Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Real Tea Party: Tea Habitat

Hundreds, maybe thousands of Angelenos have LA Times writer C. Thi Nguyen to thank for showing them the way to Tea Habitat. Last summer, Nguyen wrote an amazing piece about a little known tea shop in a Rancho Palos Verdes mall. Tea Habitat specializes in dan cong tea, as Nguyen describes in the article:

This is the next level of hard-core Chinese tea appreciation: dan cong oolong. You know how there's single-barrel bourbon and single-cask scotch? Well, this is single-tree tea. This means that every cup of dan cong you drink has been brewed from the leaves of one particular tea tree on the slopes of Phoenix Mountain in Guangdong. Each old dan cong tree is known, named, carefully tended and loved for its own peculiar character.

I met Tea Habitat proprietor Imen Shan shortly after the LA Times article came out. It turns out that she's quite a Bourbon fan, so I had her over for some Bourbon and she reciprocated by having me over for some tea (FTC Disclaimer: She did not charge me for the tasting).

Tea Habitat is not easy to find. Even with my cell phone GPS, I had to search a bit for it. It's buried under an arch across from a TJ Maxx in a rather large shopping plaza way out on the Palos Verdes peninsula. The shop itself is beautifully put together with displays of tea pots and an antique wooden Chinese tea table in the corner.

Before reading the article and having tea from Tea Habitat, I was one of those people who thought of oolong tea as an only slightly flavored water that was best for slurping down with dim sum, something to grease my gullet for all of those pork buns. Tea Habitat opened my eyes to a whole new world of flavor in Chinese tea. At Tea Habitat, I found teas that were fragrant and floral, like their popular Honey Orchid dan cong, but they also serve teas as funky and earthy as any Islay Scotch. After tasting a 1978 vintage dan cong, my partner described it as tasting like the damp soil under an old decaying log in the forest, and this was a good thing. After several batches (properly brewing dan cong involves making numerous, successive brews to taste the changes from brew to brew), the earthiness receded to reveal a sweeter, more floral tea, a mind-bending transformation. The dan cong teas are not just single tree, they are single season, so you can compare a fall 2008 to fall 2009. The varieties available are staggering. Single tree dan congs cost from $30 per ounce and up, but Tea Habitat also offers tasting flights starting at $10.

In addition to the dan cong teas, Tea Habitat sells herbal and iced tea as well as three varieties of Bee's Family raw Chinese honey: longan flower, lychee flower and the multiple flower winter honey. These are some of the best honeys I've ever tasted, with rich floral notes forward.

Ms. Chan doesn't always work the store counter, but she is an absolute pleasure to talk to and learn from and is always willing to share information about her teas.

Tea or a tea tasting from Tea Habitat would make a fabulous holiday gift. It's more than worth the trek to the outer reaches of the Palos Verdes peninsula.

Tea Habitat
21B Peninsula Center (under the archway across from TJ Maxx)
Palos Verdes, CA 90274
(310) 921-5282

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