A person could spend all day in Red Blossom Tea Company. And they just might let you. The gracious, peaceful space in San Francisco's sloping Chinatown is the perfect spot to linger over shelves of carefully sourced teas.
Though their teas are easily ordered by mail, nothing can compete with stopping by for a guided tasting of something you're curious about. The staff are thoughtful and patient, armed with a full knowledge of their shelves. On this visit, I asked to be introduced to more nuanced black teas, and was steered towards their Organic Golden Monkey First Pick, a hand-twisted Chinese black tea from the Wyui mountain region comprised of very young tips.
Seated at one of Red Blossom's tasting stations, a gaiwan—a perfectly simple, appropriately sized vessel for this tasting—was readied and tea carefully measured out on a digital scale. Black tea likes a near-boiling temperature, so we used a 205-degree preset water heater to heat vessels and perform an initial rinse of the tea leaves.
For such a young black tea, several infusions are possible—maybe four infusions to an older black tea's two or three. My guide performed several short infusions of the Golden Monkey, each yielding evolving results from the initial leaf-opening flavors of rich, creamy sweet orange blossom, to a darker, more up-front caramelly taste. The most caffeine in a black tea is released at the beginning of the infusion cycle, while richer, more roast-flavor notes may develop as infusions progress.
From basic, instructional tastings like these to a selection of dearer, fresh crop seasonal teas (like the Ming Qian Dragonwell Panan Supreme Spring 2011, weighing in at $28 per ounce), the tea room is an unintimidating way to begin or grow any tea fascination. (And an array of comely tea wares, from artisanal to practical, lines the shelves opposite the miles of tea tins, and will likely tempt you into adding to your collection.)
Just don't forget—it might be impolite to stay there all day.