Serious Eats: Drinks
Fang Gourmet Tea in Flushing, Queens: Where $12 Buys You a First Class Tea Ceremony
It can also buy you an afternoon-long tasting of some world class Chinese and Taiwanese tea—tea that's brewed by experts with years of experience and monastic dedication. Tea that would otherwise cost you hundreds of dollars a pound for the privilege of a sip.
This is like passing a fiver to master distiller so you can throw back some $400 cognac. In your jeans. In a mall.
You may not imagine yourself a tea enthusiast, but the experts at Fang Gourmet Tea in Flushing will change your mind. And if you are a tea fan, consider this your mecca.
Fang Gourmet specializes in high-end teas from China and Taiwan, drawing customers from all over the city—and the country—to sample their offerings, which change seasonally. An air of dedication hangs over the shop, the likes of which you'd otherwise find in only the most hardcore of coffee houses. But tea drinkers are by and large a friendly, welcoming lot; snobbery and fedora'd pretentiousness are blissfully absent.
Theresa Wong, a tea seller at Fang Gourmet, explained that the shop's mission is to educate New Yorkers about tea: how good it can taste, the infinitude of ways it can be prepared, and how it can be an integral part of a happy, caffeinated lifestyle. Merchants show evident delight in sharing their tea and accumulated knowledge, whether you've dedicated yourself to tea for years or just want to see what all the fuss is about.
The best way to learn about tea is by sitting down for a tasting. Ask to taste a few teas, give some general suggestions of what you like, and put yourself in the tea seller's hands. Like a coffee cupping, a tea tasting offers the opportunity to try small samples of a variety of teas. You can focus on a single style (green, oolong, etc.) or try a range to experience the full spectrum of tea drinking. But unlike a coffee cupping, tea tasting ceremonies come with hundreds of years of tradition and a powerful sense of ritual. A tasting in a quiet room is a near meditative experience, and definitely a sensual one. The tea master brews and serves tea with the measured, steady movements of the best bartenders. As a drinker, you're invited not just to taste, but to smell the tea at multiple brewing stages, feel the texture of the leaves, and appreciate the visual beauty of the tea's preparation (to say nothing of the lovely—and sometimes very, very expensive—teaware).
Fang Gourmet offers tasting ceremonies in what Wong called the Taiwanese style, which focuses on the spiritual aspects of drinking tea more than the ritual or social parts.* A tasting of each tea costs $5 ($3 with membership, which is free, can be joined immediately, and comes without spam or other harassment).** Try at least two teas to get the most out of your tasting, which will last about a half hour per tea.
* This is to distinguish from the Japanese tea ceremony, which takes years of practice for even the participants to do right, and Chinese gong fu ceremonies, which employ a variety of hot water rinses and other elaborate steps in the brewing process. It may not look like it, but this tea ceremony is the simple, stripped down version.
** Tips are politely declined.
The hallmark of this type of tea ceremony is the brewing vessel and technique. The vessel is a porcelin, gaiwan, a lidded cup that doesn't interfere with the flavor of the tea but allows the brewer a greater degree of control over the final cup. An individual serving is small, about once ounce, which may seem like a comically small volume for some tea drinkers, but it's one that forces you to really focus on what you're drinking and to consider the full flow of the sip from beginning to end.
The gaiwan is filled 1/3 to 1/2 of the way with tea leaves, which brew in a matter of seconds. The high concentration allows the tea to be steeped again and again, with each steeping bringing out different flavor, aroma, and textural nuances. Each tea is steeped about five times, which gives you a deep understanding of the evolution of flavor that's possible from a single leaf. Some teas, for example, don't reach their height until the second or third steeping, while others are most rewarding for the subtle finishing flavors on the fourth or fifth. This kind of involved tasting allows you to do more than kick the tea's tires: you'll get a thorough sense of how it tastes before buying it.
A tasting at Fang Gourmet is sort of a gateway to the tea underground: sure, you'll still consider spending $100 on 5 ounces of tea a little scary, but the temptation sticks with you like an addiction.
About halfway through our three hour tasting, I realized that we'd discussed tea with vocabulary normally restricted to coffee, wine, and spirits. We'd talked about terroir and growing conditions, the exacting art of roasting, and playful experiments with aging—and the radical effect of each on the brew in our cups. What is there to really obsess about a simple cup of tea? Turns out: everything.
The slideshow above gives a step by step illustration of the tea tasting, but it's really best experienced in person. Not only is it a fun, absurdly cheap way to spend an hour (or an afternoon) tasting and learning about something totally new, but it'll also engage your senses in a way no other fine beverage can. Fang Gourmet's teas are also available for purchase online or over the phone. The website doesn't list the full catalog and new teas arrive seasonally, so it's best to call and ask what's available.