The Bay Area's coffee roasters may get scads of national press, but our tea merchants, too, have become a force in their own realm. Red Blossom Tea Company's Peter and Alice Luong, who assumed control of their parents' 35-year-old Chinatown apothecary and tea shop a decade ago, scout out rare and gorgeous teas from China and Taiwan, helping translate a 3,000-year tradition of connoisseurship for American tea drinkers.
One of the most distinctive elements in Red Blossom's tea selection: aged oolongs. I have heard tell of 30-year-old pu'erhs, but had never encountered anything like Red Blossom's 1970s-era Tung Ting oolong until visiting the shop last month. Peter Luong says that he makes a point of asking growers and merchants he encounters whether they have any old teas sitting around, and one Taiwanese seller responded by bringing out this tea, which had been in his possession for decades.
Taiwanese oolongs are known for their fresh, blue-green hue and floral aromas, but this purple tea, in its first steeping, smells like stepping into a cedar-lined closet. In its second steeping, the woodsy aroma is joined by the smell of umeboshi, or salted plums, and the oolong grows tart and fruity. Steep it a few more times, and spice and fresh mint begin to waft out, and each sip leaves a haunting sweetness on the lips.
It is like nothing I have ever tasted. "Aged teas are very unique," Luong confirms. "Each aged tea is handled differently and comes from a different source, and age does different things to each tea. They turn out to be drastically different from one another." And their pleasures are fleeting: Once Red Blossom sells out of this 40-year-old Tung Ting, you will never taste its like again.
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