New Leaves

W hen I stopped by Savvy Tea Gourmet in Madison, I had a feeling my tea-drinking was headed for a paradigm shift. In their sunny store, owners Phil and Judy Parda loaded me up with information and seasonal selections to take home. “Spring is an exciting time of year for tea,” says Judy, “because a new crop is coming in. Tea is like wine—the taste varies a bit by year.”

I’d been in a serious chai phase, so when I opened the first package and shook out the slender, slightly fuzzy curved leaves, change was indeed in my palm. Hand-harvested and sun-dried in early spring, the aptly named Silver Needles (Bai Hao Yin Zhen) brewed up to a barely-there yellow with an equally subtle flavor of micro greens.

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There was nothing micro about the next option, Best Monkey (Tai Ping Huo Kui), another hand-picked spring tea. The dark, flat, four-inch-long leaves and buds became flexible and bright as they steeped. Hinting of baby asparagus and carrots, the broth felt more like a silky soup than flavored water. This “viscosity” or “mouthfeel,” Judy Parda says, “is from the tea particles and nutrients floating in the broth.”

My next choice, Kukicha—a combination of short stems from the Gyokuro bush and sencha, a shade-grown, steam-processed green tea—also featured a distinctive thicker mouthfeel. Following the instructions to not steep it for more than 30 seconds produced a vegetal broth the color of an unripe pear. This was my favorite tea, I decided—until I tried the Iron Bhudda (Tie Guan Yin), a jade oolong. In hot water, the tightly rolled leaves unfurled to 10 times their original size and smelled like a bouquet of gardenias.

By this time I was feeling the “clear calm” Phil Parda says is typical after imbibing, but I had one more to try: the Golden Needle (Dian Hong Jin Zhen). The orange-gold leaves brewed up into a full-bodied honey-colored liquid that tasted both sweet and savory with a suggestion of chocolate.

Available from Savvy Tea in amounts from sample to bulk ($4-72), steeping directions are printed on each package, including the recommended water temperature. (If you’ve ever disliked tea due to bitterness or astringency, it’s probably been brewed too hot.) Because these teas are meant to be steeped multiple times, one portion can last for a day, giving the pleasure of shifting flavors and aromas, as Adrienne Su writes about in her poem, Oolong:

From strong to weak, a single cup
can carry me from waking up
to the mild hush of the bedtime snack.
Fresh hot water brings it back…

Savvy Tea Gourmet
121 Samson Rock Dr, Madison (map)
Tues-Sat noon-6pm, Sun noon-4pm
(203) 381-8666
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Written and photographed by Heather Jessen.

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Heather Jessen is a poet and writer who likes asking questions. She’s in awe of the educators, artists and social workers who’ve helped New Haven kids and families during the pandemic.

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