Getting Vital with the Tea Leaf

San Francisco has one of the oldest and largest Chinatowns in North America and I love going there. It is normally very crowded, with both the local residents and throngs of tourists, so you have to be prepared for crowds. Still, who can resist the multitude of Chinese restaurants, shops with tacky souvenirs, dive bars, and most importantly, tea shops? Not I, for one, since I’m there every few weeks to soak up some more of the carnival-like atmosphere.

There are quite a few tea shops in Chinatown, many of which cater to tourists, but local people are also seen there. The Vital Tea Leaf has three locations in Chinatown alone, and two in Seattle. I’ve been there a few times, because a sign like this will certainly suck me into any shop:

The Vital Tea Leaf has a long, bar-like setting in each of its locations, which makes it a great place to go with a crowd. Upon our arrival, my companion and I scurried in the back to have a look at the teaware. We began discussing the merits of English vs. Chinese style teapots and we must have been talking loudly because…

“You want English tea, go to Starbucks!” our shopkeeper barked at us.

Was this perhaps an omen of things to come? We decided to sit down and get this business of tea tasting over with.

I had decided I wanted to write my first blog posts on keemuns but there were none to be found in the store. This particular shop seems to focus more heavily on green teas and oolongs.

“Keemun is an English tea, like Earl Grey”, said our friendly shopkeeper.

This left me feeling utterly confused since I see no similarities between the two myself.

It was suggested that we try a yellow tea, I took a little snaplet of it here.

This tea is the Supreme Yellow, which got fairly dark for a yellow tea. Both my companion and I liked this one, which we found sweet, earthy, caramel-y and a bit like miso with a slighly bitter aftertaste. I was tempted to buy it. The girl sitting next to us thought it tasted grassy (but I think she was delusional).

When you do these tastings, there are normally other people in the shop so you get to try whatever everyone else is drinking. A woman came in looking for a non-bitter green tea and we all got served a Supreme Iron Goddess. I was told that people in China don’t call these oolongs, since the tea is green they are called green teas. I found the oolong to be very light and flowery, a bit nutty with a hint of gardenias. Unfortunately the picture I tried to take of it didn’t come out very well. I’ve tried a lot of green oolongs and am a bit sick of them at this point, but it was quite a nice example of that type of tea.

Next up on the roster, we got a Bao Zhong oolong which was also quite enjoyable. I found it light with a nutty, buttery macadamia type aftertaste. My companion, who tends to like darker teas told me, “I think this tastes like grass!”

So we decided to move on to the Golden Monkey.

“This tea is very smoky,” we were warned…

I say, BRING IT!

This was the definite winner in our experience. I don’t recall having a smoky golden monkey before, but this particular tea was slightly smoky, dark and savory with a burnt sugar caramel type of aroma. Very delicious! At that point we were getting a bit tea weary, so I asked them to pack up 2 oz. of the golden monkey and we would be on our way.

“I charge you the 4 ounce price for 2 ounces of tea!”

This is the kind of sarcastic humor and long, leisurely experience you can expect if you want to hang out at the Vital Tea Leaf. No doubt we will be back for more.

Until next time, I bid you adieu–

your faithful correspondent

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Comments (16)

    Profile photo of thepurrfectcup
    thepurrfectcupApril 29th, 2012 at 3:22 pm      

    I enjoyed this! I also think I would love this location, sounds like my kind of place! I’m surprised they considered Keemun an English tea as I’ve never thought of it this way…who knew? Looking forward to reading more!

    Profile photo of amyoh
    amyohApril 29th, 2012 at 6:18 pm      

    Sometimes I wonder if they’re just making stuff up. ;-)

    jackieApril 29th, 2012 at 8:15 pm      

    Lovely first post! Thrilled to have you writing. Please don’t stop! I always enjoy hearing about new places to have tea in, it’s tea cup traveling from the comforts of my home. Not that I wouldn’t be willing to actually travel there for real. Sounds great!

    What an interesting selection of teas you tasted. I guess (s)he considers Keemun to be English tea, because it’s black not green. Black tea (red tea in China) is the least consumed style of tea there. Also from what I understand, it was first sold around 1875, so it’s not exactly steeped in Chinese traditions over thousands of years.

    Some of the comments the vendor made cracked me up: “You want English tea, go to Starbucks!” Priceless!

    Profile photo of amyoh
    amyohApril 29th, 2012 at 9:00 pm      

    Jackie – thanks for the encouragement and insights. I plan to keep writing for a while… :)

    Autumn AelwydApril 30th, 2012 at 7:21 am      

    I can see the Keemun thing, it’s sometimes referred to as Chinese Breakfast Tea and is actually used in a number of British blends usually alongside Assam, Ceylon or Darjeeling. While black tea in general is a more recent phenomena, Keemun seems to cater a bit more to Western taste. Just it’s appearance is so different than a nice Fujian like Golden Monkey or a Yunnan Golden Buds/Tips/Needle. Keemun is darker, finer and shorter. It is often a bit more fragrant (though the one my husband had this weekend was smoother and more honey like than what I’ve tried).

    However I think it probably depends on where in China you are from, as our server this weekend at a tea house in Cincinnati was saying Keemun was one of the top ten teas of China, then told a story of how it used to be processed as a green tea. Interestingly enough they offered both a “premium” and a “breakfast” grade of Keemun at the tea house. But this was not an Asian run tea house, the had many blends, tinsanes and Rooiboses. I had a fantastic Tung Ting oolong in a yixing pot as well as a Rou Gui in a gaiwan.

    I love your description on the long bar and getting to sampler what others asked to try, sounds like a great environment. Thanks for sharing!

      Profile photo of amyoh
      amyohMay 7th, 2012 at 7:15 pm      

      Autumn, thanks for your comment. I didn’t notice that it got accidentally marked as spam and I just noticed it! It sounds like your tea tasting experience was fun too!

    peterApril 30th, 2012 at 9:43 am      

    “You want English tea, go to Starbucks!” our shopkeeper barked at us.

    You gotta love shopkeeper who really couldn’t care less. I wish more people took such pride in their products and stores instead always trying to be everything to everybody. Very nice, I’m looking forward to reading more about your San Fransisco tea adventures. It strikes me as a city that has an interesting underbelly of tea culture – I hope you will dig to root out for all us!

    Profile photo of thedevotea
    thedevoteaApril 30th, 2012 at 1:30 pm      

    I found the shopkeeper’s attitude offensive. Whilst I absolutely agree with insisting on a high level of quality, he is quite wrong.
    Keemun is in China. not the Midlands, they do call them wulongs in China, according to Michael Coffey who damn well goes there and talks to people about them) and you clearly can’t get good tea (or coffee) at Starbucks.
    There are plenty of places that do however serve good black tea blends.
    If you add this blog post to @lahikmajoe ‘s one of a few weeks back you start to get the impression that owning a place that specialises in green and oolongs gives you a license to just make stuff up and twist reality and history.

      Profile photo of amyoh
      amyohApril 30th, 2012 at 5:20 pm      

      @thedevotea – he was definitely a bit on the obnoxious side. I admit we were slightly annoyed but at least it made for a good story. ;-)

    Profile photo of xavier
    xavierMay 8th, 2012 at 1:23 am      

    He makes for a good story but I find his tone slightly offensive and not respectful of his customers.

    But being able to taste what the others are tasting is a nice idea.

    jackieMay 8th, 2012 at 7:32 am      

    YOU found the shopkeeper offensive @thedevotea? I was sure this was the beginning of some fun sarcasm :)
    Anyway, I know that some Tie Guan Yin (iron goddess) is so lightly oxidized it is very similar to green tea, maybe that’s what the owner meant. Maybe they are referred to as “green tea” oolongs for all I know.

    Profile photo of bram
    bramMay 11th, 2012 at 12:53 am      

    Nice start.

    What were his expression and tone while he said those offensive things? Was it irritation/anger of a joke?

      Profile photo of amyoh
      amyohMay 11th, 2012 at 6:52 am      

      I think perhaps he was trying to be funny in a sarcastic way…

        Profile photo of xavier
        xavierMay 11th, 2012 at 11:29 am      

        Being funny in a sarcastic way is difficult.

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    scottteamanMay 28th, 2012 at 6:36 am      

    I was thinking the same thing about Earl Grey teas and Keemuns being “British teas”, because they are not similar at all. Then I remembered reading this on Harney & Sons website:

    Profile photo of scottteaman
    scottteamanMay 28th, 2012 at 6:43 am      

    Harney’s English Breakfast tea is listed under China Black, and in several of their catalogs from prior years they state that their English Breakfast is a traditional Keemun.