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The gospel of tea

Wren Wertin
Vail Daily/Melinda KruseOren Wool went from wine expert to tea geek in nine months. The former Vail resident now lives in Seattle and works at the Teahouse Kuan Yin.
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Wool is no stumbling drunk; he’s a tea man, and passionate about it. The former Vail resident and Toscanini wine/front-of-the-house manager now lives in Seattle and manages Teahouse Kuan Yin. He returned to Vail for a season’s-end reunion week with friends, and to introduce his former stomping ground to the world of tea. Teahouse Kuan Yin is owned by James Labe and is staffed by Wool and Scott Searer.

I was introduced to Wool through a mutual friend during Taste of Vail’s Mountaintop Picnic. Among the copious amounts of free-flowing wine, Wool offered to host the tea party of all tea parties at Toscanini, minus the gloves and cucumber sandwiches. A coffee addict searching for a less dehydrated lifestyle, I was intrigued. I went with three co-workers to Beaver Creek for what would be an intensive tea seminar.

“I came into tea because I was looking for an alternative healthy beverage,” Wool said. “I’m so fed up with the way we Americans get sold on products that aren’t healthy for us.”

Wool first encountered tea after a wedding ceremony in Budapest. He tagged along with a group of friends to a tea house.

“It wasn’t like an Amsterdam tea house – they actually served tea,” he said. “At the time I was trying to drink a lot of herbals. They had a lot of different teas on their menu, which I thought was interesting.”

And the rest is history.

There are three types of tea: green, oolong and black. Surprisingly, they all originate from the same plant, the Chinese Camellia, an evergreen. All picked at roughly the same time, the difference lies in the oxidation process, sometimes known as fermentation, though no fermenting actually occurs.

Black tea is rolled, crushed and fully oxidized. It traditionally has a dark color and a richer, malty flavor. Green tea is heated directly after harvesting in order to prevent oxidation of any sort. The lack of oxidation produces a fresh, pungent flavour and a light-colored brew. Oolong tea is smack in the middle of green and black teas, being partially oxidized. They range from light and greenish to dark and toasted.

“If somebody gets into tea, it doesn’t matter who they are or what they do,” said Wool. “They’re hooked. We have everyone from truck drivers to shamans at the teahouse. And whatever wine geek you meet, you haven’t seen anything until you meet a tea geek. You think I’m bad? I don’t know anything compared to some of these guys.”

One such tea geek is Wool’s work-mate, Searer.

“Tea destroyed my life,” he said. “It got me into (the) Chinese (language), which took about 10 years. And it was why my girlfriend left me. It became the last straw.”

Searer likes doing anything that involves making or talking about tea. His favorite part of his job is introducing people to something new. Part of the draw for him is the eccentric people it attracts, from growers to drinkers.

“Only recently have people had the chance to sample what tea can really be like,” Searer said. “My favorite tea depends on the season. If I was ever to convey anything of importance to someone serious about tea, it would be that tea is seasonal. I drink green tea only about two months out of the year, which is how long the growing season is for the Chinese green teas.”

Part of the draw of tea is the ceremony surrounding it. Tea is made to be shared with friends – one pot fills several cups. According to Wool, temperature of the water is crucial to proper tea making. For green teas, fully boiling water is not recommended; instead, let it cool for a couple of minutes before using. He also swears by warming both the teapot and the teacups. When preparing tea for us, he had a large, shallow bowl in which he put the teapot and poured water over it. When the clay of the pot lost its wet sheen, it was ready for action.

“You know what the best part about making tea is, don’t you?” Wool asked us. “It’s the three minutes while we wait for it to brew. It gives us time to talk.”

There’s no rushing tea. It’s ready in its own time. A high quality tea will be good for several steeps, the process of infusing the water with the tea. Each steep has a different flavor. For most three-steep teas, the first steep will be mild. By the second steep, the flavors will be fully developed with much body. The third will be more relaxed and subtle.

“I’m known around the teahouse as a second-steep man,” he said. “I like to get a greater concentration of flavor in it.”

An exception to this rule is pu-erh. A black tea that is stored for seven years before it’s used, pu-erh resembles tree bark and is usually good for seven to eight steeps. The flavor of pu-erh is reminiscent of a damp forest floor covered in leaves. It gave us a whole-body buzz.

Jin xuan (jheen schwan) is a green tea that is picked, rolled and fired in a hot wok. It resembles little pellets when dried, though the steeping process re-hydrates them into their natural leaf shape. With flavors of honeysuckle, it left our cups smelling of flowers. Green tea is known in many sectors as a healthy brew, chock full of antioxidants.

A different kind of green tea entirely is matcha. Iridescent green, it is a fine powder that is blended into hot water. That means you ingest the tea, which packs more of a caffeine punch. It’s traditionally made in a bowl with a matcha whisk that looks similar to a lean version of my grandfather’s shaving brush. Wool whisked the brew enthusiastically, achieving quite a bit of foam at the top. Instead of pouring it into individual cups, we then drank from the bowl communion style, passing from one to the other and offering thanks in the process. It was pungent but not bitter; the communal aspect was seductive.

“Turning people on to a bottle of wine, that was good,” said Wool. “But now, turning people on to tea, that’s great. I mean, I feel really good about it.”

Americans call anything that isn’t coffee, but is steeped, tea. Yet only black, green and oolong teas are tea. Herbals, for example, are just that: herbal brews.

Wool is particularly interested in introducing school children to herbals. Lacking in caffeine and naturally sweet, they often taste more like fruit punch than tea, though they are brewed. He likes his at room temperature. He made us wu wei (woo way), a mixture of hibiscus, cloves, lavender, orange zest and lemon balm. Bright pink in color, it tasted like punch. It’s a big hit with the kids; in Seattle, he’s been distributing it to some of the schools for free.

“I’ll do anything to keep kids off Coke,” he said. “I get frustrated when I go to the grocery store and everything has sugar in it. I want to bring something to the market that doesn’t.”

Wool also prepared an herbal chai made of cardamon, coriander, fennel and rooibos, known as “the red tea.” Lighter than the concentrates found in grocery stores, Wool made it with honey and steamed milk. If he wants a bit of caffeine or a darker brew, he’ll throw in a handful of black tea.

Our group left the extended seminar feeling pleasantly buzzed and happy. Whether this was a result of the tea itself, or the company in which it was drunk, is debatable. What I can say with authority, though, is that four baby tea geeks were born.

For more information about Teahouse Kuan Yin, or to buy their teas, visit http://www.teahousechoice.com or call the teahouse at (206) 632-2055. Wool also hosts a message board, where he responds personally to all sorts of tea queries, at http://www.go-tea.com.

Wren Wertin can be reached via e-mail at wrenw@vaildaily.com or phone at 949-0555 ext. 618.


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