By Janis Hashe
In what sounds like the beginning of a Zen story, David Wright found himself in the remote Chinese Himalayan province of Yunnan with his mentor, Tea Master Wang Ming Yi. Wright’s interest in tea was longstanding: He and his wife, Marilee, had been selling tea at festivals for years, and he had created a foundation called Chaikhana Tea Culture. But a friend introduced him to the revered master, whose San Francisco “secret tea retreat” was legendary in the Chinese tea community, and Wright began a journey that resulted in several incarnations of the teahouse now known as Hidden Peak, in its fourth year in its current Santa Cruz, Calif. location.
David Wright outside Santa Cruz’s Hidden Peak Teahouse
During this journey, Wright continued his education in the creation of Shou and Sheng Pu-erh teas, which are now Hidden Peak’s specialty, and the reason many visitors become part of the tea community Wright has fostered. Those new to aged (and other) teas can taste examples from the extensive menu at the “sampling counter,” which also serves as the teahouse’s checkout space.
In addition to Pu-erh teas, the teahouse also sells black, green, white, oolong and flowers & buds teas, as well as herbal infusions, all, says Wright, seed-grown, organic and handmade. As with wine, prices reflect the rarity of these examples: Very rare and prized Sheng Old Red String Zhoupha ($425), Shou 7572/2007 ($19), black Two Leaf Black ($6.50), green Himalayan Chi ($9), white Silver Needle Supreme ($7), oolong Ben Shan ($5.50), flowers & buds Old Tree Flower ($9.50) and herbal infusion Chrysanthemum Flower ($3.50).
The tasting counter at Hidden Peak Teahouse
Tea drinkers choose from tea glass tea, tea pot with strainer, Gaiwan (handleless cup with a top and saucer) and Hidden Peak’s speciality, a full Gung Fu tea set, in which a staff member will assist. The tea glass choice is $1.99. For other choices, an individual serving price is listed on the menu. For those who order the Gung Fu Tea Service and share with a group, one cup is included and there is a $5 charge for each additional cup.
A simple snack food menu is available, which includes items such as “Living Spicy Green ‘Tostada’ ”($4.50) and “Nut & Seed Brittle Square” ($5.95). Wright notes he does not feature anything with either garlic or onions, as he feels this masks the full flavor of the teas. Tea drinkers distribute themselves throughout the teahouse and on the patio outside, the Gung Fu drinkers at the beautiful tea tables, which the shop also sells. In fact, Wright says, there are times when sales of the tea tables outpace sales of tea.
The teashop sells selected teas in sizes and prices, ranging from 10 grams of Shou Big Blessing ($4) to 250 g of Sheng Panchen Lama ($500). These are complemented by a diverse offering of tea service items (including some antique services), Asian antiques and curios. Wright offers two-hour “Tea Talks” every other Sunday, during which he explains “the art of tea” and demonstrates the Gung Fu tea set as attendees participate.
Hidden Peak Teahouse’s peaceful interior
Asked about staff training, Wright gives an unexpected answer. “I don’t have a training program,” he says. “I look for a thirst to learn and start them on a self-guided tour.” He does instruct new staff, “If someone asks a question, and you don’t know the answer, don’t be afraid to say you don’t know, and then go and look it up for them” (in the many books on tea available on-site). He encourages staff to think of customers as guests, and treat them accordingly.
Hidden Peak stands apart in another significant way: It is a “digital free” environment. Cell phones, iPods, pads and laptops are not allowed. Even the music that plays softly in the background comes from vinyl records. The only exception is at the counter, which does use modern technology to process customers’ payments.
The outdoor patio
While this might sound like a recipe for disaster, especially in an area that has become a de facto bedroom community for the Silicon Valley, the reverse has proved to be true. Wright refers to it as “digital detox” and predicts it will become more and more necessary and sought after. But “library silence” is not enforced. Tea drinkers chat quietly, children are welcome, and Wright mentions that a wedding will be held at Hidden Peak for two people who met in the teahouse.
As the website (yes, Hidden Peak does have one) points out: “People actually meet, share, talk, drink, read, play—without giving priority to a machine over the living, breathing human in front of them. Imagine that.”
Hidden Peak Teahouse
1541-C Pacific Ave.
Santa Cruz, Calif.