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Consumed by their passion for rare Chinese teas

A new generation of Southern California connoisseurs is emerging, seeking teas with layers of sublime taste revealed in multiple infusions. They can spend hundreds of dollars for a handful of leaves.

January 12, 2012|Rosanna Xia

"My in-laws think it's a bit silly," Yardley said, chuckling. "Even Louise's grandfather would drink only one or two infusions of a really good tea and just throw it out."

So Yardley often drinks alone, his notebook his only companion. He jots down adjectives to describe the flavors and aromas. Even at work, he adds notes to an unending text document that he started three years ago.

Some recent entries included descriptions such as:

Surprisingly sweet

Leaves seem medium roast

Nice fragrance when brewed in a small pot

"I tend to focus on things I wouldn't remember or things that strike me about the tea," he said.

His obsession has connected him to other tea aficionados, who, like him, have traveled to the Far East to learn more about the teas they love.

Jason Fasi, 28, got hooked a few years ago when he strolled into a Chinatown shop with a huge selection of Chinese tea.

"It was like walking into a secret library," he recalled.

He's traveled to China three times, visiting tea factories, trying new food and learning about the culture. He picked up enough Chinese to talk shop with tea vendors.

"When I walked into a tea shop in Xi'an and asked for pu'er," Fasi recalled, "the tea shop owner told me: 'Pu'er is for old men or young women. So, which one are you?' "

Pu'er has become his favorite tea. Originally offered as tribute to emperors, the rare tea still symbolizes luxury and status in China. According to legend, pu'er dates back 4,700 years. Some of the tea trees are as old as 1,700 years. There are also cheaper varieties that "imitate" the naturally aged taste of expensive vintages.

Fasi's Honda Civic bears the personalized license plate "<3 PUERH," and he's fond of referring to pu'er as "the scotch of teas."

Because its taste improves with age, pu'er is considered a "drinkable antique." Raw pu'er from the 1950s to '70s can command as much as $20,000 a pound, depending on its vintage and method of storage.

Die-hard collectors buy young pu'er teas and wait for them to age. "With a cake of pu'er, you are buying it believing that it's going to become something," Fasi said. "It's almost like the aspirations you would have for a child."

Fasi writes a popular pu'er blog. He and fellow bloggers organized what became a monthly gongfu tea club. Fasi recently moved from West Hollywood to Atlanta but still attends club meetings when he's back in Los Angeles.

The two dozen or so members aren't even sure of the name of the club; they just call each other tea friends.

"Is the water too hot?" asked Yardley, brewing a pu'er at a recent gathering.

Linda Louie, a pu'er specialist and online vendor, assured him the temperature was fine.

A retired L.A. County court administrator, Louie dropped her coffee habits, found a renowned tea master in Hong Kong and returns to China at least once a year to continue her tea studies. She proudly shared with the group a sample of the oolong she had made using knowledge gained on a recent trip to Taiwan.

"It was hard work," she told the group, as she rinsed the leaves with hot water. "We were sweating because we had to roll the leaves into balls — squeeze it hard enough for juices to come out so it sticks. We were up until 1 a.m."

The group declared the brewing a success.

Back at the Echo Park home, owned by a tea club member, the group assembled in a space next to the dining room decorated with Asian paintings and tea ware. The owner calls it his tea room.

Yardley was busy finishing the eighth infusion of a 2004 pu'er. He sat at the tea table — made from a refurbished opium bed — and paused, deep in thought.

"It's got that taste like bread mold that I've never been able to describe," he said, "the burned onion on the bottom of a bagel taste." He finished his cup and started fiddling with the other teas Fasi had brought.

"OK," Yardley said, "what should we try next?"

Twitter: @RosannaXia

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