More than 7,000 miles away, in the eastern Chinese province of Anhui, known for its sagging clouds and Huangshan Mountains, a Pu-erh tea was harvested for an emperor. Five years of negotiations later, the commodity was hand carried out of the country, and a small amount—only 7 kilos even exist for commercial consumption—eventually found its way into the Park Hyatt Washington Hotel.
If that sounds a bit exorbitant, you probably haven’t spent much time in the venue’s aptly named Tea Cellar. Christian Eck, a certified sommelier who also carries the title of tea specialist, hasn’t tried the 1985 vintage Emperor’s Masterpiece, which costs $300 a pot, and hasn’t seen anyone else order it in the year and a half he’s worked in the Washington, D.C.-based venue. But the fact it’s even on the menu indicates the type of unique operation he says attracts a varied, and growing, fan base. “We have a lot of customers who have been coming here for years who love the tea program, and who, at the beginning, were very much into just tasting the different teas,” Eck says. “But now, they come in, and they know what their style is—they know what they like to drink.”
When the hotel underwent a renovation in 2006, management decided test out the tea-themed direction. Eck says it’s created a signature offering that resonates with members of the community, one that, like wine, offers educational and endless possibilities. There’s more than 37 rare, limited-production, and single estate teas on the menu, traversing remote regions from China to Japan, Sri Lanka, and the Himalayas; covering varieties from herbal, blooming, white, green, oolong, black, and the aforementioned Pu-erh, which costs anywhere from $40 to the exclusive $300 selection. Even more, he says, tea has qualities that are simply unknown to most consumers.
For example, Eck explains he can spend as much time thinking about food pairings for a black tea as he would for, say, a red wine. “When you think of full-bodied Cabernet you think of tannic,” he says. “Same thing can be said for black teas. Black teas are very tannic, giving you the ability to pair a lot of black teas very similar to what you would do a red wine.” He goes on to relate a Japanese green tea to a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and a Chinese variety to American Chardonnay with their comparable “toasty, roasted notes.”
In addition, the Tea Cellar crafts social pairing events, similar to wine dinners, around its tea. Currently, a weekend Sweet & Savory Tea Table is being offered from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sundays. Food items like Cucumber and Dill Sandwiches, Smoked Salmon Sandwiches, Crab Deviled Eggs, Lobster Rolls, Spinach and Mushroom Tarts, and Curry Chicken Salad Sandwiches are featured to stand alongside their many teas, which Eck is on hand to assist with suggestions. The afternoon Tea Table has autumn-themed deserts, such as Cinnamon Chocolate Mousse Cups.
Eck says this kind of event helps introduce patrons to the tea collection. Parties often begin by ordering different pots like they would if they were selecting tapas at a Spanish restaurant. “Customers come in for their first time and are like, ‘You have so many different teas, come on everybody let’s all order something different, that way we can all taste it.’ It’s is a nice change.”
Tea buffs seeking out the exclusive varieties are also frequent guests, and tend to focus on the vintages, origins, and unique backgrounds behind the choices. Eck says his training in wine taught him to always take an elevated interest in his beverage selections. He’s enrolled in local courses about tea and tried to learn from his predecessor. But, one of the great things, he admits, is that the subject continues to evolve. The nuances are extensive, from the temperature to brew tea [white or green tea should be steeped at temperatures closer to 180 degrees not boiling] to loose leaf or bagged preferences to rinsing or not rinsing your leaves. The Tea Cellar has a glass-enclosed humidor, similar to cigars, to control the temperature, humidity, and UV rays as tea is stored and aged. The Tea Cellar keeps theirs right around 55 degrees.
“You never stop learning,” Eck says. “If you’re not learning about the actual teas, you’re learning how to serve them. … There’s an art around the world to making and serving tea. Just being able to participate is a journey.”