Ever since I picked up tea as a hobby, there has been an inherent problem. No one else was really into it. My real life friends humored my off-kilter pursuit, and even came to me for recommendations, but – for the most part – it was a geek-ish lean that was entirely solitary. If it weren’t for social media outlets like Tea Trade or Twitter, my tea talk would’ve descended into monologues and murmurs. While connecting with friends of the leaf from far-flung locations had its appeal, the more tangible social connection was missing.
Enter an unassuming, mild-mannered guy named David Galli.
I had associated with him a bit on Twitter. Our palates for Chinese black teas were about the same. I hadn’t made the connection that he was a fellow Portlander until a couple of months into our tea talk. Around the same time, I also associated with a fledgling group-to-be called The Portland Tea Enthusiasts’ Alliance. Turns out that David was the founder/”Head Cheerleader” of the group. Yes, I know. I’m slow.
At around the same time, when I finally put two-and-two together, a promoter friend of mine also linked me to the Alliance and another tea enthusiast. Well, that settled it. I had to meet this self-proclaimed Head Cheerleader. A meeting of the steeps was already in the works, as David had contacted me about a greet-up and exchange of teas/thoughts. We agreed upon Smith Teamaker as our destination, since he’d never been. I was looking forward to going there with someone other than…er…myself.
We were treated like philosopher kings by the co-owner and Tea MC alike. Among the many wares we got to sample was a black tea blended with Douglas Fir tips. It tasted like concentrated Christmas. I so desperately wanted some. Unfortunately, it was only available through Eddie Bauer. Yes, the retail chain. The “Good Morning” blend – as she called it – also came paired with another tea; the packaging looked like a tea fancier’s happy meal. It was that awesome.
At the end of our sipping, the co-owner gave us a brief tour of the operation. Out of the two years I’d frequented there, I never wondered what their Wonka factory looked like. It was spectacular. They even had a break room with its own koi pond. It was the best kept secret in Portland, I thought. (Except that I outed it just now…oops.)
Duly sated and overly-caffeinated, David and I agreed on another meet-and-greet for an unspecified time in the future. The insecure side of me thought I had “regurgitated” my tea talk rather than conversed – like years of pent-up hobby-ing was brought to the forefront in one sitting. It was also oddly refreshing to encounter someone who had me stumped on tea trivia. Example: I hadn’t realized how uninformed I was about oolongs from Wuyi Shan. He had acquired more tea knowledge in a year than I had in three.
Roughly four days after that successful meet-up, plans were made for yet another. This time, it was to involve a slightly larger group – an informal gathering of like-minded folks interested in a fledgling tea group. The location? Smith Teamaker again. I had no argument with this.
I was the first to arrive. Traffic had actually been on my side on the trek there. The Tea MC (Tiffany) waved a “hello” and wondered how many others were destined to show. I honestly had no idea. My exact reply was, “Somewhere between three…and five?”
The second to show was Danyeke, a friend of the same promoter folks I mentioned earlier – a fellow writer and a female Lapsang Souchong drinker. David arrived soon after. A well-rounded Renaissance gent – Kevin – showed up some ten-to-twenty minutes later. Another kindly guy also made a brief appearance but ducked out to get back to work. Tea MC Tiff started us off with a unique taster flight. By unique, I mean it included two single estate Assams…and a PINOT NOIR BARREL-AGED BLACK TEA!
(Sidenote: Yes, it was as awesome as it sounds. Yes, there will be a review forthcoming.)
Our second dig-in was of Smith’s Yunnan Dian Hong, Brahmin’s Choice, a Darjeeling first flush (Marybong estate), and a Keemun Hao Ya B. All brewed to the peak of smoky perfection. These were also the first teas of my day…and technically, they were also breakfast.
We ended up staying at Smith’s for two hours – waxing poetic about tea, astrology, origin stories, fiction, nonfiction, and different countries. It was more well-rounded and camaraderie-filled than any tea outing I experienced up to that point. Rarely was there a moment of awkward pause. Again, the insecure part of me hoped I wasn’t too bombastic a blowhard in real life as I was often considered online. But rarely did I feel that way.
Tea is – by its very existence – a beverage of contemplation, but there is a social element to it as well. I hadn’t really experienced that. For once, I wasn’t the lone steeper in the room…and it was quite wonderful.