Pham and his wife, Thao Nguyen, run Tea Time, a tea room on Ramona Street in downtown Palo Alto that offers food, tea accessories and, of course, more than 100 types of loose leaf tea. The two took up the business in 2006 and teach classes to help people appreciate a cup of darjeeling or sencha the same way they might with a glass of cabernet sauvignon.
"Tea and wine are almost like brother and sister," he said. "They're very similar in the way they're cultivated, harvested and presented in the final cup. The difference is only in the price."
Pham and Nguyen will be teaching "An Introduction to Tea Enjoyment" through Foothill-De Anza College on Feb. 13, April 23 and April 30.
Tea Time's classes include subjects such as tea types and origins, how tea is processed, how to spot good tea, tea's health benefits, brewing the perfect pot and tea terminology.
Pham said people undervalue tea, partly because of its relatively low price, and partly because people tend to lump together loose leaf tea and the more commercially available "supermarket" tea bags, which tend to be lower quality.
The loose leaf tea sold at Tea Time comes from hand-picked young tea leaves, which are higher quality than larger, more mature leaves. Each leaf must be dried and rolled with care so that it is not damaged, because this can affect the tea's flavor. The next step is oxidation of the leaves, which determines whether a tea will be black, oolong or green. White tea undergoes very little processing after harvest.
Even with the best of loose leaf tea, Pham said a few easily avoidable mistakes can bring down your brew. Good water quality and correct temperature are crucial components to well-brewed tea. Pham recommends using only filtered soft water; any impurity, mineral or chemical in unfiltered or hard water can absorb or change the tea's flavor.
Each tea has specific requirements for water temperature and steeping time. Teas with little to no oxidation — such as green tea or white tea — should be brewed at a lower temperature (between 176 and 186 degrees) and more-oxidized black teas should be brewed at near-boiling-to-boiling temperatures (203 to 212 degrees). Water that's too hot for a particular tea type may destroy some of its more delicate flavors while a tea steeped in water that's too cool may not release all the tea's flavor.
Tea enthusiasts don't need to keep a thermometer to enjoy teas at specific temperatures. Near-boiling temperatures can be achieved by boiling water and letting it cool for two to three minutes. Pham's rule of thumb to achieve reasonable temperatures for more delicate teas is to mix one part of cool water with four parts of boiling water.
Pham, who has a master's of science in food science and engineering from Wageningen University in the Netherlands, sees tea as a healthy part of his daily life.
Tea's health benefits are centered around the disputed science of antioxidants and free radicals. Free radicals are atoms with unpaired electrons that can do damage to cells by reacting with DNA or cell membranes. Tea has high levels of antioxidants, compounds that react with free radicals before they can damage cells. Some studies suggest a link between antioxidant consumption and a reduced risk of heart disease, stroke and some cancers.
"Tea has a lot of antioxidants," he said. "You don't have to eat 2 pounds of vegetables to get the same amount as four cups of tea."
Tea was a part of Pham's life when he was growing up in Vietnam and it continued to be even after he immigrated to the Netherlands. Both countries have strong cultural traditions of tea drinking, he said.
Pham had worked in the dairy business for most of his career. But when he and his wife moved to the United States with their two young sons, they decided to get into the tea business, which they felt was both honest and potentially successful.
"The market for dairy in California is satisfied and saturated," he said. "If you look across all the markets in food, tea is the one that hasn't really been touched."
Pham's class was popular last September, bringing 175 candidates and 75 tag-alongs. He says this local trend reflects on the industry as a whole. According to a 2011 report by the Tea Association of the United States, tea sales grew from $.27 billion in 1990 to an estimated $7.77 billion in 2010.
"People have noticed how healthy and how delicious tea is," he said. "The industry is picking up well, although it's a little behind compared to other drink businesses. But the foundation is there."
Even as the industry grows, Pham said he enjoys the personal side of his business and the classes he teaches.
"At the end of class people exchange their numbers or come back to Tea Time together, and I see friendships flowering."
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What: Introduction to Tea Enjoyment
When: 7 to 9 p.m., Monday, Feb. 13, April 23, April 30
Where: Tea Time, 542 Ramona St., Palo Alto
Info: Phone registration and office hours: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday; 408-864-8817, email: email@example.com; www.tea-time.com
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