Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Moment In Pursuit of Tea

I feel like I'm re-joining the land of the living. Tea is tasting like tea again. I'm living on a few more items than just cereal. There is plenty to be grateful for. And in the midst of coming out of hiding, I had to travel to New York for the wedding of one of my dearest friends. Gene and I added a couple of days to the beginning of the trip to enjoy one last couple's vacation before becoming the parents of two small children where, I imagine, logistics of child care become even more complicated. I asked my twitterverse of tea friends where I should stop in for tea, and Jo (@AGiftof Tea) responded immediately with, "You've got to stop in at In Pursuit of Tea."

So, off to 33 Crosby we went. I had looked briefly at their website, but didn't know what to expect. We navigated through the streets of SoHo and finally reached the address. There was nothing to signify we'd arrived at the right place except for the simple hanging sign that read, "TEA." Inside, the tiny shop was equally as rustic in all the right ways. There was a counter where two customers were being offered samples, a couple of narrow shelves with a small display of pressed teas and teas currently available for sale. The window held a simple display of small tea pots and books. There was a bench and a stump for seating. It was as if I had been on a walk high in the mountains of Asia and had stumbled upon the simple abode of the local healer.

Mary, who was helping the two customers, greeted us cheerfully and offered us samples of the day's tea, which we accepted gratefully after having walked in a light misting rain. I was impressed with her ability to manage the decision-making of the couple in front of her and make the new couple (us) feel welcomed and engaged. I was even more impressed that she had only been working there for 6 months and yet spoke with a genuine authority and passion for the teas surrounding her.

Shortly thereafter, Sebastian Beckwith, co founder of In Pursuit of Tea, arrived and invited us to share in tasting some new arrivals as well as some old favorites. He sat in the window seat/display and invited us to take the rustic bench to his left. He then prepared the first brew, gongfu-style. Gong-fu translates, loosely, to skill and patience. By brewing a larger concentration of tea leaves for a short period of time (as short as 10-15 seconds), one can enjoy multiple infusions of the same leaves, the taste developing and changing infusion after infusion. I had been intimidated by the term and had not spent any time researching what it was, so I was delighted to discover I already owned a gong-fu style tea pot and small cups, and that the process didn't have to be complicated at all. Learn more about Gong-Fu here.

As with all folks who have created a profession in tea, I was curious about how Sebastian got his start. For him, it started with a career in adventure tourism and leading treks through Bhutan. Over time, and as his circle of friends, acquaintances and destinations grew, he found himself spending more time in tea-growing regions, such as Darjeeling, and learning more about the tea culture. A big part of his vision for his company is education - for himself and his customers - and so he spends a lot of time personally visiting the tea farms and farmers and gaining continued understanding. The teas he sells are pure leaf teas, not blends, though there is an Earl Grey available.

We must have sat with him for over an hour as he steeped, re-steeped and then introduced a new leaf, steeping and re-steeping. I enjoyed his running commentary on the different teas we sampled, as much as I enjoyed the responses to my many questions about him, his store, his company, and his tea. I also thoroughly enjoyed the continued village feel as different customers would stop in, try whatever tea he was steeping, some pulling up the tree stump to sit and talk tea for a few minutes before going on with their day. Each person was made to feel welcome, and each person left with a new nugget of knowledge in addition to their purchase.
Sebastian and Mary, In Pursuit of Tea
One of my favorite discoveries was Phoenix Honey, an oolong from the Guangdong Province in China. Both Gene and I were immediate fans. While having the signature perfumed fragrance of oolong that I have come to identify, it also verged on the side of a Chinese green tea with a faint earthy grassiness. But the magic is the hint of honey sweetness that finishes each mouthful. I'm enjoying a cup (or several) now... Gong Fu Style!
In Pursuit of Tea is a perfect example of what I love about tea exploration. It's a completely different experience than I've had in any other tea shop thus far. And my experiences barely scratch the surface of the variety of tea shops, tea rooms, tea retailers that are out there. And there's more than just the place. There are the people who create these places and experiences.

Thank you to Sebastian and Mary for your hospitality and infusions of tea and knowledge!. And thank you to Jo (@AGiftofTea) for introducing me to such a gem. (More on her to come soon!)

Visting NYC?
In Pursuit of Tea
33 Crosby St, NYC NY 10013
Phone: 646-964-5223

Open Monday - Saturday: 12:00 - 6:30 pm
Closed Sundays