Jeb Brenneman sits before an ornate tea table and pours water over a tiny teapot like a chef ladling a sauce over a fine dessert. What sommeliers know about wine, Brenneman knows about tea, including the tales, history and production methods.
Sitting with a half-dozen tea enthusiasts, he brewed Da Hong Pao, “red robe tea,” May 20 for the Mad Hatter's Tea Club. Normally gathering on the second Sunday of the month, the group shifted because of Mother's Day.
The tea parties – which don't require any dressing up or political affiliation – are a time to sample some of the dozens of teas Brenneman sells through coffee houses and farmers markets. It also gives tea drinkers a chance to learn stories and ask questions about the drink.
“British tea if kept tightly sealed will last about six months,” Brenneman said.
Steve Allman, who works for Brenneman at a computer-networking business, added, “Pu'erh (poo-air) can last about 30 years.”
The red robe tea that Brenneman poured from the tiny pot, a yixing, which Zia's also sells, was a type of pu'erh tea. He passed around a clear carafe of the lightly colored drink for each guest to pour a sample into a tiny white ceramic cup. The warm pu'erh starts with a strong alfalfa-like flavor that mellows, leaving a coating in the back of the throat. Many Japanese teas have that grassy taste, similar to walking into a barn full of fresh hay, Brenneman said.
He passes around some of the tea leaves, explaining that about 4 grams of tea (about 1/7 of an ounce) can be brewed about four times, at a cost of about $1.47 total.
“Almost every one of those leaves has been looked at” before packaging, Brenneman said.
Often in 5-10 minutes, a drinker can taste another flavor, he said.
Allman showed the way various teas are packaged. Al Shan comes in cubes. He unwrapped the paper that covered a large ring of tightly bound leaves of another tea to show the paper seal of authenticity embedded in one side and the crater in the top from the paper's knot.
Brenneman allows the tea enthusiasts to look at the colorfully labeled tins on a table to choose some for sampling. Frank Costello enjoys jazz so he picked Thelonius, a monk's blend with notes of smoke and vanilla. A woman chooses matcha, a green powder made from green tea that's dried and put into a stone mill. “So you're actually drinking the tea itself not the liquor from it,” Brenneman said. Drunk in some parts of the world as an energy drink, it's bitter and leaves a thickness on the tongue. Marrakesh Explosion, a mix of peppermint and gun powder, or black, tea, tasted bitter, with a medicine-like quality surrounding a sweet note. The second brew tasted lighter and more minty.
Some teas you may want to pour out the first brew and start drinking with the second brewing, Brenneman said. A chocolate roibus, which isn't a tea but from a plant in South Africa, tastes of cinnamon and holds a chocolate shop smell with a sugary thickness.
Regardless of which you try, keep it sealed tightly.
“Tea is probably better than baking soda for collecting odors,” Brenneman said. “So, the worst possible place to keep your tea is in a box over the stove, where a lot of people keep their tea.”
In the refrigerator is OK, if it's sealed, unless you want tea that tastes like broccoli or whatever else might be in the fridge, he said.
Many Chinese traditionally store theirs in drawers in the living room, he said.