Taste Some of China's Rarest Teas at Alhambra's Tea Habitat

Dan cong oolongs present soft and floral flavors without relying on scenting or flavoring.
Dan cong oolongs present soft and floral flavors without relying on scenting or flavoring.
Scott Reitz

Imen Shan’s tea shop, Tea Habitat, isn’t exactly the type of place you drop into for an afternoon cuppa with two lumps and milk. Located in downtown Alhambra, her small retail space is tucked behind a rushing fountain in the same mixed-use development that houses Chase Bank and Al’s Italian Beef. It’s not easy to find, and the gate that grants access to Tea Habitat's courtyard is sometimes locked. If you want to visit, a reservation is required, and you still may have to call Shan's cellphone to be let in.

But securing a seat at her quiet tea table is worth the trouble. Since 2007, Shan has set herself apart from other small tea purveyors by focusing her attention on dan cong oolongs. These partially oxidized teas (somewhere between green and black teas) are harvested from the Phoenix Mountain region of the Guangdong Province in China. Shan carries some obscure pu-ers, a fermented tea that responds well to aging, and herbal and green teas, but the best reason to visit her shop is her impeccable dan congs. Many teas from her collection can be attributed to single trees, and her connections in China have granted her access to leaves that might not otherwise have left their country of origin.

All of her teas are roasted, but the process is subtle, allowing the gentle floral flavors inherent in the leaf to be well pronounced in the cup. An orchid-fragrance version emits rich and heady notes that are strong enough to make you think the tea has been scented with oils or flower blossoms, but it hasn’t. Proteins and enzymes once trapped in the cells of the leaves offer these flavors naturally, and they’re developed as those leaves are processed and shaped. This type of care is rare in the tea industry and is reserved for the most pedigreed base material harvested from farms that are decades — sometimes centuries — old.

Imen Shan uses a lidded cup called a gaiwan to filter carefully steeped tea leaves.
Imen Shan uses a lidded cup called a gaiwan to filter carefully steeped tea leaves.
Scott Reitz

This means you’re going to pay what can seem like an insane amount if you’re not used to shopping for rare, small-batch teas. While you can walk away with some of Shan’s oolongs for as little as $25 an ounce, her Zhu Ye (bamboo leaf) costs $63, and you can spend even more. If this gives you sticker shock, know that just a few grams can be steeped many times, offering several cups of tea, with each cup providing subtly different flavor profiles as the leaves open up and are spent.

The best way to experience Tea Habitat will seem like a relative bargain, especially to newcomers to dan cong oolongs or tea in general. For $25, Shan will sample four of her teas, carefully steeped in her collection of gaiwan (lidded cups) and tiny teapots. Finding dan cong oolongs of this caliber is difficult enough outside of China, but having Shan walk you through each tea, offering tasting notes and steeping tips, is a compelling learning experience for even seasoned tea drinkers.

Shan’s tastings must be booked in advance through her website, but it's worth the trouble, and if you happen to fall in love with any of her teas, they’re packaged in pink boxes stacked on a shelf along the wall. Don’t have a gaiwan or teapot for steeping at home? Shan sells those, too. Under the light of a lamp on a shelf along the far wall, thin-walled porcelain seems to glow from within. With a little practice, you can fill your own space with the sweet smells from far-off Guangdong.

As you wander back to your car, Al’s vent hoods might prove tempting as they spew the scent of sopping sandwiches, but resist. The soft touch of flower petals and fruit trees will remain on your palate if you don’t jar it loose with an Italian beef. That lingering flavor — it can hang around for as long as 30 minutes — is a marker of high-quality tea and a reminder that you’ve just experienced something truly special.

Tea Habitat, 28 S. Fifth St., Unit E, Alhambra; (626) 202-8777, teahabitat.com.

Newcomers will find almost everything they need to steep tea at Imen Shan's shop.
Newcomers will find almost everything they need to steep tea at Imen Shan's shop.
Scott Reitz

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