In Pursuit of Tea
(Sebastian Beckwith, photo by: Kristin Oliver)
Meeting with our producers is becoming ever more enjoyable. Who else does business over a sampling of the best pantry items, sweets, and beverages?
A recent visit, led us to the east village where we met with Sebastian Beckwith, owner of In Pursuit of Tea. His hospitality was remarkable. As he sat us in small wooden chairs around an even smaller table, currently serving as his tea station, we sensed we were in for a treat. Little did we know we would leave with a wealth of knowledge on the origin of tea leaves, the process by which they were dried and stored, and the various countries and customs that influence the many offerings of this well-loved beverage. Leaving, we thought more about tea than we ever had before.
One of the great discoveries of the day was pu’reh tea, a tea we had no prior knowledge of yet one that quickly mesmerized us with its utter uniqueness. Pu’reh tea is post-fermented tea that is produced in areas of the Yunnan province in China. Tea produced this way can be aged for years and much like a fine wine, there are pu’reh teas dating back through time stored in bamboo or dried rectangular/round cakes worth quite a penny to the connoisseur.
The tea we sampled came in a dried mass. Not dried individual leaves as you see in most tea, but dried rather as a cake that is later broken apart. It had a musky, almost smoky aroma, and was very earthy. And the taste was- well I couldn’t quite figure out what it reminded me of. It was utterly addictive. As I sipped and sipped to try to pinpoint the flavor it reminded me slightly of wood, but in a good way. Like the one time I tried Sri Lankan tea bark ice cream. It was different. Its slight smokiness kept reminding me of scotch. In my head the phrase “well this is the scotch of teas” kept running round and round. As if I was some marketing guru trying to label its campaign slogan. I knew a true expert would have a more apt description but like I said—the scotch of teas was stuck in my head.
And Pu’reh was just one of the many teas that Sebastian thoughtfully served us. The ritual of how each tea was prepared was extraordinary. As Sebastian poured, he was swift yet meticulous in his movements. He brewed in a kyusu teapot for Japanese green tea and a Gawain for the many Chinese teas we sampled. With each tasting, he warmed our glasses before pouring so that each sip was optimal temperature. I began to feel like a tea ingrate. There I was, brewing large pots of tea in my coffee pot, sacrilegious!
However, never fear, this was not a lesson in tea etiquette. It was a beautiful example of the pure joy of tea and Sebastian even graced us with a suggestion for those lacking all patience such as myself. Cold infused tea. For ice tea, why do we heat up in a large vessel only to cool it down again? Yes it infuses quicker, but then you have to re-ice it. Sebastian prefers a cold steep. Next time you make ice tea, just leave the tea leaves/bags in a container of water in the refrigerator. Over time it will infuse brilliantly and you will never have to tinker with the strength as you would a tea you heat only to ice again.
Immediately upon returning home I tried this method. Within two minutes, I had a cup of slightly infused iced herbal tea. Steeping longer and it would have been a stronger flavor- but the lightness of the tea was actually quite lovely.
Though I may never pour into a sake sized glass and warm each individual cup before tea is poured, I can appreciate the process. Which is a far cry from where I was before and certainly now I know how to brew a fine cup of tea. So were I to be tested, I feel confident I could pass inspection.
For those of you not close enough to check Sebastian’s tea studio, a quick look at his YouTube video can give you an intimate glimpse at the process of creating the teas you so love.
Check here fore the link: http://youtu.be/ZnbEyDa-jgU