If French Laundry were a tea warehouse, it would be Silk Road Teas. Located In a semi-industrial area in the wilds of San Rafael, the modest Silk Road Tea sign belies the treasures within. You enter into a serene reception area with wood shelves holding fine teapots on one side and a wall-sized map of China that appears to include every province, small town, and body of water on the other side. This is not a vanity map (more on this below).
In back of the reception area are bins and bins of tea. Tea in large unopened cartons with neat labels. Tea wrapped and vacuumed packed. Bins of Oolongs from green to black; bins of green tea carefully wrapped; bins of yellow and white tea. And the fresh, heady aroma of good tea that is soothing and energizing at the same time.
Okay, LTR has a near-obsession with Silk Road Teas. But who wouldn’t? How many tea companies do you know that 1) quietly go about the business of getting the best tea from often obscure and oft quirky tea farmers with great products, 2) keep their focus on fine teas from specific areas of China, and 3) do not sell blended papaya/blueberry/mint/black tea, or any other blends, no matter where the market clock is pointed. Moreover, they have great customer service.
Owned by Catherine and Ned Heagerty, Ned spends an inordinate amount of time trekking through China (hence the map), to remote villages and farms with his translator/guide to revisit and discover the limited high-to-amazing quality teas that are the signature of his company. He has been doing this for years. “Every year we try and meet someone new; but it’s 80% the same people,” he said. After tasting and purchasing , the tea is shepherded every step of way – including repacked and soft vacuum sealed for its trip to the San Rafael warehouse. Think small vineyards and limited edition vintages with extreme quality control. You get the idea. Heagerty take an additional quality control step: Teas are randomly selected and sent to an independent lab to test for purity. (Not surprisingly, all random samples pass with flying colors.)
But the proof of the tea is in the tasting and we sampled some top-this-teas. We began with Zui Gui (drunken concubine right), a low-oxidized tieguanyin oolong, Solidly furled with a rich green color, the first steep was, as described the tea notes, “about aroma.” Understatement! It smelled clear, clean and complex, like a perfume with hidden promise. In this case, you could drink – and taste -the perfume. From the notes: “The second steep, the leaves begin to give up their treasured tastes…” Some teas you just drink; others sneak up on you; this one was both tantalizing and satisfying.
Next sip was a rare Phoenix Bird oolong .
“Gardenia Fragrance,” is an extraordinary single origin oolong by a skilled artisan. The generational owned farm produces a limited supply rarely exported.“This tea grower works as a village school teacher; his wife works in a bank,” relates Ned. When the harvest starts, the school closes down and the work begins. It may not be academic, but it embodies a different education Located in the mystical WuDong Mountain in Guangdong Province,the tea farm is part of an area known as Phoenix Mountains which has been producing oolongs for over 900 years. Many of the teas from this region are rare, prized, and never exported.
A new tea to the Silk Road collection, this tea demands attention. Sip it without savoring and you miss out; pay attention and you detect floral notes of gardenia and tropical flowers combined with the natural minerality of oolongs. Think of drinking the aroma of gardenia with the sense of mountains, sun, and the coolness of a cave. It is wonderful.
Coming down from this peak, we sampled a tea called simply “High Mountain Green.” It should have be labeled simply Green. Grassy, fresh, springily aromatic and greatly appealing. this is a wake-up tea as well as an afternoon eye opener. No surprise: this tea comes from a small family owned farm. You can almost hear a whisper: “No napping on this tea!”
When you drink teas from Silk Road, you sip history -and perhaps a sadly bygone era of doing business. “It’s very traditional,” says Ned. “Sometimes we negotiate for 6-7 hours.”
Until this way of life goes the way of conglomorates and big business, you, the consumer, can benefit. FYI, Silk Road orders come in a stand-alone easy-to-open sealed foil packet that keeps the tea fresh, although you will probably go through a bag before that’s even a possibiity.You can also buy Silk Road in “sachets,” aka teabags. They come in six types, including a decaf green. They are as unlike teabags as the company it comes from.
Oh yes, Silk Road teas can be found in restaurants from the iconic Chez Panisse in Berkeley, famed Slanted Door at the Embarcadero, Absinthe in hot Hayes Valley, the Michelin starred,James Beard anointed State Bird Provision to the well-reviewed and aptly named Outerlands in SF’s Sunset district skirting Ocean Beach.
Order Silk Road Teas and taste for yourself.