Art, Nepali Tea and other Random Musings

I haven’t been tea blogging much lately. Between work, fun and personal goals, creative endeavors seem to get put on the back burner. Ergo, this blog post is less about tea and more about other stuff I’ve been doing. If that kind of thing annoys you, you may want to stop reading here.

For the past few months I felt a definite “artist’s block” regarding my painting. I’d been working on still lifes and other realistic works for several years and that seems to have reached a dead end for me. I decided to take a workshop with the artist Fariba Bogzaran on the subject of Creative Consciousness at the Meridian Gallery. A lot of ground was covered in this seminar which was mostly about her work as a scientist and an artist. The discussion focused on dream work and we covered hypnagogia (the moment before you fall asleep), lucid dreaming, surrealism, Tibetan buddhism, Jung, psychic automatism and various spiritual practices.

I love this type of intellectual play that focuses on art, spirituality and psychology and definitely left feeling inspired. I began making some abstract works that were focused on automatic drawing (doodles) and that got me out of my slump. I don’t know if I will continue doing these forever but exploring a new direction has been good for me.

abstract

As much as I love San Francisco, it’s still great to get out of the City sometimes. E. and I went to Harbin Hot Springs recently, a sort of new age shangri-la that allows you to camp under the stars while soaking in natural spring pools during the day. You can also take yoga classes, sing kirtan and eat meals at the restaurant, all while basking in the beautiful outdoor setting. It made for a very relaxing getaway but I don’t think I drank any tea while I was there, I shamefully drank coffee in the morning!

On Earth Day we went to the lovely Spirit Rock mediation center, which is nestled in an idyllic setting in Woodacre, California. The subject of the day was integrating spiritual practice with environmental concerns. Here’s a shot of a statue in the surrounding area, a perfect setting to reflect upon the natural world and our place in it.

statue

As for tea, I am still drinking plenty of it but trying not to buy any more. Like a lot of tea aficionados (addicts???), I have quite a large tea collection. It’s never a good feeling when you find a tea has gone stale because it has passed the peak of freshness, or you simply forgot about it. I haven’t been buying much green tea or green oolongs because I simply cannot drink them fast enough. When I do buy, I’ve been focusing more on things that have a longer shelf life, such as black tea, darker oolongs and pu-erhs.

Still, I can’t resist a few new purchases from time to time, so recently I picked up a bunch of samples from Nepali Tea Traders. I’ve always liked teas from this region, and they look like a great company. Sustainable products and fair trade is always a bonus for me and since it was just Earth Day, well… why not? So far I’ve had the Lhotse Organic Black, the Himalayan Golden and the Sandakphu Hand Rolled black tea. Pictured below is the Sandakphu Silver, a heavenly white tea with a luscious nutty macadamia flavor and lots of fruit essence.

white tea

I’ve yet to meet a Sandakphu tea that has been a disappointment; perhaps some of my adoration lies in the fact that I have a secret desire to go trekking around Nepal and Northern India. I hope I get there someday.

As you can see, I’ve been busy but I have some fun tea related trips planned out, as well as local tea shops to try out soon so I’ll be back with more adventures to report on in the near future.

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Tea on Treasure Island

It was a clear, beautiful winter day in San Francisco that just seemed to invite various oddities and curiosity into my head. E. and I decided to head over to Treasure Island. Yarr! This man made island was created entirely of fill for the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition, was used as a naval base, and is now undergoing a massive redevelopment effort by the City of San Francisco.

On the last weekend of every month, the Treasure Island Flea Market takes over the island with food, wine, and a huge number of vendors selling antiques, collectibles, handmade items, clothing, bags and jewelry. It is truly a cacophony of crap and you can spend hours just perusing the wares of the different vendors.

treasureisland

After fortifying ourselves with a deconstructed samosa from a food truck and a plastic cup of chardonnay, we sallied forth to see what kind of jewels we could find on Treasure Island. I wasn’t expecting to find much in the way of tea here, but I certainly glad I brought my camera after stumbling into this idyllic tea scene below.

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Local tea sellers T-We Tea had this booth set up with free samples which we gladly slurped down. With product names like “Sexpot”, “Cuddle Bug” and “Bicurious George” they seem very well positioned to introduce their tea to a young and sassy San Francisco crowd. I also liked the very colorful packaging the tea came in. I decided to buy “Foggy Morning Breakfast”, which is a blend of assam, nilgiri, keemun and ceylon scented with vanilla bean. It really is a great morning tea to shake off the wet and gloom. I also got “Renegade”, a blend of Indonesian java, keemun, cacao nibs and sweet cinnamon, a really good afternoon blend.

After chatting a bit with the T-We guys, I found they opened up their first retail store in San Francisco at the Crocker Galleria. I will definitely be going soon as it would make me happy to support a local small business like this one.

Here I am relaxing on some vintage naugahyde 1970′s furniture I did not buy; but it made for a fun photo op, don’t you think?

treasureisland4

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Going Blind

She sat there like the others at their tea.
At first, it seemed to me she raised her cup
not quite the way the others held theirs up.
She smiled—an almost painful thing to see.

And when at last they rose from tea, and spoke,
and walked off languidly, at random through
the many rooms, still laughing at some joke,
or talking, there she was: she walked a few

steps back, a bit reserved, like someone who’ll
be singing soon before a packed salon.
From out-of-doors, light came to settle on
her joyful eyes as if upon a pool.

She followed slowly, with some hesitation,
as if an obstacle remained to try
her, yet as if—after a transformation—
she knew she would no longer walk, but fly.

–Ranier Maria Rilke

teacup

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A Bit of Boho in Baltimore

Having found myself in Baltimore over the holidays, I couldn’t resist checking out a tea shop and finding out what else would be here of interest for me. I coerced my brother into the adventure, which would involve tea and a dose of culture, a few of my favorite things.

We picked Chocolatea mostly due to convenience, so I had no idea what to really expect. Of course I like tea and the photos of the food on their website looked pretty tasty. Here’s a picture of it from the outside; we found lots of brick buildings in this Charles Village neighborhood. Later I found out that Baltimore used to be the brick producing capitol of Maryland, not sure if that accounts for the architecture here or not.

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Inside, we found this rather unassuming scene and went to the counter to check out the menu. This is not a tea place strictly for purists; they also had coffee, hot chocolate, chocolate truffles and a range of food that included traditional bunch favorites like waffles and lunch savories.

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I decided to order a pot of the Yunnan O FT which came to us in this lovely Bodum Bistro Nouveau teapot.

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Their description of the tea was as follows:
Ancient tea trees, its deeply flavored infusion has notes of peppery spice, chocolate, sweet raisin and a malty finish.

I decided to walk around and investigate the space thoroughly after we ordered and found they were selling teas for purchase from Rishi, Teaforte and Mark T. Wendell. I began to suspect our yunnan tea was from Rishi; this description of the tea from Rishi’s website would seem to lend some credence to this theory. I thoroughly enjoyed this tea but found that it needed a longer steeping time in order to develop some character. After 2-3 minutes it was lacking a bit in flavor, but 5-6 minutes of steeping seemed to be the perfect range for this yunnan.

Both of us decided to order Asian food to go with our tea, I got the vegetable teriyaki and he got the chicken teriyaki pictured below. Of course almost everything is better with a dab or two of peppy sriracha, right?

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Before we left I couldn’t resist buying a tin of Mark T. Wendell’s Cheericup Ceylon. I’ve ordered quite a few teas from their historic company established in 1904, and have always wanted to try this particular Ceylon blend.

Next up on our agenda was the culture. For a smaller city, Baltimore has a surprising number of museums including: The American Visionary Art Museum, The Baltimore Museum of Art, The Walters Art Museum, and the National Aquarium in Baltimore. I’ve been to these venues before and wanted to try something new, so we decided to go to the Evergreen Museum and Library, which is also known as Evergreen House.

The house was originally owned by the Garrett family of Baltimore, who made their fortune in the railroads. The family donated the house, the library and all of its possessions to Johns Hopkins University in 1942. We were told the house is a great example of Gilded Age Architecture and it certainly looks gorgeous from the outside.

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If you want to visit Evergreen, you do need to plan ahead. Wandering around the inside of this 48 room mansion by yourself is strictly forbidden and docent tours leave every hour on the hour. We arrived somewhere around 1:10 pm and found a delightful exhibit on the first floor of watercolors by the Russian Emigre, costume designer, book artist and illustrator Aleona Isakova. Unfortunately pictures in this facility were not allowed or I would have tried to take a few snaps.

Somehow we managed to get a private docent tour of the facility around 1:20 pm, which included a very thorough history of the Garrett family. Throughout, there were magnificent Tiffany lamps, gorgeous glass objects by Lalique, and paintings by Raoul Dufy and Miguel Covarrubias, owned by the Garretts. I was awestruck by the large and beautiful 30,000 book library which included a large Architecture book collection. For Johns Hopkins students, books are available to read with permission on the facility. The magnificent house also includes a bowling alley, gymnasium, a theater, and a large collection of Japanese antiques including netsukes, pouches, ojime and snuff bottles. We were told tales of resident artists visiting the family because they made the dinner table conversations more exciting. A string quartet would regularly perform for the family and guests and Alice Warder Garrett was known to perform there herself.

The Russian Artist Leon Bakst designed the theater; if you are interested in seeing some photos there is a nice article about it and the socialite rompings of the Garetts here on the bmore website. A photo and a nice write-up on the luxurious library also appear here on the Washington Post’s site.

I thoroughly enjoy art and history, and felt our visit to Evergreen House was enchanting. If you make it to Baltimore and are interested in the arts, I would highly recommend checking it out.

It’s always fun to explore Baltimore with a local, so after the Evergreen house I was taken to this funky bookstore, Atomic Books which is full of books, comics, zines and music. I think we actually spotted the two remaining punk rockers left in the world here. I wanted to buy many things but instead just left with the latest issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, nervous about trying to cram more things in my suitcase.

Our next stop was the local wine bar, 13.5% in the Hampden neighborhood. I couldn’t resist a glass of verdejo, which seems to go well with the theme of “intoxication” here.

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These two culture vultures had a really splendid and educational day. I will definitely be going back to try more tea shops and perhaps take a tour of Homewood, once owned by the Carroll family of Maryland, and also under the umbrella of Johns Hopkins University.

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A Visit to Imperial Tea Court

The Imperial Tea Court in San Francisco is a charming spot which is located in the renovated Ferry Building. This popular local landmark was designed by Architect A. Page Brown and completed in 1898. The architectural style is of the French Beaux Arts school; several other prominent landmarks in our fair town are also Beaux Arts buildings including the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, the Palace of Fine Arts, the Legion of Honor, the Asian Art Museum (formerly the San Francisco Public Library) San Francisco City Hall and the renovated Emporium Building (now the Westfield Center).

For those of you unfamiliar with the history and renovation of this beautiful building, photos and information can be found here. Here’s an old historical photo I found of how the building looked back in the day.

The modern renovation of the Ferry Building was completed in 2003 and is now a popular attraction for foodies and tourists alike. Inside the building you can find shops selling mushrooms, gelato, cook ware, local meat and seafood as well as vegetables, fruit, coffee, chocolate and practically anything you can think of. You can also find several restaurants and a local wine merchant here if you should you feel hungry and parched after your shopping. On Sundays and Tuesdays, farmers and food carts from all over the region fill the front and back of the building with an abundance of food items for any gourmand.

I’m a bit far behind in blog posts, but I decided to meet a handsome stranger here one Saturday afternoon, hoping I would not bore him with my fascinating (ahem) tea hobby and my camera.

The interior of the Tea house is definitely a fun place for tea lovers to peruse, you’ll find teapots of many varieties, especially lots of yixing in different shapes and colors. Shown in this photo below is the counter, where you can buy loose leaf tea and your assorted Camellia Sinensis chotskies.

This is a good place for sampling Chinese food along with your tea; offerings include dim sum, noodles, stews and some light snacks as shown in the menu here.  I opted for the vegetarian teahouse spicy noodles, which have plenty of hot chiles and veggies. They were very tasty — but perhaps not the best choice of a dish when you’re trying to impress — slurping noodles is not exactly the essence of savoir-faire in many parts of the world.

Being the self-proclaimed aficionado, I got to choose the tea that would accompany our lunch. I decided to go with a shu pu-erh, which was the Imperial Pu-erh, I think. I know, I am a terrible tea blogger because I did not take notes but whatever it was, I thought it was excellent. No strange aromas or weird fishy tastes that you sometimes find in pu-erh. I find loose leaf shus seem to be better in that regard than the cakes. I wonder if it has to do with the fermentation process?

One thing I have noticed about Imperial Tea Court is they expect you to actually drink the tea out of the gaiwan they give you, which has always struck me as odd. I had to ask for cups as a matter of protocol, since I like to precisely control the amount of steeping time and not let the poor leaves languish around getting tired in some overbrewed stew. At all of the tea tastings I have been to in San Francisco, they brew the tea in the gaiwan and then pour it into cups. If anyone has a strong opinion, please do weigh in on the matter.

Above is a photo of some pu-erh cakes which I did not buy, showing a bit of self-restraint for once. After our lunch, I had to excuse myself to take more snapshots and my date began furiously sending out a barrage of text messages, the content of which was most likely S.O.S. or Help Me. All joking aside, Cupid’s arrow did not strike me in the heart but to all of my faithful readers: the Imperial Tea Court will make you a mighty fine cuppa.

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Sumi-e at the San Francisco Zen Center

Lately I’ve been reflecting on how little time I seem to have to make art, which is one of my greatest joys. I saw a Sumi-e ink painting workshop advertised recently at the San Francisco Zen Center and decided I needed to check it out in order to keep motivated with my creative endeavors. I normally do vipassana style meditation myself, but the Zen Center always has such interesting events going on and I really feel at home there.

At first, our instructor, Michael Hoffman, showed us how to grind our ink using the traditional ink block and suzuri stone.

Next we were led through an instructional session for how to paint Bodhidharma, who is claimed to be the father of Zen Buddhism. He looks a little grumpy here, but I’ve always seen him pictured that way. This practice painting included a lot of different brushstrokes and I discovered that eyebrows and facial fair are really fun to paint.

Evidently Zen Buddhists really like tea, so of course that was an added bonus from taking the class, tea, as well as sandwiches and cookies from the vegetarian restaurant, Greens. One story regarding the origin of tea claims that it sprang from Bodhidharma’s eyelids. Here we had selections from Celestial Seasonings and Yogi Tea.

We continued our exploration of sumi-e with painting some objects from life. Some kind volunteers brought in objects to paint and I admit that still lifes are one of my favorite things, so I really enjoyed this part. I admit I am not a complete neophyte to the world of art, I did go to art school many years ago, and have managed to retain a lot of my skills. Still some of the practice pieces were challenging as I tried to learn how to deal with washes on the rice paper and how to use the brush correctly. Here’s a pine cone I did, sorry for the bad photo but it’s the best I could do with my digital camera and bad lighting.

We continued on in the afternoon with an exploration of abstraction, including collage techniques. This was somewhat more of an intuitive and collaborative process with the entire group. Here I took a photo of the table we were working on. Somehow I got a real kick out of the inky messiness here. I do think part of my painting looks like a slice of pizza, not sure if I was still hungry or what was going on.

After cleaning up, our afternoon concluded with a short zazen meditation sitting and a talk. I felt really energized by what I learned in the class and I hope to continue doing some more things with sumi-e.

After the class was over I had dinner at Samovar Tea House with C.W., because after all it was right across the street! I had an exquisite Four Seasons oolong and concluded my day with more meditation. I have to admit it was a great day in San Francisco, with my interests in art, tea and Buddhism fused together in a most delightful manner.

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Capital Teas and a quick trip to D.C.

Thomas Wolfe may have written “You Can’t Go Home Again”, but the Washington D.C. area has always seemed like my second home. I grew up and lived there for most of my adult life until I moved to California in 1995. When I go back it’s amazing how much things seem the same. The National Mall never changes, I can still find my way around on the Metro and my parents live in the same house that I grew up in. Politicians come and go, but overall it seems like nothing much has changed much aside from me getting older.

All along the subway, I kept seeing younger versions of myself going to work. I wondered what they were doing, what their dreams were… would they succeed or would they get broken down by the world and give up like so many of us do? Wistful thoughts aside, I’ve always enjoyed the gestalt of urban life; people closing in on each other, creating culture, strife, love, economies and garbage. There’s some kind of wisdom to be learned from this, perhaps a greater understanding of togetherness and tolerance, if only we would sit down and listen.

I knew a tea trip would be a mandatory detour for me in our Nation’s capitol. After doing a bit of internet research, I decided I would pay a visit to Capital Teas in Dupont Circle since they had the most interesting tea collection I could find outside of chain stores. Somewhat of a smaller chain, they have four locations in the D.C./Maryland area. I found a place for Chinese tea, but that’s easy enough for me to get in San Francisco. Note the guy wearing shorts above, yes it was a sweltering and muggy day which is no surprise for August in our Nation’s Capitol.

When you walk into the store, the first thing you will notice is the giant tea wall; all of the teas are housed in small glass containers, which you can open up and smell. Being the tea nerd I am, It took me quite a while to settle on the ones I wanted, but what a glorious dilemma it was.

Here’s a photo of my swag after the fact. Do I have a tea problem? No, I don’t think so! One of the most interesting selections I found is the War of 1812 Commemorative Tea Blend. If you were in Baltimore this year, you would have seen various events commemorating the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. This brew is a mixture of smoky black and green teas (gunpowder, anyone?) with a hefty amount of fruit flavor. It definitely caught my attention and the affection of my taste buds. Also, being a Maryland girl, I went for the Chesapeake Sunrise, which is a blend of green and black teas, jackfruit and almond. I had some iced the very next day and it was perfect for the muggy weather.

Usually when I go into D.C. I visit one of the Smithsonian museums, so I thought I would do something slightly different on this trip. I set out for a walk after my tea buying escapade and came across this beautiful Tudor Place Historic House and Garden. The Tudor Place was owned by Martha Washington’s granddaughter and built in 1816. It is now a National Historic Landmark and open to visitors year round. My visit was ill timed because they just started a tour after I arrived and I didn’t want to wait another hour for the next one. I did spend some time meandering around the gardens and took this photo from the lawn which would have been a great place to play croquet and picnic in the back of this grand old house. There is a Japanese tea house on the grounds built by the last owner of the house, but unfortunately it was not staffed for thirsty travelers.

My last stop was at Dumbarton Oaks, another historic estate in Georgetown owned by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, which now houses a research library and collection owned by Harvard University. This facility specializes in Byzantine and Pre-Columbian studies and has a small museum, which is open to the public. I’m an avid art lover and greatly enjoyed my afternoon viewing these gorgeous pieces, some of which are pictured below but more can be seen on the facility’s website. Dumbarton Oaks also has gorgeous gardens you can meander around in to your heart’s content. If I had more time I would have loved to have spent another day there taking snapshots or plein air painting. Be careful in planning your visit if you go, the facility doesn’t open to the public until 2 p.m.

After a day of history, tea, art and adventure I was ready to go back home and brew up a cup of Sailor’s Delight, a blend of black and green teas with strawberry and papaya which was delicious served over ice in the humid weather. It was certainly a fun day full of eye candy and tea treats for your faithful correspondent.

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Birdie and Teapot

This is not much of a literary post, but I did a watercolor painting of a teapot and a birdie and I thought I would share it with everyone. You can click on the photo to see it enlarged.

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New YiXing Koi Teapot

I’ve been looking for a last piece in my XiYing teapot collection which I wanted to have for shu pu-erhs. Recently I saw that Living Social had a coupon at the Aroma Tea Shop, which is one of my favorite tea shops in San Francisco. They have MANY XiYings so it took me a little while to settle on this small pot that holds approximately 6 oz. of tea.

The pot has two carved koi on each side and one three dimensional koi on the top. I know a little bit about clay work and it seems that the koi on the side may have been carved out separately and then attached to the pot with “slip”, which is a clay sort of paste. The pot has the stamp of the maker on the bottom.

Below is another view of the pot with the lid off; you can see some of the details a bit better in this shot. The little fellow on the top also has a hole in his mouth and if you put your finger over the fish’s mouth, the tea will not come out of the spout.

I did a bit of research today into the meaning and symbolism of the koi and I came across this website that has beautiful Chinese paintings. According to the site, the koi is a powerful symbol of strength and perseverance and I could use some of that!

Haymen at Aroma Tea Shop recommends soaking your XiYing for 30 minutes so I soaked mine in boiling water last night and decided to baptize it with the 2011 Phatty Cake by Mandala Tea. He also showed me how to pour boiling water over the teapot before steeping the tea which helps the puerh to open up. Here’s a pic of my tea in a glass teacup after steeping with the cake — notice how I have already hacked a piece out of it. This is one of the tastiest shus in my collection right now.

The last photo here is for Garret, who is part owner of Mandala Tea and an aspiring Buddhist like myself. I really like the composition here of the tea cake, the cup and the sculpture (admittedly I bought it at CB2 but that’s a secret — shhhh!). I like do paint in watercolors and I might turn this photo into a painting someday if I can get the motivation together; I think it would be lovely.


May all beings be free from suffering and their bellies full of tea!

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Getting my inner hippie on at OmShanTea

I’ve known about OmShanTea for a few months now and have been meaning to check it out. It isn’t that close to my neighborhood, but when I got a Living Social deal I decided the time was ripe to investigate.

You can just tell by the website and the menu that this place is a little hippy-dippy. Temple Dancers? Check. Open Heart Poetry? Check. All vegan food with a great tea selection? I’m there!

I’m not a complete flower child, but I do have my tendencies. I’ve got Thich Nhat Hanh books, mandala beads and Tibetan prayer flags. My refrigerator contains a jar of miso, hemp seeds and soy milk. I’m artsy-fartsy, mostly laid back, and far more comfortable in Birkenstocks than I am in high heels. I managed to talk my friend C.W. into going with me. She is neither vegan nor hippie, but is the free-wheeling adventurous type, and today up for a free lunch.

OmShanTea is on the edge of the Mission District which is rife with hipsters of all varieties. I had no idea what to expect when we went in, but here’s a photo of the lovely decor, below:

The menu here is fairly simple and consists of variations on a theme. Soups, salads and quinoa bowls with various sides was our cuisine for the day. The quinoa bowls come with chopped sweet potatoes, beets and butternut squash. I had two side dishes of collard greens and snow peas (not pictured). It was simple and hearty vegetal fare, which provided a good backdrop for our teas.

I was intrigued by their pu-erh collection, but unfortunately our server was fairly new to the teahouse and couldn’t answer my questions about the flavors.  I am a raw pu-erh aficionado, but there are some that I find a little too rough and gnarly when they are younger. Like a fine wine, they have a tendency to mellow out and improve with age. I decided to go with the 2007 Wild Mountain Green and C.W. got the 2007 Silver Needle White Cake.

The sheng is pictured above, along with the teaware. Tables at OmShanTea are unique, in that the tabletops are made of this patterned, perforated metal which safely allows any tea to spill and collect underneath. I assume they get cleaned fairly often but didn’t ask about that.  You get a pitcher of hot water, a yixing teapot for the tea, a pitcher, a strainer, and a cup. Kind of an elaborate setup, but nice in a ritualistic sort of way. The hot water is poured into the teapot, then strained into the glass pitcher and finally poured into the cup. Unfortunately, the Wild Mountain Green was not really to my liking. The wet leaves of the tea had a very smoky and vegetal aroma, which I loved. But even with very short steeps of 5 seconds, the tea was stubbornly bitter after multiple infusions. The Silver Needle White Cake was much more pleasing to us, with a fairly light flavor and a delicate creaminess. It was infused many times and was still wonderful.

OmShanTea has quite a few pu-erhs, so I hope to go back someday and try some others. Even for San Francisco, it is fairly unusual to find raw pu-erh being served. In the Chinatown teashops, you find quite a few shou pu-erhs, but the raw is much more difficult to find. I could have used a more seasoned tea barista to pry information out of, but it was a peaceful lunch in a laid back atmosphere. Farewell, OmShanTea. It was quite an adventure and one which this hippie-dip would gladly repeat someday.

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