While visiting family for Christmas outside of Sarasota, Florida, I naturally brought my own tea along. Even so, at one point I really needed to get out of the house. I searched the Internet for tea in the area, not really expecting to find much; maybe there was a coffee shop with a good loose tea selection somewhere around. Much to my surprise, I found a listing for a place called “The Tea House” that looked promising, on Foursquare of all places.
Confused that I didn’t see a matching entry on Yelp or anywhere else on the Internet, I called the number listed and spoke to a very nice woman who assured me that they did exist (and had for two months) and were indeed open. The few photos I saw on the listing showed some classy large Chinese tea tins, which made me hopeful, and supposedly they had some vegan snacks too, which made it definitely worth an expedition.
I’m very happy I went! The owners, Jill and Tony, have created a wonderful oasis of tea in a old house in what appears to be a cool little corner of the city (there’s a handful of other independent shops around the area). They even have a cushioned platform seating area complete with a slew of moroccan lamps. It’s the kind of place I feel instantly comfortable just walking inside. Soft lighting, candles, and pleasant music drifting around the worn wooden furniture. Their menu is really filled with options, and although more than half of them didn’t appeal to me (tea snob that I am), I had definitely seen three bing of Puer when I came in that I was dying to know more about. Also, just seeing Puer displayed at all is, in my opinion, a really really good sign when visiting a teahouse in the West since there’s plenty of places that don’t even know what it is. There were also small cloth bags filled with mini tuo cha (small bowl puer) and some matcha whisks. Clearly there was more going on than I could discern from the items on the menu (The Tea House has opted to list all their teas with English names only, which all-in-all is probably a better way to lower the bar to entry into tea knowledge).
The menu listed only a couple of Puers, without a lot of identifying information, but it turns out that asking questions was the right direction to go. I discovered that, although the Puer I saw on display was not available for drinking in-house, they had recently acquired a case of various bing (cakes or 饼茶) and zhuan (bricks or 砖茶) from Yunnan that hadn’t yet made their way onto the menu. I opted to try a 2007 (or maybe 2009; my notes are not the best) Shou bing (熟饼茶) that came highly recommended by Jill. It had a rich, thick body and a hint of fruitiness that made me think oddly of oranges, although that could just have been the knowledge that I was drinking Puer in Florida. I examined the leaves ahead of time and they looked medium-sized and consistent. I really need to improve my reading of Chinese, so unfortunately I wasn’t able to discern any more information from the label.
We were given plenty of leaf and extra hot water (in the cutest elephant pot I’ve ever seen) to easily sit for an hour or more. Jill apologized for the lack of a sharing pitcher (we ended up using another teapot) and explained that they had been ordered but not yet arrived. I have a feeling that I was one of a very small number of customers that would want one anyway. After we had enough infusions and had started to feel at home, my wife and I ordered a pot of a 2012 Sheng (生茶) whose leaves looked quite beautiful. Again, I didn’t get a ton of information about the cake, but I can at least write about the taste. It was surprisingly mellow for a young Sheng, without much of the cedar aroma that I usually associate with such tea. Instead there was a dry woodiness that made me think more of a green tea or perhaps a mao cha than an aged Sheng. It was good, certainly, but I suppose it probably needs a few more years on the shelf.
“The Tea House”, by the Sarasota Tea Company (it turns out they do have a Facebook page) is definitely somewhere I’ll visit again when I’m in the area. From what I heard while there, some local tea aficionados are already regular customers and have started private tastings of some of the mini tuo cha they sell. I think Jill and Tony’s already large selection will continue to grow and evolve as the good folks of Sarasota and Bradenton learn more about the mystery of the leaf. The US needs more good tea houses, so I hope if you’re in that corner of Florida, you’ll stop in and sample a cup yourself.