Tea Writings

A blog about tea from the desk of Cecilia Tan

Tea Touring #2

August 17, 2009 By: ctan Category: Tea Musings, Tea Reviews, Tea Shops

Our next stop on our San Francisco tea excursion was the Aroma Tea Shop, a place I’ve ordered from many times on the web but never visited.

If you have seen their web site you will have seen a posed photo of Haymen Da Luz and his wife Ying Wi, described there as “the young and sexy owners of Aroma Tea Shop.” In the photo they are both wearing traditional garb, Haymen is holding a bamboo bird cage, Ying Wi a teapot that matches her chongsam. Midori, who had met them before at their Richmond area store, however, described them to me as “like two characters straight out of anime.”

In real life, Haymen is a showman, and if you watch the Flickr slideshow currently on their website, you will see him for the GQ fashion plate that he is, as well as the evolution of his ever-changing hair style. It was quite an enjoyable experience talking tea with him.

What sent me to Aroma in the first place as a source for online ordering was my search for good milk oolong. Holy Mountain Tea Co. was out of it last winter, and so I Googled, found Aroma, and ordered from them.

I am drinking some of the milk oolong I bought on this visit right now. I’m on the second steeping, and it is almost as round and creamy in my mouth as the first steep, and clearly not done yet. Milk oolong is like fine wine. How much flavor it has in a given year and a given batch is dependent on the weather and the input of nature. Sometimes it’s better than others. This one is outstanding, but it’s difficult to tell that from a web site.

Hence the reason to go in and taste the tea. Just like when visiting a good cheesemonger, you should be able to taste the teas if possible!

We sat down at the beautiful stone tea-tasting bar at the Aroma Polk Street location and let Haymen pamper us for a while. Lively techno music plays quietly in the background and the selection is simply huge.

I didn’t even manage to write down all the teas we tasted. I think there were about 15-20 of them before we felt we had to move on. Here’s a partial list of the most notable.

  • Creamy Oolong — the milk oolong I’m drinking Right Now! I bought a large quantity (a pound?) and Haymen gave it to me in a beautiful blue and white can. I’ve been brewing and drinking this even though the weather finally turned hot. It’s excellent when cooled a little from normal tea-drinking temperature, so it doesn’t heat me up too much when it’s above 80 degrees out.
  • Mu Cha — charcoal-roasted oolong. Combining the fresh green grassiness of classic Fujian oolong, but charcoal roasted to give it a smoky, darker flavor, though still not as dark as the really dark oxidized oolongs can be. It’s a very unique taste–I bought some and will likely blog about it separately.
  • Gyokuro — the top quality grassy green tea from Japan, very much like a fine Dragon Well. We savored this one for a while.
  • Cinnamon King — Blended by Haymen himself exclusively for the shop. If you like cinnamon, this was a really outstanding way to have it. I didn’t buy any of this, but I might order some later. Midori said anything with cinnamon tasted like Christmas to her.
  • Iron Goddess — a very nice ti kuan yin from Fujian, the province most known for this variety of tea. (Now if only I could find my photos from my visit to the Temple of Quan Yin in Xiamen. Sadly, they were on the hard drive that died, and my mother has the backup CD.) I can never get too much Iron Goddess… except actually right now my stock is quite high.
  • Phoenix Oolong — uh oh. I didn’t take notes on this one and can’t remember anything about it. Apparently it was so good it made my brain blank out.
  • Blue People Oolong — this is a really unique flavored/processed tea from Taiwan that melds licorice and mint with green tea leaves. It’s a bit like each leaf is coated and rolled in licorice powder. They sent me a sample of it with my first order from them way back when and at first I didn’t like it. By the second pot, though, I was really starting to enjoy it, and by the time I ran out I was eager to get more. We didn’t end up tasting any of this; I just bought it immediately.

And then there was what I can only name “The Special Oolong From The Freezer.” By this point we had been chatting with Haymen for close to an hour. We had heard his whole story about how he wasn’t initially in the tea importing business, he was selling poker tables. When the poker craze first hit, there was a high demand for fancy, felt-line poker tables with cup holders and so on. Haymen got into the business of having them manufactured in China and shipped over here by container. After that business began to wane, he jumped into cell phone accessories, also imported by container ship from China. When it became time to move on from that business, his wife wanted to open a clothing store, but as Haymen’s father pointed out, there are a ton of places for people to choose to buy clothes. Why not look into something less competitive and more unique?

That’s how they fell into tea.

“At first, we didn’t know that much,” Haymen told us. They had opened their first retail location in Richmond, in an area where a lot of Chinese immigrants were concentrated. “It’s like a little Chinatown there. We didn’t really know tea or what we were doing. All we knew is that the lychee black sold really well, and nothing else did. One day this old guy came in to taste the tea and basically came right out and said ‘Your oolong sucks.’ That’s when I decided I had to get educated on tea.”

Haymen’s journey to learn about tea and to appreciate fine teas is now his customers’ journey, as he will enthusiastically explain all you may want to know about any given tea while he prepares tastes of it for you. He also showed us photos on his laptop of his recent tea tour to Fujian, including a visit to a temple on one of the ancient tea-growing mountains, where poems to tea are inscribed in the walls.

The “Special Oolong from the Freezer” was one that came from a plantation he visited, and it doesn’t appear that he sells it. He pulled the bag out of the freezer, where he keeps it to try to preserve the flavor as long as possible. He did however give me an ounce or two free sample to take back home with me, meaning that corwin too got to taste this incredible tea.

Like wine, the better the tea the more flavors and complexities it has in it. I realize my aim here is somewhat futile. Writing about what tea tastes like can never replicate for the reader the actual flavor. You have to take my word(s) for it, that this was a tea that made me feel mellow all the way to the ends of my fingers and toes, the way a good orgasm does.

(Still to come, Lupicia and the Samovar Tea Lounge.)

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