Getting Drunk on Tea Infusions with Montreal’s Underground Connoisseurs
A select group of tea collectors are known to gather in Montreal's best tea shop for an invite-only event called "After Hours." Guests bring their most prized tea and, under the guise of camaraderie, hope to be pummeled into herbal enlightenment.
This article appears in the August Issue of VICE Magazine
Near dusk, once the last customers had been sent off clutching their sachets of Earl Grey and green jasmine, K closed the doors of his little shop in Montreal's Latin Quarter and lowered the blinds. A few of us had already gathered, and by dark a few more trickled in. We pushed six tables together, set two electric kettles to near boiling, and started to unload our haul—foil pouches with Hong Kong addresses, baggies of dried green herbs with scribbled notes. This select group of collectors had gathered in North America's best tea shop for the free-for-all that K officially calls "After Hours." When he described it to me, he said, "Think Fight Club." Everybody brings his or her best stuff and, under the guise of camaraderie, hopes to be pummeled into enlightenment.
We'd taste 15 to 20 teas, doing several infusions of each. K asked whether I'd ever been tea-drunk. A whole leaf releases caffeine more slowly than a pulverized bean, but the more players you add, the more it builds toward a kind of mental gamelan concert. "When you consume a lot of tea, like we're going to do tonight," K said, "it's quite a nice buzz, because you're getting very stimulated and very soothed at the same time."
Tea geeks eschew sugar. Milk is kryptonite to them. They seek out teas of consummate lightness, often coming from tiny "gardens" in places like Darjeeling, Taiwan, and southern China. These rare teas have always simmered on the back burner of caffeine culture, damned by association with Grandma's cuppa. To coffee people, tea is just dirty water. But lately, as more people have discovered Camellia sinensis's 5,000-year pedigree and pharmaceutical charms, it has become an unlikely breakout.
I'd gotten to know K at a UC Davis conference on terroir, the French term for "taste of place," in 2012. He was the tea guy with the crisp English accent and diction so soft and precise that it could be taken for menace. We poured a legendary cabernet from one of Napa's best vineyards, and the Masters of Wine in the group expounded on its "powerful nose" and "essence of cassis." Then K set down his glass and said, "There's a hole right through the center of this one." And we all got quiet and stared at our glasses because, now that he mentioned it, there was a hole right through the center.
I stayed in touch, bought teas whenever I was in town, and every now and then he slid me stuff that was beyond my pay grade. It was exhilarating to get a glimpse of tea's heights, the ethereal aromatics that had no earthly analogues, and depressing to realize just how low on the mountain I'd been toiling. Then K let slip that he'd soon be returning from Asia with some ridiculously rare goodies. "I guarantee that a tasting of this caliber is not happening anywhere else in North America," he told me. I gave him the full puppy dog, and he said I could come, but he banned cameras and other obvious journalistic paraphernalia. The first rule of Tea Club is you do not talk about Tea Club. "Can I take notes?" I asked. "Everybody takes notes," he said.
At K's shop, the tables were scattered with notepads and packets of tea and an insane number of pots—some triangular, some heavy-bellied, some iron, some clay. All were tiny by Western standards. Serious tea is to Lipton as espresso is to Folgers. Fistfuls of leaves are stuffed into elfin pots for brief, intense infusions. After a few hits, your mind does somersaults.
For our first cup, we had a golden Bi Luo—"Snail Spring"—from Yunnan. We set the pots on boats—low wooden boxes with slatted tops—and filled them to the brim with water, then pushed down the lids so water cascaded over the sides and through the slats. It was nice and malty, but everyone withheld praise. It was just a warm-up.
We followed it with a Yiwu made from centuries-old wild tea trees, then white tea, oolong, Hei He Shan from the Vietnam border. The cups were coming every few minutes, and I began to feel my chest opening like a flower.
By the 20th cup, the heavy hitters came out. K staggered us with a chestnut-scented Thurbo Estate from Darjeeling. "So spacious," somebody murmured. Everything was hyper-sharp, like I'd been chewing coca leaves all day. I wondered whether I was tea-drunk.
The oolong specialist at the shop presented a velvety Da Hong Pao from China's Wuyi Mountains, some of the oldest tea turf on Earth. Good Wuyi costs more per ounce than gold. "It's the Holy Grail of tea," he said. "In Japan, Taiwan, and India, we know what the best teas are. We can find them. But China is different. Over a million producers, with the longest history and culture. Some old families still have the best plants and knowledge. There's always some double-black-belt master in the Wuyi Mountains making tea beyond what you've encountered."
The Tea Club usually ends with the Pu'ers. Most teas are best as fresh as possible, but Pu'ers get better with age, making them eminently collectible. In China, Pu'er "cakes"—compressed disks the size of small Frisbees—are bought and sold like masterpieces. This spring, a disk of ultra-rare 1910 Pu'er surfaced in Vancouver at a price of $600,000.
A Gérard Depardieu lookalike who writes the poetic descriptions for K's online catalogue brewed a 1996 Dayi full of musty cave energy.
It drank like a Werner Herzog film. Like all Pu'ers, it's prized ($15 a gram, if you must know) as much for its chi as its flavor. "With great teas, I always look for that special feeling," he said. "Westerners taste from the neck up. But in Asia, they taste with their whole body."
"Nice bib on that one," said K, tracing the chi down his chest.
The Depardieu lookalike, who leads whiskey-tea-pairing seminars around Montreal, broke out a bottle of 2003 Evan Williams single-barrel bourbon and matched it with a 1976 Bai Hao roasted oolong that made us swoon. I was deep in the cave, free-associating like a schizophrenic, dots of meaning stippling my consciousness, and suddenly a theory of "The Leaf and the Bean" coalesced on the cave wall. Tea, I realized, doesn't work like coffee or wine, where flavor is an edifice built from blocks of compounds, like a cathedral, the more complex the more impressive. It's more like a reflecting pool, where you lean in closer and closer, seeing nothing, and then suddenly the wind stops and the ripples calm and you gasp as the whole sky blinks back at you.
I turned to communicate my revelation to my fellow clubbers, but the kettles were already burbling for another round. There were still a few hours of night, and there was so much more tea to drink. As the sun swung hard around Yunnan, firing a trillion chloroplasts on green terraced hillsides, K filled his pot with something rare and potent—I'd lost track of what—and wraiths of steam rose from the clay as we drained our cups and tested one another's limits. Sooner or later, we knew, the light would come.