Imperial Tea Court
Many purchasers of fine teas will be familiar with Roy and Grace Fong's products through their informative web site. My sister and I wanted to sample their products onsite, so made the pilgrimage to their tearoom at the edge of San Francisco's Chinatown this past weekend. We heartily recommend that you do likewise.
Imperial Tea Court's tearoom is unobtrusive from the outside but serene on the inside. Roy designed the one large room solely for the enjoyment of and education about fine Chinese teas. All of the materials and craftsmanship were imported from China. The careful attention to effect shows in expanses of highly polished wood walls and shelving, with seating that's comfortable even for extended tea tasting.
Tea, not food, is the focus. ITC provides a choice of only three light, but excellent, snacks. The Fongs reserve their variety for an extended menu of fine greens, oolongs, blacks, and a few whites and herbals - each served in the fashion best suited to bring out its finest qualities.
Ah, but you'd like details? ITC uses two basic approaches to brewing tea. The first (primarily for greens) uses the covered handleless cups with saucers called gaiwans. Once a tea is chosen and measured, the dry fragrance and appearance is briefly appreciated. A small quantity of hot (not boiling) water brings out the initial layers of scent and unfolding of the leaf. The remaining hot water for the first steeping is then added. We were shown how to manage the three parts easily and gracefully so as to enjoy the tea without a mouthful of leaves. Hot water can then be added repeatedly until every bit of the essence of the leaf has been extracted. At all steps of the process, we were given tips, advice, and background as to the whys and hows.
The second method - gongfu — can be more complicated but, in its simplest form, uses more leaf for less time and is often used for oolong or black teas. Typically, a small teapot is filled halfway with dry leaf. The first layer of water is usually poured off quickly before any tea is served. As with the gaiwan, multiple brewings are possible. Because of the quantity of leaf and relatively short timing, the tea is often poured off into a pitcher so that the different results blend for the enjoyment of all at the table. Roy demonstrated how even a small change in water temperature or brewing time could produce different, but equally lovely, brews.
Lest this sound entirely too complex, the key to drinking tea at ITC is enjoying fine conversation, sometimes about the tea, sometimes about tea history, or about anything else best discussed at leisure.
Over the weekend, we sampled as many teas as we could distinguish without dulling our taste buds. We focused on greens and oolongs, many of them superb representatives of their types and most selected personally by Roy on his yearly trip to China. Many of the teas are imported only partially processed and are then hand-fired by him to the taste that he prefers. By visiting the tearoom, we were even able to try a few teas that had arrived but not yet been fully finished.