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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Naivetea's Lawrence Lai Talks Taiwanese Oolongs and Kettle Whistle

Posted By on Thu, Sep 1, 2011 at 4:10 PM

Naivetea's owners, Lawrence Lai and Ann Lee. - NAIVETEA
  • Naivetea
  • Naivetea's owners, Lawrence Lai and Ann Lee.

The Bay Area is steadily, quietly becoming a nexus for premium Chinese and Taiwanese tea in America. The owners of Teance, Far Leaves, Imperial Tea Court, and Aroma Tea Shop all travel to Asia to tour plantations and buy directly from farmers and master tea roasters.

One of the newest tea companies, Naivetea, is still without a retail shop. The online vendor came to the public's attention this summer when it launched Kettle Whistle, a series of tea and pastry tastings held with William Werner of Tell Tale Preserve Co. (R.I.P.).

Owners Lawrence Lai and Ann Lee were both born in Taiwan, and Naivetea specializes in Taiwanese oolongs -- the fruity, aromatic blue-green teas with the hauntingly sweet finish that fall somewhere between green and black teas. They can be as delicately floral as Naivetea's wen shan bao zhong, or as kale-deep and toasty as its dong ding. Yesterday, SFoodie talked to Lai about Taiwanese oolongs and the future of Kettle Whistle.

SFoodie: From your website, it sounds like the two of you have relatives in the tea business. Is that how you began importing Taiwanese teas?

Lai: Ann's great-grandfather was in the business, but only some cousins still grow tea. Actually, my family grew up drinking tea, and I have good friends in Taiwan who are tea farmers in Nantou county, the most famous tea-producing region in the north of Taiwan. It didn't occur to us for many years, however, that we should try to promote their wonderful teas in America.

Does the name of each of the teas -- Lishan, Dong Ding -- refer to the region, much like wine appellations?

It's very much like wine. There are numerous artisan farmers on the same mountain range. While the taste of teas grown on the same mountain range should be similar, the difference is in the post-processing techniques of the tea masters [who ferment and roast the teas after picking].

I've read that the high-mountain oolongs that you specialize in are relatively new to Taiwan. Is that correct?

That is correct. Before, oolongs were produced in a more traditional style, with higher oxidization; the tea leaves were a bit more dark. Taiwan was under colonial rule by the Japanese for quite some time before World War II, and the Japanese had the palate for green tea. As the economy was taking off [after the war] and as people were searching for more tea varieties, they started planting higher up on the mountains.

By making oolong greener, they strike the perfect balance between green tea and oolong tea -- true green tea tastes very fresh, but grassy and vegetal, while green oolongs are also fresh but have that rounder, more floral aroma. The higher the elevation, the more structure the tea has -- it's not quite as light on the palate as teas grown in the lower lands.

Now that Tell Tale has folded, what's the future of Kettle Whistle?

Kettle Whistle is on hold. But as soon as William has a commercial kitchen, we will resume holding the events. We're interested in having a permanent location where we could do it weekly, not just to have it as a monthly event.

Buy Naiveteas here.

Follow us on Twitter: @sfoodie, and like us on Facebook.
Follow me at @JonKauffman.

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Jonathan Kauffman


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