PETER LUONG has created a serene oasis for those who step into his just-opened door at 2120 Sutter Street, the new home of Song Tea & Ceramics. Soft music plays. Comfortable chairs are arranged on cozy rugs near bookcases and neat white canisters line shelves along one wall, with labeled drums of teas in rows toward the back. Ceramic vases, pots and teaware are scattered strategically throughout the open space. Browsers and customers are offered water or tea while they wander about the shop.
“This is intended as a place to showcase a nice collection of tea and teaware,” says Luong, “a place where people can come in and feel comfortable to learn about different teas, to understand what’s special about them and to hear the story behind each one.”
Luong also confesses to “a personal love” of ceramics. The teaware offered in the shop — teabowls, teapots and storage vessels — is made by noted Taiwanese artisans, and now he is working with a ceramicist in Oakland to design and produce a local line.
Tea is in luong’s blood. His family owns Red Blossom Tea Co. on Grant Avenue in the heart of Chinatown, where he was a buyer for 10 years.
“But here, I wanted to do something more quiet and considered in an environment away from the high tourist area,” he says. “I always wanted a local neighborhood business, with customers I know who would come in anytime just to say hello.”
Luong spent from March through May of this year in China and Taiwan, curating a collection of 24 high-quality teas to offer in the shop, concentrating on many that are rare in the U.S.
He’s a knowledgeable teacher, patiently and excitedly explaining the differences among growing regions and cultivars. In the future, he hopes to host group lessons in the shop.
When brewing, Luong explains, the water must not be too hot and the leaves should not be steeped too long — although there is “more forgiveness” in high quality tea.
Green teas are the most misunderstood, he says. Those who dismiss them as lacking flavor likely have tasted tea gone stale from sitting in teabags on shelves, or shipped in containers kept at ruinous temperatures. Luong says he circumvents these problems by air-shipping teas or encasing them in temperature-controlled containers aboard ship.
Song’s offerings naturally include some of Luong’s favorites:
• Zhu Ye Qing is a green tea harvested in Sichwan, with consistently sized leaves — a hallmark of a high-end tea. It’s a bit pricey: $50 for two ounces, which brews about 30 servings. The tea comes from a small harvest, is hand-roasted and then carefully combed through. Fans appreciate its even taste and long slow finish.
• Alishan Zhu Lu (two ounces for $31) is a golden-colored light oolong that settles on the palate with a long creamy aftertaste; the clustered leaves unfold beautifully in the brewing.
• Old Tree Yunnan Red (two ounces for $22) is what many traditionally think of as black tea; the complexity in the taste comes from a crop that has been aged — much like wines made from old vines.
Comfort is key while sipping and learning, Luong emphasizes, and he hopes to accommodate both newcomers and seasoned aficionados. He personally shuns tea strainers and shudders at the thought of adding milk or sugar, but insists: “We don’t want to be snooty about our product. The more friendly and helpful our staff can be, the better.”
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