Tom Ivey pours tea for guests, from left, Jason Fasi, William Yardley and… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)
In an Echo Park home, four friends gather around a fist-sized clay pot steaming with a rare vintage of pu'er — an aged tea from southern China whose most exotic variations sell for $1,500 a pound or more.
They delicately pour the amber brew into tiny tasting cups. Then, holding the porcelain cups with just two fingers, they take in the fragrance. Finally, they sip, gingerly.
The verdict is unanimous.
"It's kind of got that dirty bandage taste," Louise Yang says.
Her husband, Will Yardley, is more diplomatic. "It's a little sour," he concludes, adding that the taste would improve if they brewed the tea again.
So they do. After another measured ritual of pouring, smelling and tasting, they nod with satisfaction.
A region filled with wine, beer and coffee connoisseurs, Southern California also has a lesser-known culinary subculture centered on rare Chinese teas.
Aficionados will spend hundreds of dollars for a handful of rare tea leaves from remote mountains in China. They look for quality, for good vintage, for teas carefully stored and aged.
For generations, an elevated appreciation for tea was largely the domain of older Chinese immigrants who had grown up with fine teas. During the height of Chinese immigration into the San Gabriel Valley 20 years ago, the demand supported several high-end Chinese tea shops, including one run by the family of the oldest tea company in Taipei.
Now a new generation of connoisseurs of Chinese tea is emerging. For many, the fascination with tea comes not from growing up with it. Rather, they are newcomers to the culture of the leaf, learning about it as outsiders.
They seek teas with layers of sublime taste — complexities lost on untrained drinkers. Brewing these teas is nothing like popping a tea bag into a cup of hot water. With rare Chinese teas, the key is looking for how the taste changes with each infusion. The first brew may be sharp, the second bitter, but this leads to the sweeter tastes of later rounds.
The teas are steeped in history, folklore and ritual. One tea tree in the Wuyi mountains is said to have been honored with the red robe of China's emperor after its leaves cured the ruler of a deadly illness.
The new connoisseurs try to teach themselves about a culture they were not born into, learning Chinese and traveling to southern China's ancient tea mountains, where they hunt for the best tea ware and perfectly aged pu'er, some centuries old.
They have bonded online through blogs and chat rooms, reviewing vintages and debating the best water to use for specific teas.
"I have tried a local bottled water from Buxton," wrote one user on a TeaChat forum. "It performs better than bottled French mineral waters, but my local tap water with the Chlorine and Fluorine removed by Brita… gives me great results."
Yardley, 34, prefers Volvic water.
The Caltech software administrator discovered through trial and error that the French spring water makes some medium-roast teas taste better.
Yardley's tea obsession took hold when he started dating Louise Yang and noticed that her family drank loose-leaf tea. Curious, he searched online, devoured books and discovered the history of high-grade tea and the scientific precision involved in brewing it. He lost interest in collecting bikes and in his thousands of vinyl records, and turned his attention to tea.
In his San Gabriel home, a humidity-controlled cigar cabinet stores his naturally aged pu'er, and stacks of plastic bins hold his oolong and rock teas. An Excel spreadsheet helps him keep track of the varieties' ages.
He dug through his shelves of clay teapots and porcelain gaiwans, deciding on the perfect pot to use for the medium-roast Fujian tea he wanted to drink on a recent afternoon.
He packed 10 grams into a clay teapot smaller than his fist. The rare tea is a luxury that can cost $130 for just 25 grams. Called a "rock tea" in Chinese, the variety has a distinct taste because of the way it's grown in the cracks of Fujian province's steep cliffs. Holding the glass kettle exactly six inches above the teapot, he poured slowly, taking care not to burn the tea.
After a few more steps — rinsing out the first brew, sifting the tea leaves with a small bamboo pick and brewing a second infusion — the tea was ready. He finished his tiny cup in three sips and nodded approvingly.
Yardley spent years practicing how to brew gongfu-style, a method that requires precise heat and perfect timing. Unlike single-use tea bags, gongfu-brewed teas can have up to 20 unique infusions, depending on the quality of tea leaf and technique of the brewer.
Full appreciation of a tea requires at least a dedicated half-hour of tasting. Sampling more than one tea would require an entire afternoon.
But how many people today have the stamina to brew out an oolong's floral aftertaste, or drink through the 14th brew of a pu'er to analyze the tastes in each infusion?