought to the nuances of tea though until I went to a tea tasting at Yumcha Yoga with tea expert Theresa Wong from Fang Gourmet Tea.
That day Wong poured pu-er tea. The most striking thing about my first tea ceremony was the method in which Wong prepared the tea. First she warmed the teapot discarding the first batch of leaves. Then she brewed the tea. Everything was done in a measured almost meditative manner. I honestly don’t remember exactly what the brew tasted like, but I know I liked it and recall it was a relaxing experience that left me wanting to learn more about tea.
So a week or so later I paid a visit to Fang Gourmet Tea for a tasting. The shop which sells teas from Taiwan and mainland China, as well as Tibet is located in the back of a mall on a bustling stretch of Roosevelt Avenue. Membership in Fang’s tea tasting club is free and most teas can be tasted for $5 per tea per person for non-members and $3 for members, a few teas are $15 for non-members and $10 for members. With some teas costing upwards of a $100 a pound it’s one of the best bargains in Flushing.
Wong has been learning about, pouring, and drinking tea at Fang for about five years. It was a co-worker’s desire to take a tea ceremony class that got her into it. Before taking the class she wasn’t much of a tea drinker. After the first class though her passion for tea began to unfold and half a year later she quit her job to join Fang. These days she speaks of tea in terms of terroir and season, like a sommelier would speak about wine.
The first tea we tried was Cedar Creek High Mountain Oolong, $50/150g, from central Taiwan. As she warmed the porcelain gaiwan, Wong explained that the tea was picked back in May, but she prefers the winter harvests for their more complex flavors. “When I have a new tea I always start with the gaiwan to get to know the tea first. Then after I become more familiar with the tea, I will start playing with it by using different types of teapots.” The few times that I have been to coffee cuppings I’ve never really agreed with the tasting notes and just sort of nodded and smiled, um grapefruit and leather yes, absolutely. When Wong spoke of grassy, sweet flavors though, I picked them up right away.
After a few more brewings it was time to move on to our second tea, a 2002 Tibetan Brick Tea, $134/450g. This Tibetan tea whose unbrewed leaves have the lovely smell of a forest floor after a spring rainstorm, is one of Wong’s favorites. I’ve had plenty of Tibetan tea, but as salty butter tea, so I was looking forward to trying it in its pure state.
The Tibetan had an aroma of dried fruit and was quite lovely. While Wong was about to brew it two younger tea enthusiasts from Bushwick strolled in. Soon we were all comparing tasting notes and talking about Leo’s Latticini of all places. As Wong pointed out, this tea had a soothing effect.
“I’m pretty much at the plateau caffeine level,” I replied when Wong offered to pour another tea, Lao San Green tea, $38/50g. This one I was actually familiar with. It was the house tea at the now defunct Qingdao restaurant M&T. Wong does not generally like green tea, but praised this variety for being “minerally sweet.” Spoken like a tea sommelier if there ever was one.
“I don’t drink it all,” Wong says of the tea served in Chinese restaurants. “At dim sum places I drink it if it’s not too awful.”
If you’d like to sample Tibetan tea with Wong and the crew at Yumcha from 1.30-2.30 p.m. on Saturday RSVP at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a message at 718-321-8348.
Fang Gourmet Tea 135-25 Roosevelt Ave., Flushing, 888-888-0216