Sounds cool, doesn't it, venturing out into the snowy cold of a New York City winter evening, stopping by cozy shops packed full of jars and tins, with herbal remedies mixed with teas from different origins. Or maybe instead visiting a Chinese market basement crammed with all sorts of teaware and tea, or stopping by a trendy cafe-themed shop in a hipper part of Manhattan. I did all that, barely over a week ago now. I got turned around in the subway, getting off at a different stop than I expected, smelled weed while walking the streets, walked by homeless guys sharing bottles, and even had a kind offer for a warm break and a massage from a cheerful and pretty Asian woman (which I turned down). I always disliked NYC on previous visits but this time I started to get it.
I'll stick more to shops, to what I ran across, which is by no means a good guide to what tea is available in New York City. I read background on other interesting places but had very little time to work with, so I visited wherever I happened to make it to. Finding options there wouldn't be difficult, but finding the type of place you really want to visit with the tea you'd love to try is another story.
the munchkins at ground zero, the World Trade Center memorial
Google turns up pages summarizing options, like this list of the ten best NYC tea shops or cafes (their take, at at least), or Foursquare's version, or a list of nine places here, or eight more here. Of course all of those overlap, with some unique suggestions in each. Asking a local enthusiast should be good strategy, and I did that, or checking things like Tea Chat threads, although that one is a bit dated. On to the shops I did make it to then.
Shops I visited
Ten Ren: a Taiwanese tea chain shop, the first place I visited (which I also saw in Taipei the next week, a different story). They tended to sell teas labeled as general types like "black tea;" a bit off-putting. I didn't stick around or buy tea, although of course that doesn't really imply that the tea wasn't good.
Chung Chou shop, Chinese herbs and tea shop
Chung Chou City shop, in Chinatown, Manhattan (website and Yelp page). This is the kind of shop you might drift into walking around, as I did, a Chinese medicine shop with some jars of tea in one section. It's also the kind of place you might be inclined to walk right back out of, but curiosity had me testing out a couple of plain looking black teas, not a huge risk for teas costing around $60 a pound. I tried one; it was about as good as the price indicated, decent for inexpensive tea, perhaps a bit awful for someone accustomed to better. Of course it's still the next level up from almost any tea sold in tea bags, so better than 99% of all teas Brits or Americans drink, and a good value for what it is.
Manhattan Chinatown, with the WTC in the background
Sun's Organic Garden (on Facebook): the first store that showed up on those list references, and also in the Tea Chat discussion. Per a Trip Advisor rating it's #474 of 576 Coffee & Tea in New York City, but I'm pretty sure it should be at the front end of that list, even with some pros and cons. The owner carried one each of about 50 or 60 tea types I've tried (or was that 100, hard to keep track), and a good number I've not tried. A couple of the teas included enough detail on the label I could tell exactly what they were, from which producer, and those were pretty decent teas, but most were just a general reference to a type.
If the owner's judgement in teas is good--who I won't be referring to by name, since I don't know it--then the lack of information is no problem; if not then shopping there might not be worthwhile. Some of the pricing seemed just a little low--which she explained related to them not being organic--but most was right on what a fair price would probably be, for a decent but not exceptionally high quality level of the types.
I'd really have to try the teas to be better informed related to final outcome, but based on trying one of four so far that's promising (which I'll review following). That tea was pretty good, a Kenyan black tea, basic but nice. The owner probably wouldn't want her shop judged by one of the least expensive and atypical teas in it, since there was a general focus on Chinese and Taiwanese teas, with Japanese and Indian offerings, and a mix of others. I also bought a Russian black tea (which I've not tried yet--interesting, but no baseline to work with), and gambled on a couple of pu'ers, a five year old sheng, sold as broken up, and a tuocha of cooked / shou pu'er. The shop carried a lot of herbs too, with the owner offering some limited advice for use. It was nice eavesdropping and hearing her cut off explanations and suggestions where drawing on medical input instead would make sense, not overselling based on guesswork and ancient Chinese wisdom, which would be an easy habit to drift into.
On the whole I liked it; to me it was well worth a look. I got a good vibe off the owner, who seemed a little unconventional in a way that I could relate to, even though she was really too busy to talk just then. Teas were stored well enough, in small jars, so not completely isolating air contact, but not those crazy-sized large jars in some shops that would be sure to ruin the teas. She wasn't open to offering smells of the teas, or ok with people opening the jars, which really does make perfect sense. It was busy when I visited, around 5 PM, and it would be better to stop by earlier in the afternoon to get more time to chat. I'd probably be taking some herbal treatments for mind-fog, bad memory, and early onset of arthritis if I had stopped earlier, but as things stand I'll just tough those out.
New Kan Man Chinese grocery shop
New Kam Man Chinese market tea shop (website): on first glance a tea lover might think that they'd died and went to tea heaven, with a large basement shop space crowded with teaware, vast rows of boxed teas, and lots of jars. Looking closer it's lots of what someone who has moved past commercial teas no longer drinks: boxed loose teas, some tea bag teas, and large-jar stored inexpensive loose teas. It was still worth a look, and another gamble. This time I bought a spare gaiwan ($8, not bad, in a print I like), and a lapsang souchong and peony, which looked a bit rough but might have taken aging well.
new gaiwan test run
I've tried the peony; it's drinkable, but it didn't age so well, so not exactly interesting. The lapsang souchong stunk up my luggage, quickly separated from all other teas, even after being wrapped in 4 or 5 plastic bags to limit the smoke fumes coming off it. I'm putting off trying it but it'll probably go in the bin. If the taste isn't too toxic it might work as a meat rub, but I'm doubting it's actually from pine smoke, just as likely chemical. If I'd not just bought black tea before then and two pu'er in the last shop it would've seemed natural to try those out, or if I liked jasmine pearl teas those might hold up ok to storage.
And really, who would be familiar with commercial boxed loose teas to know what's ok in those? It's better to move past them onto more interesting teas and better sourcing, but it's a normal rookie tea drinker mistake to get stuck in that mode. It took me a couple of years to learn to look at teas in grocery stores but generally never buy them. I still buy an unusual looking commercial tea I expect I'm probably not going to like from time to time and I'm usually not pleasantly surprised, and then I'm challenged by what to do with it. Mediocre tea is ok for making blends, and a little smoke in tea works better for making masala chai than it sounds it would.
T Shop, more a small version of a cafe really
T Shop (website) an online friend in NYC--or is that contact? I don't really know her but she's definitely cool, so it's a shame to not drop a name here--recommended this place, the last I tried to find that day, so I pressed on through a minor blizzard to make it to this last stop. It's always funny when you ask people for directions and they point the wrong way, as someone did in a local shop a few blocks away. It was that kind of outing at that point, really intense, snowing hard, but really I was just crossing a short enough distance headed straight North. Then when I finally made it there it was really a cafe, although they did sell the teas loose, with only two-word descriptions to go by. I kept looking at those few words as if they'd somehow say more to me.
Tea pricing was on the opposite side of the ruined large-jar teas I'd been browsing, some upwards of a dollar a gram. Most was from Taiwan, and I was going to Taiwan in two more days, so paying over $50 for 50 grams of tea just before dropping in on that country would seem absurd. I was kind of stumped.
I bought a Nantou high-mountain oolong, likely not a tea type that would be a favorite, typical relatively lightly oxidized and roasted oolong, but it didn't cost an arm and a leg. It was $20 for 50 grams; normal, perhaps a bit high to some, or perhaps on the inexpensive side for where I was standing. I suppose this is a good place to mention that I'm a bit spoiled by vendors sending me free tea samples (thanks for that!), and shopping for tea on-site in different countries, and by internet options, and by buying tea directly from producers. Not everyone spends every day talking about tea to people in different countries online so I guess most wouldn't have a queue of teas they want to buy from sources in Asian countries in the back of their mind. There's something about a tea being right in front of you, about smelling it or even trying it first, but I tend to avoid the upscale cafes that sell unique teas for high market value here in Bangkok, even if that's the only price range that really unique teas are ever typically sold at.
Really people were supposed to be there to buy a $10 or 20 pot of tea, it seemed, to enjoy the space and the unusual quality level of the tea (presumably), and discuss tea a bit, however that would go. All that probably would have been nice. As it was that blizzard had my name on it; I was supposed to fight it to get back to a hotel and check in with my family, which I did. It was only then that NYC finally clicked for me; things just felt right on that walk. I walked past people that looked trendy and interesting, but still low-key and casual, of course dressed warmly, and past novel shops and bars. This wasn't my world but it had a nice feel to it.
not quite as polished as Singapore or Taipei's subways
So that was what I experienced. I'll add a review of that Kenyan tea at the end here, to shed some light on how random tea purchasing might go. The Chang Chou nameless black tea wasn't so far off, just not as good, and I've not yet tried the rest. First I'll mention a few places that I didn't make it to for completeness, without as much to say about those.
Shops I didn't visit, but would have
Te Company (website): someone mentioned in a Facebook comment that this was the right place to buy Taiwanese oolong, not so much a selling point given the context (visiting there two days later, on the way back home), but it sounded great. Check out this edited tea description, for a tea selling for nearly the same as the oolong I'd mentioned buying, just slightly less:
Royal Courtesan oolong is a relatively recent varietal. It was the silver lining of the devastating earthquake of 1999 in Nantou county. After the earthquake, many tea gardens were abandoned temporarily... Unattended, these tea gardens were attacked by Jacobiasca formosana, the same tiny tea plant insect that provided muscat sweetness for Oriental Beauty. When the farmers returned to their gardens they were disappointed with the harvest, though curious enough to still use that year's harvest to make Frozen Summit. The result turned out extraordinary.
Oxidation level at 40%, a taste description as "rose, artichokes, caramelized sugar, muscat grape;" sounds great. Next time.
Tea Drunk (website): this place also appeared in those best-of lists, some of them, and might be familiar from one of the best known tea bloggers managing there previously (Nicole of Tea for Me Please). It seems as well to leave off guessing about tea offerings quality or value, but I'm sure it's worth checking out, although at an online glance maybe not as worthwhile to a value-oriented consumer. I can appreciate a range of different quality and price level types of teas but my own tea budget is limited; I've got kids, and we spend too much on travel.
Bellocq shop interior (credit their site)
Bellocq Tea Atelier (website): I didn't clarify that, but I was talking about tea shops in Manhattan in those other cases, where I was visiting, and this is in Brooklyn instead. I didn't go so far into reading up on this place but even at a glance the decor theme stands out, I guess something like rustic industrial. It reminds me of a place here in Bangkok (Luka cafe), and of a place I mentioned in an article on tea culture in Mexico (part one is here on TChing; part two isn't up yet). The selection looks good, and a lot of the teas seem back under $20 per 2 oz / 50 grams, versus double or triple that place I'd just mentioned prior (but then tea grade / quality variation is a real thing; I'm not saying it's not).
I probably missed a lot more than that, but these stood out.
Sun Organic "Kenyan black tea" review
I was almost put off by the low cost pricing of a few interesting looking teas but after thinking it through there would be little to lose. The tea isn't organic, the owner's explanation of the moderate pricing, but another few 50 gram lots teas produced with chemical assistance won't tip the balance of my general health by much. On to review.
The tea is nice, of course in the conventional black tea range, not far from Assam or Ceylon. It's not CTC ground-up tea, it's real orthodox tea. The next issue would be which Assam or Ceylon it's similar to, which I'll only clarify by describing the tea, a bit non-specific.
The astringency is fine, with a little edge and dryness but not too much bite. I brewed the tea in a large gaiwan I just bought, Gongfu-style modified towards western brewing, instead of more typically going in the other hybrid-style direction. Tapering off temperature or brewed strength would moderate astringency further, or switching back to more conventional Western proportion and timing, but it's fine as it is.
There's a nice fruitiness to the tea, a citrus on the top end and a raisin / date tone under that, with a middle range a bit towards dark cherry. Those tastes and that astringency dryness work well together. Of course it's a bit earthy as well, or maybe that background effect is better described as light mineral, in addition to the one flavor typically described as malt. Malt really seems to relate to a range of flavors, or maybe two connected ranges, with a version as in mineral intensive black tea, not like the malted milk ball malt in soft Chinese black teas.
If anything that dryness is a bit much, otherwise it would all balance very well. I'm not paranoid about it but that dryness in the explicit non-organic context could start one wondering, but I think it's just the tea, a natural astringency. I also tried the tea with sugar and half and half (after tasting it plain) and of course that astringency dropped out. The fruit worked really well with the black maltiness, almost easier to pick out But the effect also moved towards those milk teas people drink, towards more neutral, just a relatively genuine version, with freshly made decent black tea.
It seemed no accident that the general effect was so positive, as balanced as it was, and that the flavors were that clean, even if taken alone the characteristics weren't so unique. I didn't buy anything that was really supposed to be a great tea at that shop but I'd expect the others will also be quite nice, and perhaps also novel. Shou pu'er in particular varies from complex, earthy, unique and interesting to earthy more in the range of peat / dirt, or even fishy, so it'll be interesting to see how that goes.
sporting a travel beard for that gritty, urban look
I didn't mind so much missing so many options; coming from Asia it's hard to adapt to the pricing that comes with teas being even rarer on the other side of the world, where that rarity and shipping costs and higher overheads can really add to the cost.
I didn't have more than the same type of short visit to work with in Taiwan, on a short stop-over on the way home, but that is closer to the source. It was my first visit to that major tea producing country, and the next story to tell.