In Manhattan, there is hardly a more authentic high quality Chinese tea room than Tea Drunk. No alcohol is being served here, but in Chinese tea drunk is a “romantic expression” of “one’s indulgence in true passion“. Tea lovers like wine connoisseurs share this passionate intoxication of one’s mind. Niched in the hip and casual East Village, Tea Drunk leaps beyond the dubious leafy potions sold in the city’s China Town. The seasonally changing calligraphy scroll commanding a prime placement as if suggesting that something serious is brewing here – the respect to the highest quality Chinese tea.
Making Chinese tea properly in New York
Tea Drunk is a modest narrow tea dispensary and a cosy room where anyone can taste before snapping one of the tightly sealed bags of tea for home consumption. All the well-known as well as some more obscure yet enchanting teas are sourced personally by the owner, Shunan Teng, whose motorcycle diaries of China’s best tea plantations are recorded in scantly edited, raw, and in some trips adventurous videos that she shares on Tea Drunk’s website (links follow with tea listings). Her expertise has been demanded by the leading US and Chinese publications and she spoke at the Yale University as well as the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Shunan herself or a skilled tea barrister carefully prepares your tea. In traditional manner using a gaiwan, the typical Chinese tea brewing lidded cup with a saucer that serves as a strainer at the same time. The ceramic, clay, glass or even the rare jade tea vessel is warmed by boiling water which is subsequently discarded. The same heating trick is performed with the tiny tea cups. Now the lidded cup/pot and the serving cups are ready to embrace the loose leafs. In some cases such as roasted oolongs or pu-er the first brew is tipped over into a bowl, sink or when prepared on the special Chinese wooden tray through the gaps into an attached sewage. The lid keeps the aromas concentrated so you can smell the aroma when your nose sniffs it. Multiple brews can easily be made in this lidded Ming dynasty invention.
Pick your own tea or get a flight
Everyone’s taste is highly personal and it so no different with tea. While one loves the mild softness of a white tea, another palate might find it far too mellow. Oolong tends to appeal to most advanced tea connoisseurs, while black-red tea is preferred generally by the British and the Eastern palates from Turkish, through Russian to Indonesian. Green tea is often chosen by the health conscious, and the age-worthy pu-er is collected by the savvy investors. Now, shake off my daring pigeonholing, since still your momentous choice of tea may depend as much on the current weather, your mood or the time of the day.
At Tea Drunk, you can have it all, and if you are curious to explore and compare more teas at once, go for the “tea flights”. These conceptual tastings for two to four people set three different teas either from the same category: green, oolong, pu er or are chosen to accommodate seasonal cravings. At Tea Drunk the hand-picked green, yellow, white, wu long (oolong), red and black teas next to peculiarities such as the highly praised cliff tea, Dan Cong, and pu-er are harvested for only 10 to 15 days each year from renowned tea mountains that “were hailed by emperors and artists alike”. Each flight can be upgraded to a premium tasting experience when higher quality teas are selected.
Wulong, oolong journey with Tea Drunk
My first visit nourished my curiosity about oolongs, the semi-oxidised teas celebrated for their often complex flavours. We were delighted to share this trio: the light greenish sweet Tie Guan Yin 鐵觀音 also known in the West as “Iron Goddess of Mercy” picked at Fu Di, An Xi Province, then the apricot and floral aroma of Zhi Lan Xiang 芝蘭香 in Feng Huang Shan, and finally the earthy and woody flavours of Tie Luo Han 鐵羅漢 San Yang Feng (True Cliff), from the Wu Yi Shan mountains. Sharing the premium tasting pots with a Chinese friend originally from the Yunnan province upgraded the experience to a soaring drunkenness by a superb tea. We relished in comparing each brew with a magnifying sense of our palates, while exchanging our perceptions with the savvy founder Shunan Teng, who brewed each tea precisely according to the Chinese gongfu cha tradition.
Seasonal tea tasting for moody weather
Before the precisely timed tea hedonism and intellectual indulgence start, you are asked to pick from the “tea pets” on the shelves lining the back wall. Amused, I learned about this Chinese custom while watching gongfu cha in Beijing for the first time. Perhaps for its awkwardness, I picked the three legged money frog, known as “Jin Chan” 金蟾, prosperity talisman in the Chinese Feng Shui tradition. When I stormed into Tea Drunk in winter with two friends, our choice was more limited since too many customers that came in to warm their bodies and spirits before me have already chosen their tea pet companion. The tea room was packed, except, curiously, for my favourite spot, the bar. We went for a turtle, the symbol of longevity. I feel closer to all the action at the brewing bar, plus for the tea tasting flights it is the best spot where the brewer is the least distracted by other customers. To defrost ourselves, we went for the “Seasonal Premium Tasting” which included my beloved Silver Needle white tea, aka Bai Hao Yin Zhen 白毫銀針 from Fu Ding, Fujian Province, a dark rock tea and a red tea. Next, I plan to come in summer so I can cool off with the Green Tea Tasting, the new annual harvest should be in the store by May.
A monthly “tea club” for these curious sippers who want to learn more about the praised beverage includes a subscription to three diverse teas each month delivered to your home. Accompanied with educative maps, tasting notes, videos and history about each tea and its region of production. For additional $30 premium teas slip into your package. My favourite though is what I would call ‘socialising tea club with benefits’ – the Sipper’s Club. This is a genial concept of buying tea, when you either keep it at the store or bringing it from home with you, so the tea will be brewed at no additional charge to your fixed monthly $40 fee.
Do you feel confused about all the illegible and inconsistent Chinese tea names? Tasting tea and talking with an expert like Shunan Teng is a great place to start. As with wine, theory is not enough to grasp its qualities, you must taste, swish and reflect upon tea. Only then you can better understand its subtleties and which tea is best for you at this exact moment. It is sunny out there, so I am going for the smoothness of a white tea.
123 E 7th St, New York, NY 10009
+1 917 573 9936
Wed-Mon: 12noon-10pm (Sun 9pm)