Tea merchants too often emphasize the “merchandise” in their ventures with gestures and marketing to promote sales instead of a greater understanding of tea. The Toronto tea shop, Tao of Tea, knows what to focus on.
When you venture into Tao Tea Leaf in Toronto’s Yorkville neighborhood, proprietor Tao Wu’s foremost interest is serving tea prepared exactly as you wish. His approach is service before sale.
He is seated at the rear of the store at a traditional Chinese table when I enter, surrounded by kettles and burner, tongs, scoop, strainer, and gaiwan with pitchers and porcelain cups delicately ornate on his carved gongfu tray.
In greeting me, he quickly establishes my taste in tea (he has a selection of more than 130 and extensive herbals as well). He then fetches samples of a loose leaf likely to match my request for a naturally citrus oolong. He begins the task of preparation with movements that are precise. His manner is attentive, that of a host seeking to please guests seated at his table. On this day seated beside me is Margot Bureaux, a Nova Scotia based tea specialist in town for the Canadian Coffee & Tea Show.
Wu, 29, is a native of Wu Yi Shan in Fujian Province, a fabled tea growing region on the Chinese mainland across the Formosa Straits.
“Wu Yi Shan is known for its poetic landscape an ad a center for oolong and black teas,” explains Wu, who is a certified tea sommelier and second generation importer. His grandfather and father are in the tea business as are two cousins. He runs the shop with his sister.
Every April, Wu returns to his homeland, often accompanied by three to five tea enthusiasts who would otherwise find it difficult to approach growers whose history dates back centuries. Wu seeks out organic teas on his trips and stocks more than 50 in the shop. He knows the often small gardens of the tea masters and is proud to continue the traditions and history of Chinese tea culture.
“Tea has the mysterious ability to bring harmony to mind, body and soul,” said Wu.
His tea won seven prizes in the 2011 North American Tea Championships in several categories. Winners include a delicate pu-erh, a Jasmine green and Da Hong Pao to a dark, large leaf Long Jing (Shi Fenng). The winning teas are sold together in a $10 sampler. His Golden Needle receives five-star reviews online. Prices start at $1.50 to $3.50 for samples with a Zheng He Silver Needle (Spring) White Tea offered at $25 for 25 grams. He also offers a few expensive teas such as a White Moon Pu-erh that sells for $65 for 100 grams.
He first offers a top grade Tie Guan Yin. I notice that Wu splashes a bit on a ceramic toad on the tray.
He explains that Jin Chan is a tea pet, a three legged toad with a coin in his mouth and two strings of coins on his back where the Big Dipper constellation is carved. Made of bright orange clay, it brings prosperity to those who feed it tea, gradually darkening in color until it is a rich brown.
“This one is four years old,” he said. Wu has a sense of humor and once he has made me comfortable, he splashes water on various stones and trinkets. My favorite is the Dungeness crab that turns bright red indicating the water is the right temperature. He also has a hilarious spraying man.
The tea is his focus. A first wash and quick steeps keep him occupied. He knows the right temperature by the rising bubbles, the right steep time by feel. The tea is delicious.
Next, we try the Da Hong Pao and discuss oolongs and proper preparation. He steeps his tea for 50 seconds and immediately pours into a pitcher. His second steep is 15 seconds. His third 20 seconds.
“Depending on the level of oxidation, the tea should be steeped with water at between 93 and 100 degrees Celsius. Oolongs have wonderfully rich and warm flavors that can be lost to an overwhelming bitterness if steeped too long,” he explains.
Since opening the shop in 2009 with his sister, Mingzhu Gao, Tao Tea Leaf has gained a loyal following. His desire to teach the ways of tea includes an online blog and educational workshops.
His latest endeavor is the Toronto Tea Festival which is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 2 in the Appel Salon on the second floor of the Toronto Reference Library (at Yonge & Bloor Street). It runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. He is recruiting speakers that include Bill Kamula, an instructor at George Brown College, the Tea Guild Co-Chair, and instructor in the Canadian tea sommelier program.
This is a hands-on opportunity to taste a variety of teas uniquely and exquisitely prepared by exhibitors; noting how the flavors may differ depending upon place of origin, processing techniques, and preparation styles, he said.
Tickets are $10. To learn more email [email protected] or phone (647) 868-9858. Organizers are seeking volunteers to host the event. Volunteer orientation is schedule for Jan. 25, 2013. Attendance is mandatory.