Monday, December 14, 2009

Coffee, Tea, Chapel Hill

In which a piece of correspondence between two friends who have had a mild tiff may inform the reader about drinking tea in Chapel Hill, North Carolina

15 December 2009

My Dear A -------,

Sorry again about Friday. Yes, okay, hypersensitive, but if you wouldn't argue for argument's sake without noticing you've annoyed people, maybe they wouldn't get so huffy. And of course I'll call it even if you will. Here is what you asked for, meanwhile, namely "What is it with this tea thing?" And, "If not here, where?" It turns out that the places I'd send you for tea are all in Chapel Hill.

You forget we were coffee drinkers together twenty years ago. I was in the kitchen that morning you shuffled in, grumpy, wanting coffee you knew we’d run out of, and you saw Bill slumping at the table over a cup of something hot. You opened your eyes and asked greedily, hoping against hope, what it was. He glared up at both of us, and in a flat, depressed voice laced with disgust, said ... “Tea.”

For thirty years I heard that voice, whenever a lady passed me a fragile, cup-and-saucer-balancing-a-teaspoon contraption that I accepted gracelessly, a penguin in Keds, every time that weak and acid wash was improved by neither milk nor sugar, every time Southern iced tea fell short, wailing, of its bittersweet potential. When my wise, laid-back friends built campfires in the woods and boiled peppermint, I balanced tactfully on a log, thinking of hot showers and coffee. And three years ago when I found I couldn’t handle coffee anymore and had to substitute tea, it felt like the light of life was dimming ... no more scotch, no cigarettes, no late-night dancing. No gleaming edges, no infinity. Damn.

So, yes, I'm drinking tea. Part of my incoherence Friday was because I didn’t come by tea honestly. It came to me while I was grousing about losing coffee. I was consoling myself with black teas that were potable enough, but still, grouse, grumble. My meeting tea was like a dream of Caliban come true: mutter, curse, grumble ... Somewhere amid the profanity and in public I uttered the word “oolong” in full ignorance, and it happened to be heard by a friend. A good, true, old friend, one who is also a knowledgeable denizen of the Tea World and an ardent, charismatic teacher -- and generous beyond belief. “Oh, oolong?” he exclaimed, “Tell me what kind of teas you’re drinking; what do you like? You must reserve judgment on oolongs. Let me send you some tea.”
Be not afeared. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about my ears, and sometimes voices ...
He sent tea in boxes: oolongs and tiny porcelain cups. Elegant wooden tea tongs and clay pots that rang like chimes and came to warm life in my hand. A flowerlike, clear glass pitcher, and a fruitlike, barky oolong whose ghost of smoke was delicate like old rice paper and as elegantly caramel.
... And then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, and when I waked,
I cried to dream again ...
There came pages of written instructions, precise yet not intimidating, accompanied by painted blue figures afloat on a shell-like, porcelain gaiwan. Companionship, expertise, discovery, and oh, "Here, you’ll also need a small kitchen scale, and this isn’t just decorative, no, it holds the dry tea leaf." I had only to gasp my thanks and learn to boil water. It was not fair. There came a bi luo chun whose intense, newness-of-life taste floated a molecule at a time in seas of pale pearl green. Another box arrived, and for days darjeelings flowered and leathery keemuns breathed horses and sandalwood, cocoa and tobacco ...

The tastes were intense, tastes to vie with those that lead to the worship of coffee mugs. They were nuanced. They moved. They embodied the hills they grew on, the towns where they were fired. "Oh," I thought; "'Delicate' is not a euphemism for 'watery'? 'Subtle' is not code for 'Ignore this if you are drawn to power and clarity'?"

All this was a little hard to describe right there in the mall Friday. That stuff they were giving us had little to do with taste or tradition. It was not the best example of tea. That was a warm, interesting variation on its neighbor; there is a place and time for macadamia nut and coconut in a cup of something warm, but that isn't what makes coffee exiles light up and quit whining. The color-coordinated teaware sets a peaceful and exotic mood; the shelves of labels are delightful to behold. Yes, of course you're right -- they are selling a trend. And if that particular outfit doesn't sell better tea (gyokuro not dusty black, oolong not boring, Ceylon that differs from Assam), then -- well, whatever. You're right, but while you were scoffing at a fad, and me, I was not just being defensive. I was upset with the place because the hype is so far out in front of what they are selling, not because the tea is indifferent. Selling mood over substance can be misleading, not just hype; sell average or poor X in a nice, pricey cup from a specialty X shop, and buyers think that’s the last word in X. Witness your witty but cruel taunts in the car all the way home.

For a basic introduction (no, I am not mailing you boxes of anything, not after Friday), try 3 Cups, the specialty wine/coffee/tea shop here in Chapel Hill; they define themselves by careful selection, hand crafting, sustainable growth, family tradition. You can buy a cup of coffee. If you try tea there instead of buying some to take home, beware the coffee-saturated air; do not laugh at me about this until you re-live that argument you pitched last month about bacon indoors v. bacon outdoors. Do collect every little circular they have with the word “tea” on it. They are still working on their tea selection, but the written information they put out for their customers is as good a “This is Tea” as I could wish to find. It is written in coffee and wine language. To the North Carolina customer interested in authenticity and quality, they say:

“Water -- Because of its milder and more subtle flavors the quality of the water you choose for tea is far more important than it is for coffee. Traditionally spring water ...”

“All teas start out green. And in the Chinese and Japanese traditions ... To make green teas, you steam the leaf right after plucking ... While their flavor range is vast, they are always subtle and delicate.”

“A good teapot is a beautiful thing. It allows the tea leaves to fully expand but also makes it easy to remove them, all the while keeping your tea nice and hot. The best all-around is ...”

“Use 2 to 2.5 grams of tea for each 6 ounces of pot capacity ... A minute less yields a milder tea with, possibly, more delicate aromatics; a minute longer yields a gutsier cup with more bite and persistence, especially useful for black tea with milk. Experiment!”

“Oolongs ... vary from nearly green to reddish brown, with a hundred recognized microtones in between ... Flavors range from floral and citrusy to peach-like and woodsy. These are the ros├ęs of tea ...”

So, they are not afraid to start you at the beginning, right here at home. They stock decent tea in a representative range and list tisanes and scented teas separately from the others. They do not, like everyone else in town, hand you a large French press with a coffee cup and leave you to the distracted mercies of a barista. You can sample anything you’re curious about at 3 Cups in the company of someone who has tasted the tea. They serve in the Chatsford pot described in their literature, and with a small timer for those who care to use it. And, given their commitment to excellence, their tea is due to improve. The first eight offerings on their printed list are: “Pai Mu Tan Imperial, Himalaya Green, Dragonwell First Grade, Gyokuro Asahi, Choice Formosa Oolong, Green Dragon Oolong, Jade Pouchong, Royal Golden Yunnan.” If you buy some tea to take home, if you’re still curious after that, let me know.

I wish I could direct you to a Chinese tea house. You would go happily. It would make its own introduction for you. You have always mocked pretension but grown quiet when entering true places. Lacking one of those, consider Caffe Driade, one of your favorite coffee places, the small, the hip, but Italianate pastoral. Lovely on quiet days, the wooded terraces around it are also the only places I know in the Triangle area where one can drink tea without the smell of coffee or car exhaust. Meet me here. We will sit outside on one of the stone terraces under gold and grey, sunlit trees. You can drink coffee, or tell me whether you bought anything at 3 Cups. I will listen and try their Young Hyson again in the clear, winter air. The tea will come in a press, and you can roll your eyes while I scowl and try to play with the brewing time. The barista's recommendation of four minutes is not good. Pouring it off after a minute or two minutes does not work with this amount of leaf. I'm working my way up. A third time I may get the hang of it. But the teacup will be a lovely, handmade yunomi in shades of dark blue that enhance the green color of the tea. The first eight items on their tea menu are usual suspects, including scented teas, but another eight are "China Green, Gunpowder Green, Organic Genmaicha, Organic Jasmine, Dragonwell, Young Hyson, Sencha Hana, and Cameroonian." If only there were a Chatsworth teapot here.

The third place to go for tea is the only one where I see you inhaling for the joy of it, the gourmet food place, A Southern Season. People don't always know it started out life as a coffee roastery before it grew. It's impressive, the way it fills that department-store-sized space with warmth and sparkle. You always make it a point to use the coffee-scented street entrance, I notice, and not the mall entrance with its mere wall of chocolate. Vietri, bakery, deli, wine, cookware, flowers, beer, bar, specialty salts, a riot, really, and even in the store’s small phase I never paid attention to its tea selection until the day when small yixing teapots -- the first I had ever seen -- appeared on the tea shelves. The pots were small and decorative. They are replaced now in the larger store by larger yixing, mostly still decorative, which sit among Chinese storage urns, matcha whisks, English pots and steeping cups, islands and walls of boxed and tinned teas, coffee mugs, kettles, and tea strainers, from boutique trendy to a small gong fu set with its bamboo tray, and a white porcelain taster’s set. At table height at the tea counter sits a range of tea that runs from white, yellow, green, oolong, and gold, to decaffeinated, tisane, and flavored. These are displayed in clear cellophane bags for temptation’s sake and are everyday good, at everyday prices.

On the wall behind the tea counter are large silver cannisters containing a range that runs from white, yellow, green, oolong, and gold, to aged oolong and pu’er. At the counter itself I always find someone who knows the teas and enjoys giving advice or information: “Try a Kenya Mountain Estate for the Firdowsi lover who drinks his tea Iranian style.” “Back the heat down, way down, further down; I think you will enjoy this gyokuro.” For me, one day, wondering about the nature of an aged oolong, the manager of the department advised me about the smoke-to-depth proportions and, when I wavered, pulled out a refrigerated sample of it and brewed some on the spot. She shared some observations on its vanilla and currant and the peculiar flavor of its overlying smoke.

These are teas that could tempt a coffee drinker. They vye with coffee in a bustling market of a place, chosen, it seems, to open up strongly in a 6-8 ounce cup, Western style, but they don’t fall short, and they don’t misrepresent. They pique, they invite. Eight among those I have tried: “Monkey Picked Tie Guan Yin, Premium Yunnan Gold, Ujo Gyokuro, Buddha’s Hand Oolong, Four Seasons Oolong, Mokalbari Estate Assam, Wild Forest Oolong, Royal Courtesan Dong Ding.” You can pick up an ounce or two of tea next time you're in buying beans.

What's missing in Chapel Hill, though it has Chinese teas for sale, is Chinese tradition. I can't help wishing for a tea house, where simple light would bring a glow to the elegance of eggshell teacups. The dry leaf would rustle amid the ring and chime of porcelain and fine clay and then the music of bubbling water. Treated as they were raised to be treated, seventy-two finely shaped tea leaves in water would swirl in quick exuberance, dance apart, and then gently settle down in their cup. In a space where they are met halfway, they will taste spring-fresh or as crafty and poignant as an entire autumn mountainside, with toasted nut, peach scent before the peach is ripe, or pear; bark smoke, wood smoke, or summer rain hitting stone and iron on a balcony. There is artichoke-stem or crabmeat rich, sometimes a hint of butter. The different flavors move, settle and blossom in different places in the mouth. In sweet, salt, bitter, and sour they will tease, promise, and echo. There is often an after-perfume that I grope to name while compulsively holding empty cups to my nose, unable to let go, a nearsighted child with a sea shell: was this the bottom of the bowl after sweet cereal was gone? the mild half of cooked orange? that air that wafted through the house while cinnamon bread was baking?

-- But that could be another letter, and I have gone on too long. Here's what we have, since you ask, and I promise to forgive you for laughing. Call me when you're back, and we'll have coffee soon -- or tea.


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EDITOR'S NOTE: With this post we welcome REBEKAH, an esteemed colleague and friend whose creative work is as learned and nuanced as her scholarship. She makes her home in Chapel Hill, which has been celebrated by BON APPETIT as 'America's Foodiest Small Town'; it should perhaps not surprise us that tea culture has begun to take root there as well. Our warmest thanks to Rebekah for this glimpse of it.


  1. Rebekah, you are stunning. I have yet to meet someone else who, not only can appreciate tea on levels far beyond me whom I considered until reading this a tea addict, but can articulate and express herself ever so beautifully.
    I so enjoyed reading this. I have not been to 3 Cups (yet), I love the Driade tea and coffee (I make the exception for coffee in special places - they make a delicious cup of espresso) and I think Southern Season is overpriced (gasp, sorry ;))! But boy do I wish, as you do, for a Chinese Tea House like those in Hong Kong (or even Montreal). We would meet there to read Anna K together over cups of Oolong or whatever strikes your fancy.

  2. Anonymous11:53 AM


    Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed reading. Next time we can lure you over to Chapel Hill we should go try 3 Cups together. Their food is world-class local, and I'd love to get your opinion on their coffee. There's an oolong there I think you'd like, too.