Steeped in tradition

Expat builds community through Chinese tea tastings

Pu'er tea leaves, an ancient, fermented Chinese tea. Photo by Natalia Nazarova.

Junyan Xie reminisced about her nights in China with a warm smile. After dinner, she used to sit in her mother's tea shop and neighborhood friends would drop by, coming and going as they wished. It was a nightly routine -- sitting around a table, sipping cup after cup of tea, talking about their lives.

"That was interesting," she said. "I love to hear people's stories."

This social bonding over tea is what she sought to bring to her new home in Silicon Valley. Xie, who moved to the United States to attend graduate school at Northwestern University and is now working in tech, started hosting tea tastings to introduce others to traditional pu'er tea from China and share the experience of connecting through an ancient tradition.

Pu'er tea, a special variety of fermented tea from the Yunnan province, is aged and has a long history in China, much like wine and whiskey in the West. It's also popular for social events in China. The idea is to "bring the new and old together," Xie said.

Xie invites anyone interested in traditional tea to step into her modern, Scandinavian-style Menlo Park home for an intimate tea tasting experience.

Over the course of two hours, guests sip tea out of small glass cups, seated at a communal table set with clay teapots and light snacks. (Traditionally, pu'er is regarded as a luxury tea and is not paired with food.) Xie offers four types of pu'er tea from over 150-year-old tea trees.

A recent tea-tasting session began with a 12-hour cold-brewed white pu'er tea, which Xie served from a large glass jug. The jug can be refilled with water to keep the tea going for about a week.

During the hot pu'er tea tasting, Xie carefully brewed four types: white, black, raw and babe lime with ripe pu'er tea. Each had a distinctive color, taste and smell. The more a tea is processed, the darker its color, she said. The quality increases when the pu'er teas are aged properly. Unlike commonly seen loose tea leaves, pu'er teas are dried and pressed into a ball shape to facilitate fermentation and storage.

To brew each tea, she placed the leaves in a yixing clay teapot, which is small with a purple- brownish hue. The specific type of porcelain it's made from is ideal for brewing pu'er tea; it retains heat, prevents burning and the density of the clay helps air flow better, Xie said. She then poured boiling water through the tea for about 30 seconds and threw out the first batch of water to "wake up the tea."

"Clean the tea," she instructed. "Even if it's organic, it will have dust and all that."

Afterward, she poured another batch of hot water into the teapot and steeped the tea for 15 seconds. Using wooden tea tongs, she placed thin, white tea cups onto wooden tea coasters embellished with intricate flower designs and gently poured out the freshly-brewed tea, filling around three quarters of the cup.

The tea can be brewed around 20 times, she said.

While the white tea has a refreshing scent and subtle taste, the raw pu'er tastes slightly bitter due to fermentation. The bitterness is followed by a hint of "sweetness in the throat," Xie said.

"Like caffeine, it gets rid of (a) tired feeling (and) makes you very refreshed," she added.

Then there's the ripe pu'er in babe lime tea, in which the pu'er tea is placed inside of a premature lime, picked in Xinhui at six months old.

Throughout the tasting, Xie talked about the history of Chinese tea, how to evaluate quality and brew tea properly, and what draws her to tea. She's especially touched by the way ethnic minorities in the Yunnan province have tended religiously to the tea trees for thousands of years.

In the two months since she's started the tea tastings, Xie's guests have included a diverse range of people, from startup employees to doctors to couples who share stories about how they met. One husband booked a recent tasting as a surprise for his wife. Although the guests typically don't talk much initially, the tea eventually works its magic as everyone around the table gets to know one another better over cups of tea.

The tasting is $28 per person. For more information, go to airbnb.com/experiences.

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