tea

The Northwest Tea Festival

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Finding community, education,
and inspiration in the teacup

tea

PHOTOS AND STORY BY TARA AUSTEN WEAVER

 

They show up early, before the doors even open—men and women of all ages, a few children in tow. The line snakes away from the Fisher Pavilion in Seattle Center towards the fountain and there’s a hushed excitement to the crowd, an anticipation. You’d be forgiven for thinking these people have come to see a favorite band or a theater premiere, but they haven’t. They’re lining up to taste tea.

The Northwest Tea Festival began as a response to a challenge. In 2007, noted American tea authority James Norwood Pratt visited Seattle and challenged local industry professionals to commemorate the 400th anniversary of tea being introduced to Europe from China. The tea festival, which took place for the first time the autumn of 2008, was their answer to his challenge.

“The whole purpose of the festival is to educate,” says Julee Rosanoff, co-owner of Seattle’s Perennial Tea Room and a founding member of the festival, “to teach people what is out there and the variety of tea. Our goal is to present as much information as possible.” The festival does all that. Over two days each October, Fisher Pavilion teems with tea aficionados, retailers, authors and authorities, and those who are starting out but curious to learn more. There are demonstrations, lectures, tea tastings, classes, and blendings. Visitors can discuss Taiwanese oolongs, learn about tasting etiquette, and discover the recipe for a perfectly moist scone.

“The idea is to expand people’s horizon as to what tea is,” explains Doug Livingston who is married to Rosanoff and in charge of programming for the festival. “We get people whose only experience is supermarket bagged tea, and there is so much more out there. In America, in some ways, iced tea is the one thing that really took hold. But the industry has grown up and gotten much more sophisticated.”

Tea appreciation in America has become more sophisticated—it is often compared to wine. With both beverages there are growing regions spread across continents, distinct terroir, and flavor profiles that may change from year to year due to growing conditions. Among connoisseurs, first flush harvests from certain tea estates are greeted with as much anticipation as new wine releases from fabled vineyards. Also, as with wine, tea can be intimidating to those just starting out.

That’s why the festival looks to present the widest spectrum of tea available—from proper British tea service and flavored teas, to Chinese aged pu’erh and Japanese and Korean tea ceremonies. There is a look at culinary applications— cooking with tea, and pairing tea with chocolate—as well as historical and cultural perspectives, and entry points for attendees at whatever level of experience they may have. You can sign up for an introductory Tea 101 class, or take a sommelier level intensive workshop with industry experts Norwood Pratt and Devan Shah. For a festival that is relatively small in size, it presents unparalleled opportunities to taste and learn.

Though education was the primary goal for the festival, community has become an unexpected side benefit. In bringing together local merchants, teachers, and importers, relationships have been strengthened and connections made. “The festival gave a venue and a method for us to come together,” says Rosanoff, “it gave us a common purpose.”

“When I opened Perennial Tea Room in 1990,” she explains, “there were three shops that opened that year—ours, Teahouse Kuan Yin, and The Teacup on Queen Anne [now selling exclusively online]. There were providers in the International District serving the Asian community, but we didn’t mix much. Some of these people I would see at national tea events, but we’re so busy running our own shops. Now we’re connected by putting this event together; there’s a camaraderie that has come from that.”

Roberta Fuhr participated in the festival the third year it was offered as an attendee. “It was much smaller then,” she says, “but there were so many classes and training about tea all over the world.” Fuhr was inspired to take professional tea training and ultimately left her job as a banker to start a tea education company in Issaquah called Experience Tea. She now serves on the organizing committee for the festival.

“I really enjoy watching the delight in people’s faces as they discover this drink so many of them have dismissed their whole life,” Fuhr says. “With the festival we have people who get dragged there by their spouse or their friend and then they discover this thing they never knew about. It’s really about connecting to the world—tea helps bridge culture.”

“Tea is the second most popular beverage in the world,” points out Rosanoff [the first being water]. “It’s changed and adapted to different cultures and that’s what is fun about it—to see Korean tea ceremony and Japanese tea ceremony next to each other.” The festival has also offered classes in Taiwanese Wu-Wo tea ceremony, Chinese gaiwan teacup brewing, and the culture of yerba mate.

Whether it is the steady buzz of caffeine through the pavilion, or the combined enthusiasm of 2,000 tea drinkers who find themselves surrounded by others equally passionate for the beverage, but a good-natured excitement prevails throughout the weekend. Tea merchants, both local and international, offer samples, brewing implements are for sale— some beautifully crafted—and advice and opinions are not in short supply. A remarkable joie de vivre is present; it feels more like a party than a trade show.

“It’s really not competitive,” explains Fuhr. “The festival is inclusive in a way I haven’t seen elsewhere. It’s not about promoting any one business; we want to empower the consumer. It really is about people getting excited about tea.”

Norwood Pratt is understandably pleased with the festival that has grown from his challenge, now in its eighth year. “The Seattle region is leading America’s tea renaissance from the front,” he says, “and the Northwest Tea Festival, the nation’s oldest, has inspired other communities nationwide to start tea festivals of their own.”

He’s not exaggerating either. After participating in the Seattle festival, noted tea importer Devan Shah started the Los Angeles International Tea Festival in 2010; Vancouver started a festival of their own in 2013, after seeing the Seattle festival in action; and the tea community in Portland is looking at doing something similar. Others have come from further afield.

“We had a woman come one year from Kansas City,” says Livingston, “she went home and started a tea festival there.” For a region known for coffee, the tea culture in Seattle is strong.

“Nothing could be more sociable than a tea fest,” says Norwood Pratt, “especially this one—bottomless cups of the best teas from around the world and a chance to meet local and international purveyors and producers. No pleasure is simpler, no luxury less expensive, no festival more exhilarating.”

They’ll be lining up at Fisher Pavilion this October, as they do every year, teacup in hand, waiting to taste, to learn, to connect, to explore the wide world of tea.

 

The Northwest Tea Festival
October 3rd (10am to 6pm)
October 4th (10am to 4pm)
Fisher Pavilion, Seattle Center: admission $10; $15 for both days. Some workshops require signups in advance.
nwteafestival.com

Tara Austen Weaver is the author of Orchard House: How a Neglected Garden Taught One Family to Grow. She writes the awardwinning blog Tea & Cookies and is a confirmed tea drinker.

TEA 101

What is tea?

Tea, by definition, is a steeped beverage made from one plant species: Camellia sinensis. What we know as different kinds of tea (black, green, white, etc.) comes entirely from how the leaves are processed after they are picked. White and green teas are not oxidized; oolong tea is partially oxidized; black tea is fully oxidized; and pu’erh is an aged and fermented green tea. If a tea does not come from Camellia sinensis, it cannot be considered a “true tea.”

What about herb teas?

Herbal infusions, such as peppermint, chamomile and rooibos, are hot beverages made from steeping the leaves, flowers, bark, or seeds of different plant species. We call them “tea,” but they really aren’t (in some countries the term “herbal tea” is not allowed on packaging). These herbal infusions are also sometimes called tisane.

What is matcha?

Matcha is a ground tea leaf made from a specific shade-grown cultivar of the Camellia sinensis plant. It traditionally comes from Japan. The tea leaves are first finished as a green tea and then carefully and slowly ground by stone to a fine powder, which is then whisked into hot water as part of the Japanese tea ceremony. The powder is also used in culinary preparations.

Black tea was most likely a mistake

Originally the Chinese created, revered, and enjoyed only green tea; the other types of tea evolved as they traded with explorers and merchants around the world. Legend has it that black tea was a mistake—it was oxidized and considered ruined, so the Chinese were happy to export it.

Loose leaf vs. tea bag: which is better?

Many people’s experience of tea starts and ends with the tea bag. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but most tea bags are made with what is called “fannings” or “dust”—tiny, broken pieces left over from the tea sorting process (fannings refer to the size of tea that can be moved by the motion of a fan; anything smaller is dust). These particles give a fast infusion, but the flavor is considered one-dimensional by many when compared with whole-leaf tea. Additionally, tea in bags is often of lower quality. There are some bags available with whole-leaf or higher quality tea, and you can purchase empty tea bags to fill with the tea of your choice.

Tea all around the world

We often think of tea as coming from traditional tea-drinking countries: China, Japan, India, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan, but Camellia sinensis is grown all over the world. Kenya produces tea, as does Hawaii, and Argentina. Tea is even grown here in Washington. Sakuma Brothers Farm has been growing Camellia sinensis in the Skagit Valley since the late 1990s and sells their green, white, and oolong teas through their website. Tea bushes are available for sale at the festival, for those looking to start their own backyard tea plantation.

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