Having tried Celadon, I decided it was time to try Imperial Tea.
Rosewood tables, rosewood panels, large red Chinese lanterns, cages of finches and a wall lined with an impressive collection of tea pots greeted me as I entered on Saturday afternoon. That was all that greeted me. A table of older Chinese men sat in the back. I waited while the woman at the counter helped a customer. Then I waited and waited. Finally I asked if I was to order at the counter. I was given the menu and I waited some more.
Finally when the pleasant server stopped by I asked for suggestions. It took four tries to get ANY suggestions other than read the menu. I asked what the server had as a favorite. She liked them all. I was curious about the green lavender. She never tried it. Not quite the same level of expertise as the Celadon servers. Not that the servers were unpleasant, just unhelpful.
I asked about decaffeinated tea and was told that all tea had caffeine (despite later reading at the end of the menu about the herbal teas). I asked about the Pu-erh teas being caffeine free due to aging. The server said that was probably true.
The table of Chinese gentlemen was exiting about the time the tourists started to fill the place. I was guessing that Imperial Tea gets a little jaded with tourists, so I thought I would try one more time. I said that I enjoyed a number of their teas at Slanted Door and asked if they had a particular tea that I liked. They said they sell to restaurants that often rename the tea on their menus. Then I was handed a price list of all their teas to see if I could find it.
Ok, I gave up and just started to order what looked good. From my Celadon experience I decided to skip the white teas.
The tea is served differently at Imperial Tea. It is three dollars per tea for the regular tea and five dollars for the Imperial or high grade teas.
The tea you choose is brought out in porcelain covered cups called gaiwan (see picture below). The server shows you how to hold the cup, lets you smell the tea, pours a little water in, another sniff and then fills the cup. She then took off and said to let it steep a minute. A large pot of water is left on the table.
You use the top of the cup to gently push the leaves out of the way so you can sip the tea. I really dont like this as the longer the tea steeps, the more bitter it becomes. Also I found myself needing to spit out tea leaves from time to time.
The positive side of this is that you notice flavor changes as you add more water to the cup. Sometimes the third pouring is better than the first.
There is also the option of Gong Fu Tea Presentation at eight dollars per tea. Basically this involves straining the tea and if you ask, the server will explain how this all works. Two person minimum.
If you click on the presentation link on the Imperial Tea site there are other types of presentations available that require reservations and a minimum number of people. The ultimate presentation is $50 per person, 10 person minimum and includes a light dim sum lunch.
For all the talk on the Imperial Tea site about the correct temperature, vessel and steeping times, the most that happened was the server put her hand on the side of the pot of water to see if it was too cold.
Maybe it was Saturday, but this was a noisy place. The Chinese men chatted it up loudly and then when the tourists moved in, the noise level raised even higher.
Heres what I tried, some at the shop, some at home.
The web site provides more information about each tea and how to brew than you will find in the shop.
I tried this at home. When I opened the package, I let out an audible mmmmm. The cat perked up to the sound of the promise of something delicious being served. One of my favorites and at $3.50 per oz, well worth it. The site said it has a whisper of smoke and hints of citrus, but this was the most wonderfully smoky smelling tea. Just thinking about it now makes me go mmmmm..
It has a spectacular amber color. The site suggest serving it with a slice of lemon or sugar with good reason. It is really astringent. I added a little Marshalls Orange blossom honey and was transported to another dimension. I really think that Marshalls deeply flavored Wild West Wildflower would probably be an ideal match. I need a cup now.
Scented ever so lightly with orchids, this Taiwanese oolong was one of the favorites I tried in the shop. It just got better and better with each infusion of water. Really a subtle, delicate, beautifully fragrant tea. (9.25 oz)
This Keemum tea is tied together with a silken thread to look like a peony. It was my second favorite in the shop. Lovely slight red tinge and smoky flavor. Another tea that improved with each pouring. The site talks about it blossoming in the cup, but it looked the same dried as brewed to me. I was just so glad to have a tea all tied together so I wouldnt have to ever so genteelly remove leaves from my mouth. ($10.oz)
The site mentions that like black teas, red teas are fermented before being dried. They turn a red color before drying. When the British arrived, they called these teas black, the color they saw after drying.
Opening this at home, the smell was of fine leather. Really pleasant. A lightly smoked black tea of Fujian province that the site describes as having a rich and distinctive maltiness & smooth finish. ($1.75 oz)
In the Fujian province this tea is cured over smoking pine log fires. The smell was like leather, but the wonderful taste reminded me of being in a pine forest with a tones of a campfire. A favorite and a bargain
I love hibiscus. I can drink one of those bottles of Knudson hibiscus tea in a sitting . This is a hibiscus-based blend with the most beautiful red color and the tang of hibiscus. Wonderful hot, I will make iced tea with it this summer (whenever that may occur in SF), flavoring it with a touch of Marshalls Orange Blossom honey. The site says that there is a hint of mint. A garnish of mint leaf would be a great touch. ($3.50 oz)
The name comes from the fact that red is the color of good fortune and prosperity.
Organic Lavender Green
An organic green tea lightly scented with bergamot oil and blended with organic lavender flowers. This had a spicy scent and pleasant character. I never would have guessed there was lavender in it if wasnt mentioned. I really enjoyed it. ($3.50 oz)
This was one of two rose petal flavored teas I tried. It was just wonderful. The fragrance was like the best heirloom garden roses. Just smelling this was like being in a garden. Valentines day is coming and heres an idea wake up your sweetie with a tray with a pot of this wonderful tea, a single rose in a bud vase and maybe some pastel petit fours from Neldhams. Or a tart garnished with rose petals from Tartine. A romantic tea. Very comforting. Escape a few minutes to relax with this tea. (5.60 oz)
Rose Petal Black
Black tea and beautiful rose petals. Very pretty dried. More of a spicy rose fragrance and not as assertive as Rose Garden. (2.45 oz)
This Tea is grown in the mountains of eastern China's Anhui province. It had a subtle smokiness that I enjoyed. The site describes it as having leaves that unfurl and look like flowers floating in a golden pool. Right. With all the unfurling and floating, this is one of the teas where I found myself with a mouth full of leaves. I kept thinking, sink to the bottom of the cup, will you. Definitely needs a strainer. (12.50 oz)
Imperial Dragon Well
I thought I would splurge on one of the more expensive, five dollar a cup Imperial teas. (19.60 oz if you buy it to bring home to brew)
The site describes it as a beautiful champagne-colored golden liquor with a complex flavor rich with sweet, savory and floral notes and a lingering mellow finish. An extremely refined and elegant tea which deserves to be savored and contemplated.
I contemplated that I wasnt refined enough for it and decided to stick with the three dollar teas.
This was described so beautifully with a golden flavor and smooth finish that I forked over the five dollars a cup for this. It was too grassy tasting and not exceptionally pretty either. (12.50 oz)
Red Envelope Blend
This was a low-caffeine spiced herbal blend with dried orange peels, purple lavender flowers, a little red hibiscus and jasmine tea.($3.50 oz). It has a reddish color and is named after the red envelopes exchanged in Chinese families on special occasions. It really looked beautiful dried. Like potpourri. Unfortunately, it tasted like what I would imagine brewed potpourri would taste like. It smelled like cloves and had an strong clove taste. Yuck. The site calls it a stunning blend. Well, I guess it did stun me.
Superior Green Oolong
One word - Lipton. ($5.60 oz)
Actually I thought Lipton green tea bags had a slight edge.