Flip Flop is the home of one of my favorite tea shops, and the proprietor, Davi-the-Sufi-tea-mystic, was the first to initiate me into the Ways of Pu-erh. Since then I have marched into tea shops across the City and put my fist on the counter and said,
"BRING OUT YOUR PU-ERH!"
The proprietor at the tea shop in Japantown sniffed and said he didn't carry Chinese tea.
I said, "BRING OUT YOUR LAPSANG SOUCHANG" at a recommended tea shop on Clement St. And when the tea salesman brought out a container of tea and raised the lid and my nose didn't register the smell of the million campfires of the Emperor's army spread out in the valley below, and in fact didn't detect the smoke from one tiny dollhouse barbeque, I knew it would be pointless to bother with what passed as pu-erh there.
I never got to pronounce my demands at the Ferry Market tea shop because of the human swarms (oddly, their pu-erh display was at the floor level, under the cashier, and a toddler was handling one of the bricks, which didn't seem like a good omen at all).
Yesterday, Dutch and I were at a tea-buying disadvantage as he is not an Initiate and my nose wasn't working (due to a head cold), but we found ourselves in a bona fide Chinatown. We wandered aimlessly for a while until he spotted a sign that said "tea." We went in, and the proprietess immediately poured for us. The smells and flavors penetrated my virus-clobbered senses. This was a good sign. I told her about our pu-erh quest. She had the wild-orange-rind pu-erh I knew and loved. She had some other varieties, that she immediately brewed for us as well. She extolled the health virtues of it (second only to the legendary snake-oil as a universal panacea) and I told her I had circulation problems. As if on cue, she produced an oolong that was completely enchanting. I am usually not an oolong fan, it generally tastes like any black tea to me, but this one had a depth and complexity that I hadn't encountered before. It was so good, I didn't mind if it didn't cure my cold fingers.
Buying tea is an art in itself. The buyer has to have the right balance of gullibility, openness and a gentle grip on her own aesthetic while the seller should combine the qualities of an honest showman with an authentic appreciation of her wares (and of course, lots of hot tea for the tasting).
If you find yourself in Chinatown, check out Blest Tea, and bring your senses. If you are in Flip Flop, go to Chaikhana.