"Here, taste this," says Imen Shan, proprietor of Tea Habitat. "This" is a cup of cattelya orchid fragrance oolong, in its fourth brewing. It tastes lush and overwhelmingly organic -- the sort of humid, heavy florality that hits your face when you walk into a greenhouse full of blooming orchids. "This is from a 400-year-old tree," she says, "so the trees are full of all the minerals from the soil, and all those substances make it into the tea."
She hands over another cup. "Now this is from the child of the last tree you just tasted. It tastes younger, doesn't it? Fresher and little less . . . wise?"
This is the next level of hard-core Chinese tea appreciation: dan cong oolong. You know how there's single-barrel bourbon and single-cask scotch? Well, this is single-tree tea. This means that every cup of dan cong you drink has been brewed from the leaves of one particular tea tree on the slopes of Phoenix Mountain in Guangdong. Each old dan cong tree is known, named, carefully tended and loved for its own peculiar character.
And America's only specialist in dan cong is right here in Southern California: Tea Habitat, a hidden jewel of high Chinese tea connoisseurship. It's in a Rancho Palos Verdes shopping mall, across from a T.J. Maxx.
Roy Shea, tea writer and regular customer, says that the quality and breadth of Shan's dan cong stock is unique in the Western world. "She's probably the best vendor for dan cong teas outside of Guangdong," Shea says.
Shan is owner, advisor and host. She's a bit of an obsessive, which shows around the shop. The paintings on the walls are hers. She collects orchids, and a few of them decorate the shop. There's a roaster in the corner, where she roasts her own tea. She makes her own wine. She even grows her own jasmine, for her jasmine tea.
The heart of her store is an ever-changing selection of about 30 varieties of high-grade dan cong. The majority of her dan cong trade is done via her website, www.teahabitat.com; most of her walk-in traffic just wants iced tea or something. They're all missing out. Shan's teas are superb, but the true treasure is the chance to drink tea with her.
Owner as teacher
Guided tastings and flights are what you want; Shan's tea knowledge is enormous, her brewing technique impeccable. She's studied with a tea master born and reared on the slopes of Phoenix Mountain. She knows the histories of particular trees and genetic lines. And her sensitivities are incredible; you can develop your palate just by sitting next to her, tasting and listening.
The thing about dan cong teas is, despite their rarefied status, they're not hard to appreciate at all. They're intense, radiantly beautiful teas. They have their mysterious depths to plumb, but they're also very direct teas, with obvious texture, fragrance and a clear, sensuous beauty.
These are powerful teas. Honey Orchid Fragrance dan cong is glowingly sweet and floral. Eight Immortals dan cong is low and warm, full of rich maltiness with a cut of copper, and the strange smell of citrus. One tree's tea tastes like fresh ginger flowers; another tastes like perfectly fresh mackerel sashimi. And Cattelya Orchid Fragrance dan cong feels like drinking a greenhouse.
These dan congs aren't flavored or adulterated in any way. This is pure tea leaf, named for some similarity in their natural flavor, noticed and named by some long-departed Chinese tea aficionado.
Each has its own texture, too, as you'll quickly learn if you do any tea tasting with Shan. There are three qualities that she seems to care about in equal proportion: aroma, flavor and texture.
The textures vary, but there's often astonishing substantiality and muscularity. There's an oiliness and almost chewiness to some of the teas; others are crisp and tingly, like sunshine on your tongue. Wild Hong Yin is so dense and thick, it feels almost like there's a tea tree root thrusting its way into your mouth.
These aren't teas that you brew once and discard. Even the cheaper dan cong -- called commercial grade -- can be brewed about three to five times before they tap out. But the real stuff, the single-tree stuff -- called "old tree" dan cong -- can go for 15 to 20 brewings, constantly evolving, constantly throwing out new smells and tastes. A warm, savory tea can suddenly become sweet; the smell of ginger can transmute into the smell of jasmine; mineral flavors rise and fall.
"The evolving of it, it's like old films," Shan says, "like when it was slow enough you could almost see it frame by frame, moving."
The high-grade dan congs may seem terribly expensive -- most of them float around $30 for a 1-ounce bag -- but loose-leaf tea is deceptive stuff. That bag will yield about 10 scoops of tea, so if you brewed each scoop only once, your exceptional tea would still cost only about the same amount as a cappuccino.
But since each scoop of the high-grade stuff can be brewed up to 20 times, over the course of many days, dan cong turns out to be one of the great bargains in the culinary world.
Reading the leaves
And that's all just from one scoop of tea. With Shan at the helm, you can taste the same trees from different years -- this year's harvest, last year's harvest, the harvest from two years back. Unlike green teas, dan cong wants a little aging. Younger leaves are a little more lively and vivacious, older leaves mellower, smoother and deeper.
In Shan's opinion, dan cong leaves peak after about a year of aging, with a balance of fresh, lively bursts, and the mellowness and complexity of age.
And then you can taste the same genetic line of trees, in near-ridiculous detail. You can taste a genetic line at different ages -- a 400-year old tree, its 100-year-old child and its 50-year-old grandchild. You can taste the same genetic line from different elevations, and have Shan explain exactly why what you're tasting comes from a particular weather pattern.
Shan loves dan cong above all other teas for a lot of reasons. "They're from Canton," she says, with pride. She's from there, too, though she came to California at the age of 15.
And she loves the variety, the fact that, in one mountain, you can have so many flavors, so many aromas. Even across a single year, a particular tree's tea will change completely. "That variety, those movements, it never ends. This tea . . . you can't really put it down in one spot. There's endless possibility."
But most of all, Shan says, is the balance. "Dan cong has a perfect balance of femininity and masculinity," she says. "The tea itself appears very feminine. It has the nice aroma, it reminds you of a perfume, or a delicate flower. That's the feminine part. But the tea itself is very strong and wild. It marks its territory on your palate. That's the masculine part. It's very yin and yang."
For all her knowledge, Shan is quite humble. She won't press her knowledge on you -- though she'll give it if you ask. She'll chit-chat about Los Angeles, or her old obsession with orchids, or local restaurants, or nice picnic spots. She's perpetually pleasant -- she understands that taking tea is a social experience and that beauty is best experienced with good companions.
But beneath her casual style is the firm heart of a tea perfectionist. She has strong judgments about which teas are better made in a yi xing clay pot and which ones in a gaiwan -- a traditional porcelain covered cup.
Watch her brewing technique -- she takes the water exactly a moment before it comes to a rolling boil, pours it at a precisely controlled distance. The hot water hits the lip of her gaiwan spiraling down the sides, and sets the leaves spinning and rolling.
"You don't want to pour the water right on the leaves," she explains. "You'll scorch some of the leaves, and it'll be uneven."
Shan is both humble servant and sharp-eyed judge, like those old, hard-line sushi chefs. She'll serve you anything you want off her tea menu, but she's watching you. If you show yourself to be sensitive and sincere, then she'll break out the really good stuff.
But she's not a snob. She can get a little angry at people who pretend tea knowledge without the chops to back it up, but she's completely open to anybody who shows a sincere love of tea.
She'll teach you, as long as you're willing to learn (though if you ask for milk and sugar in your tea, you might get thrown out of the shop).
But most of all, she wants you to love tea like she loves it. "There's a transcending level of this tea," Shan says. "It's a very personal, life-altering experience. Drinking it, it makes you feel like you don't belong to this practical world."
"What will I be when I die?" Shan asks. "Maybe I'll cremate myself and have myself buried under a young tea bush. Then in 50 years, my essence will be in the tea. Imagine my bones nourishing and feeding a tea bush. . . . I call that the ultimate devotion to my tea."
Tea Habitat, 21B Peninsula Center, Palos Verdes. (310) 921-5282. www.teahabitat.com