An epic tea tasting with David Lee Hoffman
It’s a beautifully mild and sunny winter Saturday in San Francisco. My friend and fellow tea blogger Mike (The Tea Letter) and I are headed across the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County, north of San Francisco. On the way, lush eucalyptus groves give way to towering redwoods. It’s a beautiful area and one that I often come to when I go hiking. Our destination is Lagunitas, where a very special tea tasting awaits.
Let me give you some context here. David Lee Hoffman is one of the most storied tea people and his name had already come up a few times during my tea blogging career. He is the subject of a 2007 documentary, “All in This Tea”. I had never met him before, therefore I imagined an aura of mystery and legend surrounding him. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect. Then, by total chance, last December, Abraham Rowe, a mutual friend and former tea taster for Google introduced me to David and recommended I met him. But it was not until late January that I managed to finally pay him a visit.
Mike and I arrive in Lagunitas at 10 am. Adjacent to The Phoenix Collection tasting room and shop, there’s a Tea Museum, a room full of artifacts and one-of-a-kind tea compressed into bricks and other shapes, including a type of heicha (fermented dark tea) compressed into long and heavy poles wrapped in a lattice of flat bamboo strips, which I believe, comes from Anhua County in Hunan Province, China. David is nowhere to be seen but his assistant reassures us that he is on his way. A few minutes later, we sit down at the tea table for a tasting with David. People are coming and going, young and old, locals and foreigners, a very interesting mix of people from all walks of life, everybody is welcome at the tea table. David is down-to-earth and charismatic at the same time, I’m impressed by how easily he is able to make everyone feel at ease.
We tasted 18 teas and - I have to admit - it was a transformative experience; my tea palate will never, ever be the same. Being able to taste so many different teas side by side was a unique opportunity, very educational, and the teas were all of exceptional quality. The water David used to brew them comes from a spring on his property. I encountered many teas I had never tasted before and delicious flavor and aroma notes in all of them. David didn’t lecture us, he gave everyone the opportunity to express their thoughts and listened to everyone with the utmost interest. Are you familiar with the Meizhan cultivar? David claims he is the one who discovered it and saved it from being phased out. It’s a slow-growing varietal which doesn’t yield as much as other varietals but has great taste. It seems to be native of Fujian Province.
Here is the list of the teas we tasted.
David’s Green Private Reserve (Pre Qing Ming Green Mist)
Meizhan Yellow Bud (Wuyi Mountains)
Meizhan Black N.1 (Pre Qingming Honey Orchid)
Fengqing Wild Black (picked in a nature preserve in Yunnan)
Rare & Treasured Black Tea (Wuyishan National Nature Reserve)
Yunnan Gold Supreme (Fengqing Mountains)
Qi Lan Black
Yao Qing Hua Xiang (“Fresh Fragrance”) black tea
Pu-erh Mini Tuocha (The Original “Camel’s Breath”)
Phoenix Mountain Oolong (High Mountain Grown, Special Grade)
Tibetan Mushroom “Shou”
Zhi Ran Tuocha (Menghai Tea Factory, Lot No. 53, 2004)
Large Leaf from Old Trees (Yunnan Tea Imp. & Exp. Corp. 1995)
Pu-erh Cha Wang (Menghai Tea Factory, Last Century Production, only leaf buds)
Yiwu Sheng Been Lot N.2510 (1980’s)
+2 other pu-erhs (sorry, at this point I was too tea drunk to remember to write down their names and I was distracted by the previous tea, which was mind blowing)
My favorite teas were the Pre Qing Ming Green Mist (savory and vibrant), the Fengqing Wild Black, the Yao Qing Hua Xiang “Fresh Fragrance” (incredible flavor and aroma notes I’ve never had in any black tea before - stay tuned for my detailed tasting notes), Pu-erh Mini Tuocha (“Camel’s Breath”, its name might be off putting but it’s a delicious shou with notes of fresh walnuts) and the mind-blowing Yiwu Sheng Been (1980’s) with notes of beetroot and galangal with intense returning sweetness (hui gan) and tea liquor as dark as a shou.
David has one of the most extensive pu-erh collections and he is aging 80 000 Lb of pu-erh in his caves (not open to the public). Did you know that Silk Road Teas belonged to him before he sold it to Ned and Catherine Heagerty?
If you are in the area, I highly recommend The Phoenix Collection Tea Museum, tasting room and shop in Lagunitas, CA.
Read Mike's blog post on this unique experience on The Tea Letter blog.
Disclaimer: This is my honest opinion. I am not affiliated with any of the brands or businesses mentioned.