As some of you have seen—via my social media—in June, I was at World Tea Expo.
For those who don’t follow me on those platforms . . . I don’t blame you. But that’s beside the point. In the middle of June, I trekked down to Las Vegas for my fifth World Tea Expo. (Oh wait, I already kinda said that.) I’ve . . . got a lot to say about that, but this missive isn’t about that, rather it’s about something else entirely.
For you see, a couple of weeks before, I received a message from one Kevin Gascoyne – o’ he of the Montreal-based tea outfit, The Camellia Sinensis Teahouse. I’d had several correspondences with him, half of them tea drunk. We both shared a bit of camaraderie, being “Darjeeling guys” in a puerh bro world.
Prior to the Expo proper, he sent me an e-mail and a follow-up Facebook message informing me of a tasting he would be hosting after-hours. I assumed this was one of his usual festival “Fight Club” tea sessions, of which I’d left a few . . . utterly tea-wrecked. But, nay! This was something entirely different, a well-crafted, well-coordinated tasting, and he wanted me there to record the experience for posterity.
However, there were some caveats: (1) I could only take pictures during specified times, not during the actual tasting session. (2) Silence was tantamount. (3) I couldn’t take notes. And (4), I couldn’t guess the teas that were being served, especially not out loud.
I was skilled at . . . none of these.
Over the course of the next week or so, and a bit during the Expo proper, I solidified the details of where/when the tasting was. All the while, Kevin was his usual cryptic, eye-twinkly, devious-grinning tea trickster self. Every time I spoke to him about the tasting, I kept thinking I needed to choose a safe word.
The Rare Tea Tasting itself was held on the second Expo day, early in the evening. Even more interesting, it was held in the Las Vegas Convention Center after hours. Walking down the convention hallways while they were dimly lit and empty triggered my horror movie response – meaning, I picked up my pace. Luckily, when I arrived at the location, I noticed other people; including a few I knew, such as Nicole from Tea For Me Please and Dan Bolton.
Shortly after arriving, the gaggle of tea nerds that were milling about were ushered into one of the classrooms. At first, I was stopped before entering. Somehow, my name wasn’t on the official register. For a moment, I thought, Well, this is gonna be a quick blog.
Eventually, my name was found in one of the subsections, and I entered the dimly lit, mood-heavy interior. The first thing to catch my eye? Candles. Lots of ‘em.
That and ambient music in the background. Did I just join a cult? was my follow-up thought.
Before I could snicker at my own dad joke (on the inside), Kevin and his team—yes, he had a team—explained what would be happening. He also mentioned that the music in the background was specifically composed for the event by one Christian Olsen. Each tea in the flight would have its own corresponding accompaniment. We were ushered to our seats, presented with cups and wine glasses. Jugs of water were also brought around as palate cleansers between sessions.
To the dismay of the staff, I was at a table with a few people I knew, and—thus—a few barbs were traded back and forth. In a whisper, of course; I’m not a complete monster. But even I went silent when the teas began making the rounds.
Shutting off my brain proved to be the hardest part, but I internally ordered myself to zip it! No guessing! But my brain devised a cheat: we weren’t allowed to guess, buuuuut there was nothin’ wrong with a little metaphoric association. I grimaced in triumph.
The first tea out of the starting gate was a pale liquor with a lightly sweet and vegetal scent emanating from the steam. I imagined running naked in a field of lotus flowers being chased by something . . . something far away. The taste was mild, deceptively so, but nuanced. Like a poet laureatic onion, it peeled back more soft-spoken layers of palatial prose.
Then a thought entered the fray. White tea. Dammit! One tea in, and I already failed at not guessing.
The second tea had a far deeper profile. My mind immediately pictured a mountain in Taiwan, and an uncoiling dragon with tea leaves for scales. Greener-style high-altitude oolong.
Shut up, brain! I yelled inwardly.
Our third tea was a complete one-eighty. We went from “subtle-but-deep” to “punch-to-the-tongue”. I imagined a flying, sentient tuna with a blunt instrument of some sort. Probably a club, or maybe an entire tree—a fruit tree, even. And it just . . . thwacked my tongue repeatedly. All that energy, wood, and earth? That’s gotta be a—
Brain, for the love of God!
With the fourth tea served, something unusual happened. On first sip, I paused. For once, my brain, palate, and subconscious drill instructor were on the same existential plane. We . . . er, I knew this tea. I’d had this tea. Last year, with Kevin Gascoyne and several others. The sweetness and séance-y energy silenced all of us, and we’d been a rowdy tea bunch. I took the memory and pinned it to the mental board. No guessing necessary.
At around this time, I began to realize that the very energies of these teas were all markedly different. The first two teas were lighter and nuanced, the third was a hadoken fireball to the solar plexus. And the fourth massaged the impact with sweet whispers and calming whisper-kisses. Weirder still? I was thinking about tea energy. I never think about tea energy.
As we rolled on, I noticed shoulders from the groups had slumped into relaxation mode. Most were well fitted into their seats and anticipatory. The perfect mindset for tea number five. The liquor was darker, the smell, an earthenware pot in a closet, and behind the must of age was something more ethereal. I imagined journeying into the attic of a Victorian house, only to be greeted by a Buddhist spider. And each of its legs represented a palatial note conveyed by the tea as it journeyed across my taste buds.
The final tea greeted my cup and lips with some very familiar fanfare. Like with the third tea, no guessing was necessary. I knew this smell, I knew this processing, I knew the terroir. I didn’t know the garden it hailed from, but it didn’t matter. It was a familiar, if strong note to end on.
After we mused a bit, Kevin and crew brought the leaves around for us to examine.
While we picked, poked and prodded at them, he explained which tea was which. The first tea was a yellow tea—Meng Ding Huang Ya, to be precise. My guess had been way off. The second? Tai Ping Hou Kui green tea. My assumption here was even more off-base. The third: Spring 2019 Yibang Man Gong sheng puerh—sounded about right. (My first new puerh of the year!) The fourth tea: just as I remembered, Competition Grade Bai Hao. Fifth? Xia Guan sheng puerh . . . from 1986! And last, of course, was a Darjeeling—spring 2019 from the Jungpana estate.
People got up and socialized for a bit, and Kevin (and co.) hopped from one group or the other, seeing what they thought of the experience. I had a brief moment to ponder the experience to myself. A couple of the teas didn’t seem particularly “rare” to me, but then again, I wasn’t your typical tea drinker. Not to toot my own kettle, but I’d sampled some pretty weird stuff over the last decade as a tea writer. Plus, to their credit, I rarely encountered examples of these types of teas in this high a quality.
Eventually, Kevin came up to me and asked how I felt about the experience. I mentioned the almost-conflicting energies of the teas, and how they both juxtaposed and fit together thematically rather well. The music certainly helped with that, and the overall experience was definitely a “rare” treat.
“It almost felt like guided meditation,” I finished.
“Well, yeah, that was the point,” he said, patting me on the shoulder.
. . . Huh. My brain and I mused.