I love tea. That is, tea in a bag, served with milk and honey. It is the taste of my childhood: simple, homey, reassuring.
So when I received an invitation to check out O5, Vancouver’s self-proclaimed “terroir based, obsessively sourced rare tea bar,” I was excited to see what they had in store.
O5 Rare Tea Bar is not what I expected. It looks something like a laboratory, with an alchemist behind the bar. A wide assortment of clear glass cups, warming elements, clay bowls and teapots line the counter — employed in intricate combinations of warming, pouring and steeping. Not a single bag was flung into hot water.
It turns out my beloved bagged teas are the mass-marketed, crass relatives of what a connoisseur might consider to be real tea. At O5, tea is exalted with the enthusiasm, expertise and respect that aficionados bring to great wines or exotic cheeses.
Outside North America, tea has a cultural cachet that O5 business partners Pedro Villalon and Brian Noble hope to import. Since August, O5 has been serving premium tea to Vancouver, a town better known for its appreciation of coffee.
As Villalon notes, “Drinking tea in Asia is not just about the flavour, but about the experience.”
So he designed his tea bar specifically with the Vancouver client in mind. His shop features a tasting bar where customers are invited to interact with the tea maker, learn tea-making techniques and sample tasting flights from 20 varieties of tea. “The technique can be replicated at home,” Villalon assures me.
He wasn’t always a tea hunter. A chemical engineer by training who worked a decade in advertising, he fell in love with tea after traveling through the remote mountaintops of Asia. The tea sold at O5 is the result of a personal relationship between Villalon and tea farmers. Photographs of their tea farms and harvesting procedures flicker against the back wall as a reminder of the close alliance between O5 and their providers.
I tasted the Taiwanese Oriental Beauty tea — leaves of which are bitten by cicada buds while growing. This causes the plant to change the chemistry of the leaves, resulting in a sweeter, milder taste. Of course, I can’t help but wonder how they get the cicada bug to bite those leaves, but a little mystery is a good thing. This light amber tea was gentle and peachy, and had a rich tasting profile with no hint of bitterness.
I also sampled Korean Balhyocha Noeul, a darker Oolong tea, which smelled like chocolate with a slightly smoky and mysterious flavour, reminiscent of wood and dried fruits As it was late in the evening, and I am overly sensitive to caffeine, I admired but didn’t taste the freshly ground matcha — a fine powdered green tea often used in Japanese ceremonies.
Will I start making tea like this and forgo my beloved tea with milk? To be honest, probably not, although I am considering ditching tea bags for a tea ball. Baby steps, right?
As Villalon says, “The only thing everyone agrees on is they know the right way to make tea and no one else does.”
05 Rare Tea Bar
2208 West Fourth Ave.