I’m expecting a cake of pu-er tea inside the round package labeled “green tangerine,” but it’s actually a whole mandarin orange stuffed with tea leaves. Lydia Lin, co-founder of the newly opened Chinatown teahouse, Steep LA, said it is made with tangerines at the second of its six stages to maturity and fermented pu-er tea leaves, so that it carries a special fragrance of citrus, daisy, freshly cut grass, licorice and wood.
Growing up in Chengdu, a city near Yunnan famous for its tea drinking culture, I have had a lot of pu-er teas, but have never seen anything like this. Lin said that she handpicked this category of pu-er and brought it back all the way from Yunnan, China.
Chinese tea culture has a rich history and refers to the methods of preparation of tea, the equipment used to make tea and the occasions in which tea is consumed in China. Since ancient times, when tea drinking was regarded as one of the seven daily necessities, tea has been consumed regularly in both casual and formal Chinese occasions, as well as in herbal medicine and in cooking.
These round packages containing green tangerines are in one of the eight glass bell jars, displayed at the center of this modern, cozy tea shop, containing all flavors of teas on the menu. The premium teas in shop come in four classic categories: black, green, oolong, and pu-er, served in three ways: “shaken not stirred,” “cold brewed” and “steeped (kung fu tea).”
Under the section of “shaken not stirred” teas, there is a line saying “Hot/Iced, Optional Sugar and Milk (whole or oat).” However, traditional Chinese tea houses don’t typically offer sugar and milk, as Chinese tea brewing only involves a pot, hot water and tea leaves.
“There are people who have all their tea with milk, you know, in a British way,” said Samuel Wang, the owner of Steep and Lin’s co-founder. “What we can do is to make sure that we got milk with the best quality, so that it won’t sacrifice the taste.”
Despite the option of sugar and milk, the menu and the vibe remind me of tea houses back in Chengdu. Aiming to bridge the age gap in tea drinking demographics, similar tea rooms with a more youthful and less traditional atmosphere are slowly popping up around Asia and on the East Coast.
Now, it seems that Los Angeles will have one to call its own.
“You just do not expect a space like this when you come for traditional Chinese tea,” said Daisy Dai, a graduate student of economics at USC, who has been to Steep several times. “All the furniture and displays in the store, they make me feel like being in a designer’s shop or something.”
Growing up in a tea-drinking household, Dai always has the habit. Her favorite tea from Steep is the cold brewed green tea, one of their more experimental products. The abridged tea ceremony performed at Steep is familiar to Dai; she said it feels like home.
Although Lin and Wang come from different backgrounds – Wang was born in Taipei, but raised in both Taipei and Los Angeles; Lin was born and raised in Guangzhou, the capital of China’s Guangdong province, and moved to the U.S. at 13 – tea bonds them together.
Despite their differences, they both come from families with traditions of drinking tea. Wang’s father would conduct tea ceremonies to treat his guests. Lin learned about tea while growing up in Guangzhou, where people have a custom of drinking morning tea with dim sum. When she moved to the United States, she brought it with her.
“It just happened naturally,” Lin said. “Even though we are so different, as you can tell, we both have a stronger passion for tea that connects us, and we are complementary for each other on our roles in Steep.”
Introduced by a mutual friend seven years earlier, Wang and Lin first met when Wang was a designer and entrepreneur, and Lin was an in-house lawyer for an international architecture firm. They still work in their respective fields. To balance their day jobs and Steep, their passion project, they come in on different days of the week.
As both of them traveled to China for business or personal reasons more often, they visited many newly popped-up tea houses that combined the modern concept of slow-living and the traditional way of drinking tea. Enchanted by the idea of people living busy city lives slowing down to enjoy a cup of tea, Wang and Lin came up with the idea of opening Steep.
In addition to promoting slow-living and Chinese tea drinking culture, Lin and Wang said they want to break stereotypes about traditional Chinese culture and make learning about Chinese tea drinking culture more accessible. They use a simplified, more intimate procedure for tea ceremonies in the store, in contrast to old-school ones presented by a tea-master far away from the audience.
“You know, speaking of 5,000 years of Chinese history, people are easily intimidated,” Wang said. “So we try our best to provide an immersive experience to diminish the distance.”
They deleted complicated steps such as having tea pitcher and tea snifters, raising the teapot to shoulder height to pour, and placing teacups upside down on top of snifter cups. People at Steep make sure only the most important features — temperature and time — are properly controlled.
Steep provides each customer with the opportunity and materials to brew their own tea. I opted to steep green tangerine, the tea house’s specialty. Steeping this tea in-store comes with Steep LA’s modified traditional ceremony. Lin sets up the table with a navy blue cloth, a box of wooden utensils, a tray box with a Zisha teapot and two cups, a beaker, a timer and a large porcelain bowl.
After Lin checked the temperature of the water boiling in a pot, she guided me through the process with an instruction sheet that specified water temperature and steep time for each type of tea. According to the sheet, green tangerine tea is supposed to steep for 40 seconds at 99 degrees Celsius. Then, she warmed up the pot, the beaker and the cups with hot water, Lin explained, “to avoid a shock of the tea that may affect the flavor.”
Though the process may seem intimidating at first, Lin said people come to enjoy brewing their own tea, appreciating it both as practice and as a beginners’ lesson. “We basically show our customers once and just hand it over,” she said.
According to Lin, all their tea leaves and utensils are selected and imported from providers in different regions of China, while the logo and furniture are works of local designers in California.
In addition to their tea selection, Lin said all their pastries are provided by a senior chef in Chinatown in an effort to support local business. This move comes at a time of increasing gentrification in Chinatown. Rising rent prices recently forced two landmark Chinatown grocery stores – G&G Market and Ai Hoa – to close.
On the afternoon of my visit, Lin picked up a set of egg tarts and pork pastries. The egg tart, fresh out of the oven, has a rich taste. I can tell it was made in the traditional way; the crust is crispy and sturdy, not thin and brittle.
Lin served the pastries on a round ceramic plate, with a little bowl of dried figs and jujubes — a combination of American and Chinese snacks.
According to Lin, the majority of their customers are white, and there are groups led by people who are really into tea culture. “We don’t mind if they just want to show off their skills in front of friends,” Lin said. “We are always glad to have people come in.”
Market research indicates that the global tea market is expected to increase by $12.62 billion. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, it’s the promotion of the health benefits of tea and young urban consumers interested in incorporating trendy drinks into their lifestyle that are boosting the demand for tea.
Wang also talked about the shop’s unexpected number of people interested in tea drinking and the tea ceremony. “While we want people to be open-minded and to learn about Chinese culture, we should also be open and learn the changing demographics,” he said.
Open-mindedness and acceptance are part of the ‘slow-living’ philosophy essential to Steep. “In promotion of the idea of ‘slow-living’, we want to make Steep a place of gathering, where people can just come, enjoy a cup of tea and spend some quality time with friends and family,” Lin said.
However, they said they still want Steep LA to be a place for the Chinese American community. “There are a lot of talks for gentrification, and we want to change that narrative,” Wang said. “We want people to realize that Chinese people are willing to come back to Chinatown.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Lydia Lin as in house legal for an international trade company. Lin works for an international architecture firm.