Rong Pan remembers the first time she had a cup of really good tea.
“I have a very vivid memory. I grew up drinking tea but back in that time, 1980s or something, China was pretty poor. So good high-end teas, usually each family saved for guests. We drank not-so-great teas… older leaves, bitter,” Pan says. “My first cup of good tea, that was Dragon Well, one of the top 10 Chinese green teas. I was in high school. My brother had graduated from college, and he started to work and make money. He treated me to a glass of Dragon Well. It still sticks in my memory.”
Today, Dragon Well sits on the shelves at Ku Cha House of Tea, which Pan runs with her husband, Qin Liu. Nearby is a tea from Pan’s home province of Jiangsu. It reminds her of home, that’s why it has a spot, but it’s not the finest tea in the shop, she admits.
Pan pours hot water over a small, clay Yixing tea pot, filled with Ti Guan Yin oolong tea. The water overflows out the top and spout and down onto a wooden kombu tray. Pan pours some tea around the table. It’s floral and light, a little sweet. The cups empty and Pan pours another round, the flavor slightly intensified.
“We visited a guy a couple years ago in Fujian,” Liu says between sips. “That’s where oolong tea originated. He had almost 40 years experience making tea, so he still uses very traditional ways. Oolong tea has to bake for a long time. Normally today a lot of places are using electric machines to set temperature to roast the leaves, because electrical machines are easier to control temperature-wise. But the electrical machine doesn’t really give you that smoky flavor to the leaf because it’s a machine. The traditional way is to use coal to bake them. So they have to build the ash a certain height to control the temperature. When they start baking, it’s almost two weeks non-stop. They have a group of people to measure the thickness of the ash to make sure the temperature is controlled.”
It’s one of those stories that grows ears on your taste buds — when you know what went into making it, things suddenly taste better. But Pan and Liu are tea shop owners, connoisseurs, fanatics, lifelong consumers. Tea is elemental in their lives, and has been since they were raised on opposite sides of China four decades ago.
“Tea is part of China’s everyday life. We have seven essentials to life: coal, rice, cooking oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar and the last one is tea. It’s always part of Chinese peoples’ lives,” Pan says.
So of course they can taste the difference between oolong smoked atop hand-tended coals and oolong tea grown just down the road smoked atop electrical burners. But could the average American, who’s tea-curious but middling around with name-branded teabags, tell the difference between the two oolongs?
“If you have a chance to drink them side by side, you will notice immediately,” Liu says.
That’s what’s missing from the tea experience in America — the ability to become immersed in tea so that we can develop our palates and test for ourselves its (cancer-fighting, metabolism-boosting, homeostasis-maintaining) health benefits. Right now, you could walk down the tea and coffee aisle of any Boulder County grocery store and find a product that says “green tea.” But that’s like walking into a liquor store and buying “red wine.” Why? “In China, we have 6,000 different green teas from 1,000 producing counties in 19 provinces,” Pan explains.
So much of the work Pan and Liu do at Ku Cha is to expose curious consumers to try as much tea as possible. The breadth of flavor and quality is so vast, vaster than wine maybe, when one considers the varieties of tea, the number of producers, the regions producing those teas, the predilections of the tea master, the equipment with which tea leaves were prepared, its freshness, the time of year the leaves were picked, how securely they were packed, the temperature at which the tea was steeped, how long it was steeped, how you were feeling the day you drank it, on and on and on.
And it can be hard to find hard-and-fast rules for quality. For instance, good green teas, Pan says, taste nutty and milky, bad ones taste grassy… unless of course it’s a certain Japanese green, which can taste grassy depending on the variety. Good sencha is imbued with umami you can smell without steeping, but it’s not necessarily a quality specific to green tea. Black tea raises body temperature, green tea lowers it, so if you drink black tea in the afternoon, it might make you feel hotter than you’d like. Fermented tea like pu-erh aids digestion, so it’s good after meals, but if you’re on an empty stomach, it might make you hungry.
“It’s very hard to generalize,” Pan says, appropriately.
So Ku Cha has a bar at which trained baristas will steep tea as each is intended. Or you can set aside time for a tea service, complete with the aforementioned wood tray and tea pot, and you can see how one tea changes over multiple steepings. You can also create your own blend to take home at a self-serve loose-leaf bar. But you can also just ask, Pan says, to find out why, say, leaves picked in spring are more expensive (they’re better quality and picked before bugs come, reducing the use of pesticides).
And if you already know tea, then you know there are few places like Ku Cha. Teavana, as corporatized as it has become, exposed Americans to finer tea, and now Pan and Liu want to serve as the next wave of tea ambassadors. They’ve already expanded to Fort Collins and Cherry Creek, and they’re setting their sights on broad expansion — Liu says they “want to become the number one brand in the specialty tea market.”
That expansion might bring more than just fine tea from around the world to the American masses. It might bring a greater willingness to set aside time, gather and talk. In fact, at some point in our conversation, Liu says the teabag was invented in America, to make brewing tea easier, faster and quicker, more suitable for our harried lives. Even as Teavana and specialty teabag brands brought quality tea stateside, the culture that Liu and Pan espouse at Ku Cha hasn’t yet settled in — therein lies the opportunity.
“This method of drinking loose-leaf tea,” Liu says, waving his hand over the table, “is meant to actually slow it down, to take a little more time to prepare it and to get relaxed. That’s the part that’s been missing.”