A cup the size of a thimble was nudged in front of me. Its contents yielded, much to my surprise, a pale yellow liquid that tasted uncannily like heavily steeped dried seaweed.
It was a Japanese green tea from Jasmine Pearl, a Portland-based tea company priding themselves on a plethora of incredible, intricate teas.
“How did you learn about all of this?” I asked our showman/tea bartender. He was busy serving us whatever tea our hearts desired, steeping them in a tiny quartet of pots, pouring them into small ceramic tasting cups. His explanations were loaded with more facts than my brain could process all at once, sounding more like an intriguing lecturer than anything else.
“For the first two or three months, we get extensively trained,” he explained. “I used to be in coffee here in Portland, but… I don’t know, tea is pretty exciting.”
I surveyed the quiet room, described by several polite little signs as a tea sanctuary, where use of electronic devices was heavily discouraged. Tea lined the walls, gadgets filled the shelves. Small tins, held magnetically to an angled frame, held sniffable samples of various teas.
One side held herbal teas, floral and pretty. The tins revealed tiny flowers among a dried forest of green leaves and stems. It looked like potpourri and smelled like perfume.
The other side held black and green teas, their leaves curling in dark, exotic spirals.
Jasmine Pearl offers the unique experience of tea tasting, and you are free to sample to your heart’s content, guided through the experience by a bartender of sorts. Ours was a welcoming, plaid-clad gentleman named Bruce, who was more than enthusiastic when offering us various teas and facts.
“Here, smell this one.” He opened a black tin and held it under our noses. “Straight campfire. Right?”
He was right. It smelled like tobacco and hickory smoke.
“Can I sample the sticky rice one?” I asked. The culinarian in me was intrigued by the idea of a food-nuanced tea.
He grinned and pulled out a little box of tiny pucks.
“There’s an aroma of sticky rice to this,” he said. “Totally different plant than actual rice, though. It smells and tastes like sushi rice, but is completely unrelated. We have a tea made with brown rice, and you’ll get the same flavor note from both teas– this one, though, is it’s own plant.”
He was right. It smelled like sticky sushi rice. It was faintly sweet and starchy. The taste was nearly identical to the smell, and for the first time in my life I fell in love with a tea. It wasn’t overly floral or sweet, it was savory and deep and undeniably starchy. It would warm the soul and fill the belly.
I couldn’t bring myself to leave without a bag full. It was sold in pucks rather than loose leaves. Apparently these leaves can be re-steeped several times, meaning they’re practical and wonderful, lasting a long time provided you don’t let them mold. Plus they’re wrapped in exotic, oriental squares of parchment sealed with a square sticker.
I left, nearly an hour later, full of various teas and newfound knowledge. To visit Jasmine Pearl is truly to experience Portland at its craft-culture best.