Song Tea & Ceramics looks like a tastefully decorated living room. Here you can visually enjoy the curves of the artisan ceramic bowls that are displayed around, read an inspiring book and sip on your favourite tea. Personal relationships, harmony and the holistic enjoyment of all things tea – from the hand-picked ceramics, the fragrant leafs to flower arrangements – these pillars drive the appeal of this San Francisco tea shop.
This small batch Chinese and Taiwanese tea importing refuge on Sutter Street is set mid-hill in a popular residential suburb. An increasingly popular installation for creative design workshops, this laid back and inspiring neighbourhood suits the owner Peter Luong like the Yixing clay ware to express the best in the oolong tea.
Rejuvenating tea tasting experience
Its time halting aesthetics rooted in tradition, strike one in a technology-fuelled city that hums with an innovative, change and potential disruption promising spirit. But this is exactly what we, the busy and always connected contemporaries, want. The real conversation and flavours that the casual gong fu cha tea ceremony involves are emotionally as well as spiritually rewarding, but it requires time. The Chinese tea appreciation ritual is not as time consuming as the Japanese chanoyu, so set some tea time aside for your visit at Song Tea & Ceramics and savour the harmony between nature and human appreciation of the tea terroir.
Tasting tea at tea shops is centuries old custom. Try before you buy. As you can see at most high quality tea shops in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and on less frequent occasions in Japan, a tea table hosting customers to tea tasting is the norm. There is no fee for this tasting. You only pay for what you take with you out. Inside, you are treated as a guest. At Song Tea & Ceramics the pure beauty of the tea tasting table gives you as much pleasure as the distinct flavours of the teas themselves. The owner, who prepared the teas for us, was pleasantly elevated when he sat down offering us our preferred teas. We were swiftly tuned to the tea mood. As I mentioned before, reserving enough time is necessary when buying tea, and more so when this ritual is included in your tea purchasing experience. The staff is also very passionate about tea and when we tasted with the young lady on another occasion we enjoyed the experience as much as with Peter Luong, the founder of Song Tea & Ceramics.
Oolong: the perplexing blue-green tea
All the white, green, oolong, red and aged teas from China or Taiwan were personally selected by the tea shop’s owner Peter, who annually travels East. The Sino-focus is a confluence of historical and generational nuances. Peter comes from a family of immigrants that for decades ran a successful tea business in the bustling San Francisco’s China Town. His sister now runs the Red Blossom Tea Company on Grant Avenue in the old fashion, while the younger and more creative Peter introduced contemporary and holistic visual pleasure into his own business.
I was on the hunt for an interesting Taiwanese oolong. This semi-oxidised tea can be very deeply roasted and rather lightly oxidised (Oriental Beauty) in Taiwan. But also adhering to the ancient Chinese tradition some oolongs are darker, almost like black tea because of their high level of oxidation. During an hourlong sniffing, slurping and casually conversing with the lively yet mindful Mr Luong, my decision was made based purely on my own gustatory experience.
I can recommend the highly popular Buddha’s Hand Alishan grown in Taiwan at a 1000m altitude in a company of coffee plants and betel nut trees. The large dark brown leafs look like dried chipotle, and that is because of their high-oxidation and wrinkly appearance. Expect chocolate, malt and brown sugarcane, yet free of calories.
The smoky sweet Formosa Yancha is a small release that is destined to age well as its grower keeps most of his harvest to himself. As the wood and tangy chicory fragrances regress, the brew unveils into a clean, fresh and mineral finish.
The vintage Formosa Dahongpao is the same Wuyi Yancha cultivar from the cliffs of Shan Lin Xi, but it has been aged for almost a quarter of a century. The Charcoal roasting prepares this tea for a long ageing since it absorbs any residual moisture that would lead to mould and spoilage. What a tea! I could inhale its deep fragrance all day long. A sweet butterscotch mellows into an apple strudel with muscat spice, before a bang of long mineral finish that leaves you musing whether this tea is willing to give more. With up to 10 brews, each revealing a different trait of the tea’s character, this Wuyi Yancha a delectable puzzle for the taste buds.
This high mountain ‘blue-green’ tea is a youthful beauty when compared to the Baozhong from the 1960s. It is unusual to age so mildly oxidised tea like this Taiwanese 20% oxidised leaves. Its subtle taste together with low tannins make it delectable all-day-long tea when young, but now it was more a tired fifty-something, still enjoyable but lacking the zest of its youth. Very interesting as the first seconds still reveal some of its jasmine and rose character.
Miracle of nature: a surprise tea that must be tried at Song Tea
This black tea from Taiwan is a true miracle. In Chinese speaking world often called red tea, the Four Seasons Red is a fully oxidised tea typically grown in Taiwan, yet this specimen is grown at 1500m on the Lishan mountain and they say at Song Tea: it is “crafted from leaves bitten by leaf hoppers which produces a chemical reaction in the leaf that gives the tea its honeyed sweetness”. This is not just your common breakfast brew, this red tea is rather fresh, soft on the palate with pleasant sweet taste and a cut grass aroma. I just wonder how do they attract the hoppers and make sure they bite into the tea leaves? The delectable result is a true miracle of nature.
There are plenty of other teas offered at Song Tea. They arrive with each new season (the best green and white teas in spring). Some sell out fast while others last, but the earlier in the season you come, the more there is to choose from. Most teas are also available at the Song Tea & Ceramics’ online store.
Nordic clean design meets Japanese restraint
A contemporary clean design at Song Tea & Ceramics fits into today’s San Francisco. The loose teas are stored in simply designed, almost purist, creamy ceramic containers sealed by a wooden cap. Your purchase is then dispensed into moisture resistant inner coating of the paper bags with a resealable snap.
The owner’s passion for revamped Japanese aesthetics and practicality reflects its prowess in the interior of the gallery and shop. He posses a unique sensibility for striking the perfect balance, where the contemporary and the natural breeze through in harmony. Often, when no customers are browsing inside, he employs his creative muse. You may find him sketching his own tea pot or designing new labels. His purist eye in the flower arrangement delights and since it is changed regularly you will find a little surprise each time you stop by.
The gaze mingles with the pots and cups in an unglazed clay, that as if coated in a dense chocolate brew lure your hands to a grasp, a blush of milky celadon, a stroke of mineral glaze and the indigo ornaments inside the stunning gong fu cha water bowl tease out inner material cravings.