David Barenholtz has contempt for people who come into his store looking for weight-loss tea. “I tell them to get out," he says.
Apparently this happens often.
American Tea Room's third location is in the Arts District, right down the street from Stumptown. On a recent morning, Barenholtz, its founder and co-owner, is behind the counter preparing a tasting. He starts with the Arya Pearl, a first-flush white Darjeeling. Less than a month ago, it was growing in the foothills of the Himalayas.
“Flush” refers to a tea's growing season, of which there are typically five, as defined by monsoons. "Spring and summer are when some of the most prized teas are plucked,” he explains. Certain teas are available only during this time, making them seasonal products. This is one of them.
When asked if it's single origin, Barenholtz answers, "It'sbeyond single origin,” as he pours a cup. It’s the color of Champagne; indeed, Darjeeling first flush is often called the “Champagne of teas." It smells like freshly cut grass.
Barenholtz confirms that there are flavors of alfalfa and hay, but that underneath there's "a very salty profile, kind of umami-like. ... Its oceanic notes give it savoriness. It's more of a feeling than a flavor."
It's refreshing in the way that water is refreshing, if it were possible to improve H20. It's an undeniably delicate tea. Ironically, the subtlety for which it is prized probably would be its biggest roadblock to popular appeal. It retails at $230.40 for 14 ounces.
A bad wine will get you drunk; gas station coffee will stave off sleep; bad tea, however, is just boring. And make no mistake, most tea in the United States is decidedly mediocre.
Iced tea is how most Americans today drink the beverage. Most of the leaves are chosen for their deep red brew rather than their flavor. Commercial tea is often made with the dust from broken leaves — “fannings” is the technical term.
"It's the stuff that’s swept up off the ground,” Barenholtz says. “It’s what they make Snapple and Lipton tea with. It’s in pretty much everything. It’s the hot dog of the teas. And I don’t mean a Niman Ranch hot dog,” he says.
Since opening his first location in Beverly Hills 14 years ago, Barenholtz has seen interest in specialty tea take off, partly thanks to the hyped functional benefits of tea, which he finds reductive. It's not that he disagrees with these claims; to him tea is chiefly a domain of pleasure, not practicality.
"Only in America, where we’re obese and not lacking in nutrients, does everything have to have a nutritional value. It’s the most bizarre thing,” he says. “People like to make it more complicated. They’re like, ‘What else can it do?’”
Although specialty tea is a quickly growing segment — it has quadrupled in sales from 2004 to 2014, according to tea historian Bruce Richardson — we're still a coffee-drinking nation. Even in L.A., which boasts sizable Asian, Persian and Russian populations, who traditionally drink a lot of tea, it's not something most people want to spend money on, Barenholtz says.
At his Beverly Hills store, Hermès-toting clients will balk at spending $75 on a top-shelf tea, he tells me. “These are the same people that are drinking $600 bottles of wine or going to Eleven Madison Park [in New York] where dinner is $300,” he says.
"There are teas that literally sell for $1.2 million a pound," he says. "There’s no coffee and no wine that even approaches that. No food, even — maybe truffles, maybe saffron. But saffron is what, $10,000 a pound?”
But people don't know how to brew tea, which is a huge roadblock in appreciating its nuances, Barenholtz says. Apparently, it can be burnt. Water temperature and steeping time can vastly change its experience, he explains. "People are like, ‘It makes a difference?’” He looks resigned. “I mean, can you cook a steak at 200 degrees for 75 hours?”
Every packet of tea American Tea Room sells has a specific temperature on the front. You’re supposed to use a thermometer. (Unless you have a $15,000 BKON machine, as they do in the store.) As a rule, water that’s just shy of boiling is better at coaxing out the flavors, according to Barenholtz.
The complexity of a great tea is attributed to terroir and processing. Japanese green teas tend to be more oceanic than their counterparts because they’re never grown more than 75 miles from the ocean. As a result, they’re more seaweed-y, with an umami flavor, Barenholtz says. Also Japanese tea greens are steamed, making them cleaner and more vegetal, whereas Chinese greens may be wok-roasted.
While black teas tend to be more robust, they too can be delicate. He pours me a cup of Golden Yunnan Needle that’s been steeping as we’ve talked. “This is the finest black tea in America right now,” he says. “It won the Chinese World Championships last year."
"Usually with black teas, there’s a slight acidity, especially with Indian teas. This is smooth and velvety, there’s no tannic-ness. I don’t know how to describe it; it’s the Angelina Jolie of teas,” he says. Although unsweetened, it tastes deeply rich, almost whiskeylike. It retails for $390 a pound. Not all of America Tea Room's offerings are at designer price points, but they're decidedly luxury spends. Still, because of the small quantities in which tea is sold and consumed, you can walk away with a five-tea sampler for $15.
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Multiple locations. americantearoom.com.