The Rituals of Tea Tasting

Tea is not really my thing. I’ve been a coffee drinker since I started drinking Italian espresso and cappuccino in my teens. Every now and then I’ll have a typically English cup of black tea with a little milk and sugar or perhaps a peppermint tea in the evenings to help me digest a huge meal. On Saturday though I had a surprising and enlightening experience into tea culture and the rituals of tea tasting that opened my eyes to a whole new world.

Friends who live in Joo Chiat had told me of a wonderful tea tasting they had at Phoenix Hill Tea Merchant. Being one who is always on the lookout for new experiences, especially those that involve something to do with my taste buds, I was keen to learn more for myself. Having recently connected with the lovely @CharlesYap and knowing of his penchant for the rituals of tea tasting I knew he’d be keen to join and I also extended an invite to @9VSKA, his girlfriend and my beautiful friend H. I rang Phoenix Hill in advance to check whether we needed a reservation but the enthusiastic Julie said no and that we should just come along on Saturday.

Phoenix Hill Tea Merchant

The shopfront is inconspicuous enough, it’s on Joo Chiat Place along with several other specialty food shops. The neatly arranged shop is home to a variety of loose leaf teas as well as various paraphernalia associated with the rituals of tea tasting. I probably spent half an hour just browsing at the beautifully wrapped wads of tea, delicate Chinese tea pots and cups and the fascinating tea trays that are used to capture water run off from a proper tea tasting ceremony.

We were greeted by Julie and Steven, the delightful owners and hosts at Phoenix Hill. I’m not sure there are two people in the world as passionate or charismatic about the rituals of tea tasting, tea culture and general knowledge of tea. They are extraordinary. And so hospitable that you felt as if you were in their home chatting about tea and all the rituals and facts that are associated with the centuries old traditions of tea tasting.

Tea Tasting

Although Charles, K and Y were way ahead of me and H on experience and knowledge of teas, Julie started us all off with the basics. We were taught about using particular types of pots, cups and devices to brew tea. We learnt never to let your tea steep for great lengths of time and that most tea is really quite low in caffeine. Julie showed us how to use a Gaiwan (the small pot with a lid that is used instead of a teapot to brew the tea) and that we should always drink tea hot. We learnt about the detoxifying properties of Pu Er tea, about Oolong Tea, Green tea and Red tea.

One of the most interesting teas we tried was from a bamboo plant. The baby leaves have hot water poured on them and produce a unique, nutty flavoured tea that is light and cleansing. One of the things I also loved was that Julie and Steven appreciate all forms of drinking tea, noting that different cultures and different traditions appreciate tea in different ways. None are right, none are wrong, they’re just different.

The History of Phoenix Hill

During our time with Steven and Julie we learnt of how their passion for tea took them to China where they have purchased 100 acres of tea plantation in an area known for its superior Oolong tea. They visit once per month to ensure operations and quality are kept to the highest levels. On their land is a tea tree that is over 1,000 years old and has been declared by the government as effectively a national treasure. Julie and Steven are passionate about the region and the purity of the water and air in Shantou, Guandong province and I have to say they’ve inspired me to travel there. The pictures they have of the region look pristine and their stories reminded me that China is not all about rampant consumerism and blatant abuse of the environment in favour of mass cultivation.

Visiting Phoenix Hill

Phoenix Hill is open every day of the year except Chinese New Year. Julie and Steven will welcome any interested tea drinkers into the shop and take you through a tea tasting depending on your preferences. They also host a private room that can be booked for up to eight guests for $200. This space would be ideal for a business meeting or a group who are interested in learning more about specialty teas. Julie and Steven have astonishing knowledge they’ve built up over decades of tea drinking and through their ownership of the plantation in China and they are a true font of knowledge. I’m going to nominate them as National Treasures

So we sniffed and sipped and swirled away our afternoon, for three and a half hours to be precise, gaining some small appreciation for the rituals of tea tasting that have emanated over thousands of years. The experience was eye opening and informative and the passion from Julie and Steven was contagious. If you’ve ever thought that tea is just tea I suggest you take a trip down to Joo Chiat Place and let Julie and Steven convince you otherwise.
Phoenix Hill Tea Merchant
32 Joo Chiat Place, Singapore, 427756
phone +65 6348 7172

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