At age 15, Sophia Huang regularly drinks vintage teas that are older than she is. And she is always happy to share. “I’ll bring my friends and teachers here, and once they try it, they get it,” she said the other day. “Tea can leave you feeling so happy from the inside out.”
“Here” is Fang Gourmet Tea, a tiny shop that her family owns in the back of a mall on Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing, Queens. For 15 years, it has been the de facto gathering place for the New York region’s most serious tea enthusiasts. And this season brings its premier event, for connoisseurs and novices alike: the annual Tea Tasting Expo.
For the expo, which began in 2009 and runs this year from Dec. 9 through Jan. 7, the normally serene shop bustles as the staff trots out limited releases of Chinese and Taiwanese teas and teaware that draw drinkers from as far as California. Tastings cost as little as $5, but one-of-a-kind teapots, cups and other ceramics can sell for several thousand dollars.
The costly teas and pottery are often unobtainable anywhere else in the United States, even for seasoned drinkers with connections of their own.
This year, a fermented liu bao tea believed to date back to the 1890s has been brought out of storage just for the expo. A tasting is $180 a person; it requires an appointment, and a commitment that a group of three or four will devote two consecutive days to drinking and appreciating the tea’s complexity as it is steeped again and again. Only with repeated brewing — as many as 60 infusions for the liu bao — can tasters fully experience the tea’s flavor and texture, which change with each new pot.
But the expo is more than an opportunity to share rare and newly available teas. It also gives tea devotees, many of whom see one another only once a year, a space to obsess together. “People come from all over the country to fit the expo into their vacation plans,” Edison Su said in Mandarin, translated by a colleague.
Mr. Su, 48, is the director of tea at Fang, which sells an impressive roster of tea and teaware year-round, and offers tastings and occasional classes. Although he has studied the subject for 25 years and traveled regularly to tea fields across China and Taiwan, he still considers himself a student of the leaf.
For him, the expo is more about education and community than about profit. The shop is not a big moneymaker, he said; it is financially supported by jewelry and real estate businesses overseen by Sophia Huang’s mother, Mancsi Litang Huang, the widow of Rong Fang Huang, a Taiwanese immigrant who founded the shop.
And unlike blockbuster conventions like the World Tea Expo (to be held next June in Las Vegas) and the Coffee & Tea Festival NYC (scheduled for March at the Brooklyn Expo Center), the Fang gathering is deliberately intimate. There are no keynote addresses, swag bags or sponsors.
What brings drinkers back year after year is the promise of exceptional teas and conversation with kindred spirits.
“Yesterday I texted these two to tell them, ‘The tasting event is tomorrow,’” said Stella Wei, of Flushing, gesturing to the other women at her table. “We have to be first in line!”
Like her friends, whom she met at the expo years ago, Ms. Wei, 53, grew up in Taiwan, where tea was part of nearly every social gathering at home. Now a customs broker, she brings business associates to the shop as a special treat and icebreaker. “You can’t get these kinds of tea elsewhere,” she said, “but sharing them with others — that’s the most important part.”
Her friend Elizabeth Yang, also 53, added: “It’s difficult to explain to people. But when you come here, you feel honored. You’re drinking with such kind and patient people who share their knowledge.”
Ms. Yang said that each type of tea, from vegetal green tea to brassy roasted oolong, has its own character to explore. Before she immigrated to New York in 1979, her main exposure to tea was her grandfather’s daily pots of jasmine. When she attended her first expo, she was grateful for the chance to revisit a touchstone of her childhood, but also delighted to learn about tea varieties she’d never encountered before.
Newcomers to the expo who are seeking a place to start are often steered toward Fang’s floral and creamy high-mountain oolongs. More-experienced visitors head for the lao cha, aged tea, which Sophia Huang describes as “earthier, with a deeper flavor and feeling.”
While some teas, like snappy green teas and early season Darjeelings, are tastiest within months of picking, others benefit from years and even decades of aging, much like vintage wine, to mellow out their rougher elements and produce thick, velvety textures in the mouth.
For Ms. Wei, 30- to 50-year-old teas are the sweet spot. At this year’s expo, intrepid drinkers looking to dig deeper can taste five vintages of celebrated pu-erh tea, from 2016 back to 1976.
It pays to visit the expo early. On its inaugural morning, Lucy Ma, who comes from nearby Forest Hills every year, snatched up a Taiwanese teapot that had just hit the shelf. Made by the master potter Deng Ding Sou, whose renowned ceramics fill galleries on that island and in China, it’s one of a few pieces from his “rock mineral” series, made from clay unearthed during a catastrophic quake in 1999. The clay glimmers as if studded with silver and gold.
Fang Gourmet Tea is the exclusive American seller for Mr. Deng, who every year ships a new selection of eagerly anticipated pieces to the expo.
As she left the shop with her prize, Ms. Ma turned to the room and announced, “I’ll be back to see Mr. Su soon, to see what other goods I can wring out of him.”
Fang Gourmet Tea, 135-25 Roosevelt Avenue, Flushing, Queens; 888-888-0216, fangtea.com. The expo runs through Jan. 7, daily from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission is free; most tastings cost $5 to $40.
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