Dainty porcelain cups were placed in front of everyone. Hot water of various temperatures was poured into pitchers. At 6:30 p.m., four wine sommeliers — trained professionals in wine-tasting — two professional beer crafters and approximately 40 people, most of whom are Teance regulars and tea enthusiasts, sat down around the tea bar at Teance on Fourth Street. It was time for another of Teance’s tea-tasting events.
The menu listed 14 rare and award-winning teas. Most of these teas are too rare to be found, much less purchased, anywhere but during the special tasting events at Teance. Feb. 21 was the second yearly Sommelier Tasting event that Winnie Yu and her staff at Teance hosted. The wine sommeliers and beer crafters brought their expert palates and eloquence to the table, while the rest of us listened to their descriptions and compared them with our own perception.
“When Winnie introduced me to the world of tea, I began to feel like I was going back to my heritage,” said Nissa Suteja, one of the wine sommeliers, as the evening began.
Indeed, throughout the course of the evening, as one vintage tea was tasted after another, bringing everyone into a state of nostalgia and excitement — we recalled the aromas of orchards, barbecue parties and hiking trips, while learning the stories behind each tea, most of which were decades old.
The panel’s descriptions varied from being extremely specific (“the taste of the tip of a pistachio nut right beneath its skin” — Dave Grega’s thought of the Japanese top-grade gyokuro) to extremely poetic (“(the feeling you get) when you climb to the top of a tree and watch the sunset” — Shawn Johnson’s musing over a cup of 23-year-old foot-rolled Tieguanyin), and yet everyone in the tea house at that moment could fully understand that taste when they took a sip.
Each tea is so complex with several layers of flavors that one can exhaust the word choices, that everyone can share the same general idea in different expressions, and as Suteja commented, “what triggers (each expression) is really personal.” For the 25- to 30-year-old naturally aged pu-erh, there were notes of cedar chips, wet cave, mushroom, beetroot and the dampness of the air after the rain as it transitions into sunshine. Regardless of whether you like beer, wine or just water, you can find similar interesting flavors in tea. There’s always room for more ways to describe a tea, and there’s always room for another tea-taster to share her experience. If you are a professional, you bask in the myriad of flavors and the memories they trigger. If you are a beginner, you take a step back, relax and discover one note at a time. Either way, your palate develops tremendously.
Unlike wine-tasting, tea-tasting in the United States is largely in its infantile stage, still unknown to most people, but Yu and her like-minded beverage professionals are developing this tea culture through events such as those at Teance. However, precisely because the tea-tasting culture is still so young, the tea drinker is not bounded by fixed expectation and old conventions. To enjoy tea, as all of the professionals at the event agreed, the tea drinker needs only to set aside all worries, let the imagination fly and appreciate what comes to mind.
In the end, the crowd gathered around Teance’s signature round bar, watched Yu exquisitely time her steeps and listened to her stories about the tea masters in China, Taiwan and Japan. It felt cozy, as if it were a big slumber party with roasted marshmallows. The event was not simply about tasting teas but connecting with the people around us and the people before us. With each cup, we caught a glimpse into their profession, their personalities and maybe even their life stories. As Johnson concluded, “with wine, it all goes back to the grapes. With tea, it goes back to the traditions, the people, the tea plants and the stories.”