Wednesday, December 9, 2009

South Park's Halcyon Tea: Comfort in a Cup

Most of us take tea for granted. If you're not picky about quality, you can pick up a cheap oolong or Darjeeling on the shelves of your local supermarket. When I first started experimenting with teas, I was just out of college and living in Manhattan. I discovered green tea and bought tins of it at Pier One Imports, back when they sold housewares. I have a palpable memory of sitting at the little table of my little fifth-floor walk up overlooking Riverside Dr., the Hudson River, and toward the Palisades on the New Jersey side. On the table was a little yellow teapot my grandmother had given me filled with a sourish green tea, a clear stubby looking glass mug from one of the Bazaar shops that used be in most Manhattan neighborhoods, and a big bag of potato chips. I don't know why I thought they went together, but this was how I spent hours on weekends in the winter as I reviewed manuscripts from my job in the literary department at the William Morris Agency. It was bliss.

Over the years I'd like to think my taste and knowledge have evolved. For years I've ordered a wide assortment of mostly green and white teas online from Upton Tea Imports and have enjoyed buying teas where I've traveled. But, it really wasn't until just recently that I got the tea education I turned out to have been lacking. And, some wonderful teas to test this new-found knowledge. And, I have to credit James Bowman and his year-old Halcyon Tea shop for that.

The shop is on Beech St. between 30th and Fern, just around the corner from Alchemy, which I learned serves Bowman's teas. Halcyon Tea is modest looking and eco-friendly.

There are shelves displaying all sorts of tea pots and paraphernalia, as well as Zojirushi water dispensers (more about them momentarily), and, behind the counter, row upon row of stainless steel containers holding some of the most fragrant teas you can imagine. At the front of the shop are some comfy chairs around a little coffee table. And, in the back are a couple of chairs along the counter that customers can sit in while they taste test teas.

So, you get the picture. It's not Harrods at high tea. It's a neighborhood retail shop where you can enjoy some tea but really come to buy it. Bowman has about 60 teas at any one time from around the world, including a number of single-origin teas. "I wanted to create a tightly curated list of teas," he explained. "It can be too overwhelming to customers to have too many choices and how do you keep the tea fresh? I wanted this to be as accessible to customers as possible."

You can sit at the counter and chat with Bowman about the types of teas you like -- green, oolong, herbal, whatever -- and with his product list, you can choose some to try. I love green teas so I started with the fukamaishi, which is new to the store. It's a sencha that is deeply steamed -- a Japanese technique that differs from Chinese pan firing, which is done to remove the moisture from the leaves. The fukamaishi has a lovely umami flavor, almost like seaweed. I fell in love. But I still had others to try.

Like matcha. Many Americans are now familiar with this vibrant green powdered form of tea, but may be unsure of how to prepare it. It's actually a lovely ritual to watch or perform yourself. You'll need a small whisk.

Pour hot water on the whisk and into a small bowl. Measure out two scoops -- less than two teaspoons -- of the matcha and push it through a fine strainer into the now warm bowl. This will keep the powder from clumping when you pour about three ounces of hot water -- 185 degrees -- into the bowl. Whisk the matcha and hot water together in an "M" motion, raise the whisk a bit and continue the motion around the surface of the bowl so you get a nice froth on top. Divine. Especially with the two pieces of Sea Salt Eclipse chocolate that Bowman served with the matcha.

Let's talk about oolong tea. If you eat at Chinese restaurants, that's usually the tea you're served. But the oolongs you find at Halcyon Tea are nothing like this. Take the Tung Ting I tried (and then bought). It's a very mild floral oolong from Taiwan. Nothing beats this on a chilly afternoon. Bowman's trick with this tea is to wet the leaves before actually infusing them as a way of priming them for full saturation.

In fact, another great piece of information I learned was that all of these teas -- well, not the matcha, of course -- can be infused multiple times. One of the concerns people tend to have when they buy fine teas is the price. But, in fact, you use different amounts of tea depending on the type, density, shape, and size of the leaf, and you can infuse them up to three times. So, an ounce of Silver Needle Reserve -- a white tea from China -- that costs $8.00 an ounce can actually cost a whole 27 cents a cup. That's less than the Hibiscus Breeze Organic, which sells for $3.75 an ounce, but winds up at 30 cents a cup. Really, neither is particularly pricey when you get down to it. This is something Bowman can explain when you come in.

Something else that can dramatically change your experience with tea is the water temperature and the temperature of the pot and cups. Most of us bring a kettle of water to a boil and submerge the leaves -- set in a filter or in a teabag in a teapot or mug -- to infuse for a few minutes. But different types of teas require different water temperatures and lengths of time to infuse -- from one to five minutes. Some electric tea kettles now have temperature controls and keep water warm for about 20 minutes, but Bowman introduced me to the Zojirushi water dispensers he uses.

Not only can you set the temperature to what you need for a given type of tea, but the water dispenser will keep the water at that temperature for hours. This means you can make smaller pots of tea over the course of a couple of hours rather than a large pot that's no doubt going to get cold. And you won't cook the leaves of a more delicate tea with fiercely boiling water. Of course, the other trick to remember is to heat your teapot and cup with hot water (even from the tap) before you make your tea. That way, the temperature of the infusing tea won't drop once the hot water hits the pot or cup.

I've tried a number of teas at Halcyon Tea. I ended up buying the Fukamaishi, the Tung Ting, the Huang Shan Mao Feng (a Chinese green tea with a subtle nutty taste to it), and the Organic Rooibos Fair Trade. I love that Bowman writes directions for each package, noting how much tea to use with how much water, the suggested temperature for the water and the infusion times for each different infusion. And, if you like, he'll note the teas you purchased so you can buy them again (in case you forget the name).

Halcyon Tea is located at 3009 Beech St. in South Park. On Friday afternoons, you can attend "4 o'clock Fridays" to taste the week's featured teas. The phone number is 619-450-4224. You can also shop online or read Bowman's blog at

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  1. I too learned a great deal about teas and proper tea preparation during a recent visit to Halcyon Tea. Two things really stood out to me - the quality of their teas and their exceptional customer service. James Bowman patiently explained so much about proper preparation and generously prepared several sample pots. I was mesmerized by the simple yet beautiful ritual-like preparation. I came curious about tea and left a new convert.

  2. I find myself going back to herbal (and naturally less caffeinated) tea again, since the usual jolt of caffeine in coffee is not good for my health. After enjoying the red chai from Trader Joe's I find myself wanting more from my tea. Sounds like a trip to Halcyon is in order!

  3. Hi Lorena:
    Halcyon does have some herbal teas. The rooibos is also a great naturally decaffeinated tea and has the big body of black teas. And, I am strictly decaf myself but still enjoy the green and white teas. It doesn't seem to affect me and they have wonderful flavors.

    Thanks for writing!