Tea is misunderstood in Los Angeles. There aren't a lot of places that brew it the traditional way -- with loose leaves, temperature, and quality in mind. While "boba" tapioca tea shops are abundant, especially in the San Gabriel Valley, few of them prioritize tea quality. The emphasis is more about the sugar and milk content.
It's a shame, really. There's an entire art behind tea and a good cup is an experience in and of itself. The ceremony and brewing process also differs depending on region and culture. While doing research for this piece, I spent an afternoon at the studio of Yoko Isassi, who teaches Japanese tea workshops in downtown Los Angeles. She brewed for me a cup of gyokuro tea -- a variety that is shade-grown and never exposed to direct sunlight. The tea tasted like soup; it was full-bodied and rich with a heavy umami flavor and far different from the Chinese varieties I'm personally accustomed.
Not all tea tastes the same -- even if it comes from the same bag of leaves. Here's a basic guide:
Different Classes of Tea
All traditional teas are made from the leaf of the Camellia sinensis bush and its different varieties. The six different classes of tea (green, yellow, white, oolong, black, and pu-erh) are determined by the levels of oxidation they undergo and the maturity at which the leaves are plucked. Green tea, for example, undergoes no oxidation and the leaves are plucked when they are young. On the other side of the spectrum is oolong. Mature leaves are used for oolong and there is high oxidation involved.
The permutations of blends are endless and the tea industry is huge. In 2007, China produced 1,165 metric tons of tea. Japan, Sri Lanka, India, and Taiwan are also major tea-producing countries. As for the West, tea spread to England in the 16th century, and the Dutch were the first to bring the custom over to North America in the mid-1600s.
In Chinese there's a saying: "Kāimén qī jiàn shì: Cháimǐyóuyán jiàng cù chá 開門七件事：柴米油鹽醬醋茶." which translates to: the seven necessities in life are rice, oil, salt, sauce sauce, vinegar and tea.
Tea has always been a part of Chinese culture. After all, the oldest stories about tea started in China. The earliest record of the drinking practice dates back to 5,000 years, documented by a mystical figure named Emperor Shennong who spent his life experimenting with different plants and writing about it. Legend said that he had a crystal stomach and could observe how his organs reacted to different herbs. In his experiments, he depended on tea for detoxification.
Though it originated as a delicacy in imperial settings, the art of brewing leaves soon spread to the ordinary citizen. In the Song Dynasty, tea competitions became a common pastime on the streets; folks would gather together and see who could brew the best cup of tea. Winners were judged on fragrance and smoothness. Water quality, water temperature, tea leaf quantity, and tea ware quality were also important factors in these contests.
Los Angeles Tea Scene
Chinese/Taiwanese: Ten Ren was one of the first tea chains to open in the L.A. area and is probably the best place to go if you want a crash-course in traditional Chinese tea. They're a chain from Taiwan and though they mostly specialize in "boba" tapioca teas, their San Gabriel and Chinatown locations have a section dedicated to the gongfu tea ceremony. The ceremony that is practiced today originated from the Ming Dynasty of China, and is a ritualized process that involves a teapot, a brewing vessel, a tray, and tea cups. If you ask kindly, the workers will explain and perform the process for you. They also have a selection of over sixty teas, sourced from their farms in Taiwan.
Indian: While Chado Tea Room in Little Tokyo calls itself a Japanese tea house and has a thick book of teas from around the world -- they put a heavy emphasis on their Indian tea collection. India is the world's largest producer of black teas and their tea can be categorized by its three main production areas: Darjeeling, Assam and Nilgiri. Chado has roughly 45 different types of Indian teas available. You can buy the leaves to take home, or enjoy it in the comfort of their tea room with scones and sandwiches.
Japanese: Japan specializes in green teas and Mitsuwa Marketplace in Torrance is your best bet for getting high quality green teas in Los Angeles. There's a vendor called Yamamotoyama that sells all different types of green teas including sencha, roasted green tea, gyokuro, and matcha. But if you're craving a more in-depth explanation of the Japanese tea ritual, Yoko Isassi of Japanese Food Story does a tea-brewing and sweets workshop at her studio in downtown L.A.. She focuses on matcha, sencha, and a roasted caffeine-free tea called hojicha.
Korean : The Korean tea scene is unique in that there's an emphasis on teas brewed from grains, dried fruits and ginseng. Hwa Sun Ji in Koreatown does all of that. They're an adorable tea shop with a water fountain inside and a seating section with low tables and bamboo mats. Conversation is usually hushed here and the tables are divided by bamboo curtains. The menu is four pages long, but it meticulously breaks down the ingredients and characteristics of each tea. For starters, I recommend the barley tea -- an earthy brew made from toasted barley. Every cup of tea comes with a complimentary plate of crackers.
Generalists: Whereas the above are specialists, there are a handful of places in town that are tea generalists and have a rotating selection of teas from around the world.
In Santa Monica, there's Funnel Mill, a shop that boasts a collection of 30 different teas. They have a repertoire of white, green, jasmine, red, milk, chai, oolong, and pu-erh leaves mostly originating from Taiwan and China.
Downtown L.A. has G&B Coffee, and although they're mostly known for their coffee selection, owners Kyle Glanville and Charles Babinski have taken great care in curating a high-quality tea menu. Teas include black, white, and oolong teas from China. Rest assured, their award-winning baristas put as much care into their tea as they do to their coffee.
At Pasadena's Copa Vida, teas are brewed with heavy machinery. They have an Alpha Dominche Steampunk (which reportedly costs around $15,000) to help with the brewing process. The Steampunk helps with extraction, temperature control, and thermal stability for each cup. Teas are sourced through Art of Tea Sun and Garden Teas.
And finally, there's the bourgeois-but-thorough American Tea Room in Beverly Hills, where they're using a $40,000 machine to assist in the brewing process. It's called a Bkon brewer and it uses reverse atmosphere pressure to suck up the oxygen, create a vacuum, and push carbon dioxide out of the tea as the water comes in.