Pity the poor tea drinker. In a society filled with sleek coffee bars serving their brews to the masses, and sommeliers with "master" titles holding wine tastings in fine restaurants, where do tea aficionados turn to revel in their drink of choice?
That’s a void Byron Goo, owner of the Tea Chest, is attempting to address. His solution: the fledgling Hawaii Tea Club.
Goo and his tea-loving friends decided to find like-minded folks through social media, venturing into the worlds of Twitter and Facebook. These are not familiar places for Goo, but he’s found them to be an effective way to get a discussion started and spread the word.
The first event the friends organized, an oolong workshop a few weeks ago with an internationally renowned expert, drew a crowd of about two dozen. Goo considers it a decent showing for a first gathering, and he’s encouraged.
"We had a great cross section of interest," he said. "There was one man who always buys Lipton from Foodland. He told us he sees so many different teas on the shelves, he wanted to learn more. There was a woman who was visiting from a neighbor island and decided to come. More than three-quarters of the people had never tasted oolong before."
Goo said that while online communities are great, one purpose of the club is to provide a benchmark for what quality tea tastes like. That requires face-to-face gatherings.
|THE TOPIC OF TEA
>> At around 50 cents a cup, high-quality tea is less expensive than soda because it can be infused many times. A good oolong, for instance, can be infused six to 12 times.
>> Make iced tea with the last couple of infusions, which will be weaker.
>> Growing environment accounts for about 30 percent of a tea’s flavor, while about 70 percent is attributed to the tea master.
>> Use your senses to assess a tea’s quality. Are the leaves uniform in color, texture and cut? Good tea should look fresh and have a sheen. When you smell the tea, think of what it reminds you of — is it floral, fruity, nutty? A good tea balances flavors of sweet, salty, bitter and sour.
>> Though bitterness often has a negative connotation, in a quality tea it contributes to a smooth, satisfying flavor.
>> When infused, a high-quality tea creates a halo around the perimeter of the cup.
>> Caffeine from tea has a different effect from that of coffee. Caffeine molecules in coffee are broken up, which means they enter the bloodstream faster and can cause caffeine highs and crashes. Caffeine molecules are whole in tea, which means its “pick-me-up” effect is more even-keel and longer lasting. As a result, no crashes.
"The club has a high emphasis on education and experience, so you cannot only talk about tea, you’ve got to experience it," he said. "Tea is so broad. It’s like 30 years ago with wine. There’s the intimidation factor — where do you start? … At the tastings, it’s sort of like you’ve got your buddies on your left and on your right. You’re struggling, but it’s OK because you’ve got others going through the same thing as you."
For tea fanatics, the club is indeed like coming home.
"It was quite exciting to find people with the same interest," said Dick Mills of Kalihi Valley, who’s been enjoying tea for 10 years since learning about it from friends in Asia. "There was a lot of camaraderie. You step in the room knowing you have the same interest and everyone can just enjoy themselves."
Kakaako resident Shawn Boyd was a student at Tokai University in Kanagawa, Japan, where he was introduced to green tea at a lecture he attended for class. By the time Boyd returned from Japan in 2007, he had developed a deep love of tea. Today, though he still occasionally drinks coffee, tea has replaced all soft drinks in his diet.
Boyd said a tea community exists in Hawaii, "but it’s underground, just a group of friends." Now he’s enthusiastic about helping Goo nurture the growth of the club.
Goo estimates that while 70 percent of tea customers are women, many tea enthusiasts are men.
"The vocal attendees at the oolong workshop were men," he said. "It’s like golf or computers. Men like the technical information. For women, tea is more about the social aspect."
Goo said he once taught a well-attended noncredit class at Kapiolani Community College titled "How to Throw an Afternoon Tea Party." His students were women.
"It had nothing to do with tea. It was all about the concept of the afternoon tea," he said. "In Hawaii we have a culture of ‘talk story,’ and tea falls right into that culture."
It is that social aspect that fuels Janice Churma’s love of the beverage.
"My girlfriends and I enjoy afternoon tea," said the Chinatown resident. "I’m very social, and I am the one always organizing outings."
Churma said she has been enjoying mostly herbal tea since a visit to London in the early 1990s, and it’s become an integral part of her lifestyle.
"What I like about tea is tasting all the different flavors," she said. "I like the social aspect and the food that goes with it, like pastries and finger sandwiches. Tea is a nice complement to food.
"It’s nice to share with friends and nice to have at home. In the morning I start my day with herbal tea, and it’s relaxing and calming at the end of the day."
Churma gathered three friends for the tea club event. She said she enjoyed it so much she will attend future gatherings.
"There were a lot of people knowledgeable about tea, and it was interesting because of their enthusiasm," she said.
If things go as Goo hopes, and the tea club is a lasting success, it will contribute to a more educated population of tea drinkers.
"Like anything else, the more times you taste tea, the more benchmarks you can create. I have tea sent to me (at the Tea Chest) every day, and I try to taste as many as possible," he said. "Students of the leaf never can drink all the tea in the world. The subject goes on forever and it’s changing all the time."
Goo suspects Hawaii’s tea community is up for the challenge.
"I’ve been thinking since the first meeting that people are hungry for culture. People are even offering to help us — I feel like the community is starved for this."
Connect with Hawaii Tea Club:
>> Email email@example.com.
>> Facebook at www.facebook.com/theHawaiiTeaClub
>> Twitter at twitter.com/HawaiiTeaClub
>> Read the blog, www.HawaiiTeaClub.blogspot.com.