The Seven Teas

S teep your tea leaves up to 10 times before discarding them? Chew the leaves? Slurp? We had a lot to learn. 

The occasion was a virtual tea tasting led by Phil Parda of Savvy Tea Gourmet in Madison. Paying $15 each, tea lovers had Zoomed in not only from Connecticut but also Arkansas, Washington and New York to taste seven teas under Parda’s expert direction. He had mailed each of the 14 participants small sample packets and instructed us to log into the meeting with kettles steaming and strainers ready. “Embellishing Your Life with Tea” was the topic, touching upon not only the flavor of the teas we were about to try but also their medicinal qualities and, in fact, an entire lifestyle that Parda and his wife and business partner, Judy, have embraced.

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Parda first discovered green tea back in the early ’70s, attracted to its claim of boosting antioxidants and overall health. “I committed to starting my day with green tea every day,” he recalls. At the time, he worked in the field of injection plastic molding, first for a manufacturer and later as the owner of his own business. He always loved tea and continued to study and learn more about it. But a business trip to China took his hobby to a whole new level. Wide-eyed and out of his element, Parda arrived in the airport and dragged his suitcase past stall after stall of tea. As he retells the moment, “I see the kind of tea that I’ve been drinking, but then I see all these other kinds… I knew there [were] other kinds of tea but nothing like what I’m seeing.”

Over the next 20 years of frequent trips to China, Parda became a tea connoisseur. In 2008, the Pardas opened Savvy Tea Gourmet in Madison with a plan for expansion. Then the financial crisis hit, and they struggled just to stay afloat. A decade ago, they began offering tastings as a way of educating their customers and sharing what Parda calls the “hidden value of tea beyond the cup… There’s a lot more to tea than you might realize on the surface.”

Our virtual tasting starts with the lightest variety, “Silver Tips,” an organic white tea from Nepal that we steep only briefly in water at approximately 180 degrees, well below boiling. “Prepare based on color, not time,” Parda instructs us, telling us to pull the leaves out when the water has reached a pale yellow—best seen through a clear cup. The steam from mine rises with the sweet smell of honey and freshly cut hay, and Parda invokes the foothills of the Himalayas. “In essence, you are really tasting the place,” he tells us. From oenophiles, he borrows the word “terroir,” referring to the unique qualities imparted by a particular growing environment.

Understanding the character of a cup of tea is about much more than flavor, Parda says as we follow his lead and slurp in order to “agitate the volatiles.” “It’s about our ability to perceive, observe, appreciate and enjoy what the tea can do for us,” he says. “Many tea drinkers don’t go into that space because they don’t know to.” That “space” includes a visual appreciation for the broth and the leaves and gratitude for those who worked hard to grow and harvest it. Then there’s the aroma of the leaves, both dry and infused, as well as the texture of the tea—some is more viscous in the mouth, for example—and the sensation of its warmth in our cups and in our bodies.

Surprisingly, Parda has us set aside the Silver Tips leaves so we can steep them a second time, something I’ve only ever done in desperation and with poor results. But this is good tea. The first time, he suggests, steep lightly. The second time, the tea will yield up a new—often better—flavor. I find this especially true for the third sample, Makinohara Fukamushi Sencha, from the Makinohara Plateau in Japan. This yellow-green tea, which Parda refers to as the “chicken soup of Japanese tea,” has a bitter, spinachy flavor that mellows on a second tasting.

There are other surprises in store. Parda encourages us to chew the leaves of our second taster, a green tea called Bi Luo Chun, or “jade spring snail.” We’re told that the leaves of another, Shui Jin Gui, or “golden water turtle,” are dried with charcoal in a brick-lined room and some drinkers might be able to sense the residual taste of the method.

It’s the last two teas of the afternoon, on the darker end of the scale, that impress me the most. We steep a tea called Gong Ting Shou Pu’er to a deep amber color, and the infusion gives off the intriguing aroma of mint and fish—a combination that sounds less appealing than it is. This tea is made using a composting process, which helps to explain its strange earthiness. “Once you go down this, man, you’re in,” Parda says enthusiastically.

We finish with a dark “Golden Flower” tea named Ralph’s Blend in honor of customer Ralph Guardiano, who happens to be joining us in our tasting. Guardiano’s claim to fame was adding a “hint of orange” to this dark brick tea. The fruity aroma is a delicate accent to the tea’s smooth, floral taste. Both Parda and Guardiano extol its health benefits as well; after he started drinking it, Guardiano says, “my cholesterol just plummeted.”

Throughout the tasting, Parda pulls up slides illustrating parts of the plant, its many health benefits, how oxidation levels affect the type of tea and its chemical elements as well as beautiful photographs from some of the world’s 46 tea-growing nations. Among his tips for tea drinkers is not to oversteep black tea. Whatever kind you’re drinking, steep it at the instructed temperature—always below boiling. Save the used leaves in a plastic bag in your refrigerator, and steep them again and again until they won’t yield the correct color. Finally, drink with awareness and enjoy.

“Our goal is to get our customers to be the most savvy tea customers in the USA,” Parda says, hence the business name. In addition to their Madison shop, the Pardas also operate a small farm in Killingworth, where they grow their own herbs for herbal tea blends. The big dream of multiple locations with fancy tasting rooms hasn’t materialized, but a good life has. “It’s righteous work,” Parda says. “You don’t get rich, but we get to enjoy tea each day.”

Savvy Tea Gourmet
121 Samson Rock Dr, Madison (map)
Virtual tea tastings most Saturdays at 4 p.m.
(203) 318-8666 | sales@savvyteagourmet.com
www.savvyteagourmet.com/tea-tasting

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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