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