A tea with the power to unwind time

By Inara Verzemnieks
Published in Portland’s premier gourmet food and wine magazine “Mix Magazine” in April/May of 2008.

I had never heard the term “tea drunk” until I met Paul Rosenberg. Now I can say I know exactly what it means. I’m talking head floating off your shoulders I’ve never felt so good in my life why shouldn’t I run away to Paris drunk. All from a cup of tea.

It’s the strangest thing. Beautiful and unnerving and quieting all at once. And it all starts in the attic of a rambling Portland bungalow, where Rosenberg, 49, a former chef and Asian antiquities dealer, regularly hosts tastings of incredibly rare teas, hoping to expose people to the nuances and poetry of the drink. He specializes in rare Chinese teas and one tea in particular: Puerh.

Picked from Camellia assamica trees- some more than a thousand years old and as thick and tall as Douglas firs – that grow in Yunnan province in southwestern China, puerh tea has developed a passionate worldwide following in recent years, stirring the fascinations of collectors and speculators into heights normally reserved for oenophiles. Some of the older, sought after puerhs can command $1000 a pound.

Just what is locked inside these leaves that inspires such devotion? And it is devotion. In Rosenberg’s case, puerh moved him to launch his rare-tea business from his home- an act of faith in a coffee-centric town. But as Rosenberg saw it, Portlanders love to explore food and drink, and here was a chance to expose them to something they would never likely experience otherwise, something with deep complex flavors, not a lot of caffeine and more than a hint of mystery. Something that didn’t make you feel like you had been “shot out of a cannon”, as he put it.

Rosenberg has spent 15 years at a yoga community on his own search for inner peace, and in his opinion, regardless of your spiritual beliefs, the act of sharing tea is a simple but powerful way to nudge more people toward that elusive stillness, to help them slow down and take a moment for themselves, in a way that doesn’t leave them spun-out or hung-over.

“People are aware that teas have many different flavors. But they’re not aware that teas can also make you feel many different ways.” It’s hard to fully grasp this until you are sitting on Rosenberg’s floor with a cup of nearly 30 year old puerh in your hands, a cat snoozing in you lap, scribbling things in your notebook like, “I feel so light-headed, a little loopy…. should I be driving home right now?” The letters gradually running sideways down the page.

First, a (very) brief history of puerh:

Imagine a tree that has grown for a thousand years in the mountains of southwest China, its roots extended deep into the soil, absorbing all that grows and dies around it, a thousand years of mulching and chewing and feeding. Imagine all that the tree has lived through.

First, discovery by the area’s mountain tribes, who believe the tree’s leaves, when brewed as tea, hold the power to heal. (And which many, many years in the future, hard science will support, linking the drinking of this tea to lower cholesterol and blood pressure, even weight loss. Posh Spice, for one, is reported to swear by this last claim, how’s that for validation?)

By the 1300′s, the discovery has spread and bred vigorous tea trade. Tea roads spring up form Yunnan to the cities of inland China and beyond: Tibet, even Laos and Vietnam. Caravans of pack horses travel hundreds of miles, their backs loaded with tea leaves. Over the long slow journey, the cargo shifts, the leaves become compresses and compacted into cakes. Rain falls on the leaves. The sun warms them.

By the time the leaves arrive at their destination, they have changed-fermented, aged. Unexpectedly, it has made the tea even better. And puerh as we know it today, is born.

These old, wild trees are still harvested today, the leaves dried, and pressed into cakes. But these ancient trees are scarce and growing scarcer still. Demand has caused some entrepreneurs to head into the forests and, rather than take time to harvest the leaves, chop the trees down, to make just a slightly higher one time profit. Demand has also spurred a thriving business in puerh knock-offs. Finding real puerh made from old wild trees is extremely difficult these days.

But here is some, right now, picked from a thousand year old tree, and aged for 50 years. Take a sip. And reflect on something Rosenberg once said: ”When you drink puerh, time is slowly unwound.”

It is amazing to think that some the rarest teas in the world are as close to us here in Portland as a knock on a stranger’s front door. But this is what Rosenberg does. He invites people into his home, to try his teas.

The experience feels a bit like stumbling on the Portland version of a speakeasy, something extraordinary hidden in plain sight. Here you are padding through Rosenberg’s living room in your socks. Then, up a steep flight of stairs, where you emerge, blinking, in what has to be the city’s most intimate tea room.

There is space to seat only about eight people comfortably here. Cushions surround a low table fashioned from a large, old burl, polished to a caramel glow. Glass pots rest on hotplates and the low thrum of boiling water fills the room. There are orchids, candles and freshly cut boughs of cedar, and statues, tapestries and paintings that Rosenberg has collected over the years.

And everywhere, stacked on shelves, in cabinets, there are cakes of puerh, which take on an almost sculptural presence. Among serious tea connoisseurs, Rosenberg is admired for the depth and quality of his collection. A collection that includes teas “that are now fantastically rare even in China”, says Heiner Fruehauf, the founding professor of the Classical Chinese Medical School at Portland’s National College of Natural Medicine, which recently invited Rosenberg to teach a series on tea to its students in spring, as part of the Chinese Cultural Arts series.

Rosenberg has always been fascinated by Asian culture. He grew up in New Jersey, and a young boy he remembers spending hours at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Natural History, admiring the Asian art collections there. He later studied meditation and martial arts extensively.

At the same time he was also fascinated with food, with flavors. He worked as a chef for 20 years, running kitchens at French, Italian and gourmet American restaurants.

Tea gave him a way to combine all his passions. He spent eight years at Portland’s Tao of Tea, a long respected source of tea, both in Oregon and Nationally. In that time he tasted hundreds of teas and served thousands of customers. “I got to see how tea affected people in a beautiful way” he says.

He became particularly fascinated by the way teas could match the moment or evoke a mood. And as he believed deeper and deeper into the world of puerhs and other rare Chinese teas, he also started to feel what he liked to call tea’s “power to shift people.”

In this case it came down to a difficult stretch as 2006 turned into 2007, when he lost his job and scalded his feet with boiling water, which in turn led to an extended period of sitting (much to the cat’s happiness), a marathon of samurai movies and pot after pot of puerh.

That’s when a funny idea started to flit around in his head. The tea-drunk kind: What if I turned my home into a tea room?

On a night not too long ago I attended a rare tea tasting at Rosenberg’s along with his friends Ross Siegalman and Alessandra Dinu, both musicians and members of the rock group Echo Helstrom. Perhaps the word “tasting” is misleading here: These are incredibly thought-out elaborate affairs that stretch on for three sometimes four hours, like a multi-course meal. And yet, at the same time, nothing is planned: Rosenberg offers teas based on the flow of the evening, the responses of his guests.

“He’s like a disc jockey of teas” says Beverly Walton, who works in the curatorial department of the Portland Art Museum and who attended a tasting at Rosenberg’s with one of her friends after reading a piece in The New York Times that mentioned his business.

We began our evening with a Jiaogulan herbal tea form mainland China (referred to by some as “immortality herb”). Poured out in our tiny porcelain cups, it was the color emeralds and tasted like water poured over sugar.

Rosenberg explained he always likes to start these sessions with something “soothing and calming.” When people come in very frenetic from the stress of their day,” he said, “this will take them down a notch, so they really don’t have to think about that part of their life for the next few hours.” We tasted a high grade Japanese sencha, light and grassy and sweet; a Taiwanese mountain oolong, grown on just a few acres by a single farmer, which tasted of flowers: followed by a 25 year old oolong, rich and earthy with hints of toasted honey that made my lips buzz. :This is like drinking good scotch for hours, or a cigar.” said Rosenberg, “It’s very relaxing.”

And then, Rosenberg began to bring out the big guns. “The good tea ,” he called it. “Right,” replied Seligman- at the beginning of the evening he described himself as someone who normally ”just can’t turn off,” but with each successive cup he had to begin to repeat with increasing fervor that he could not believe how relaxed he felt – ”because this has all been Lipton?”

There was an oolong rock-tea that costs $100 an ounce: a wild tree floral puerh that Rosenberg described as “an adolescent running up and down my palate,” and which moved Seligman to proclaim, “I feel so present now, I don”t know, I might just leave my job or something!”

Among puerh aficionados, good puerh is judged not so much by taste, “but what it feels like in your body, “says Fruehauf of the School of Chinese Medicine. (On the biochemical level, puerh is a fermented substance, seething with microbes, stuff that can make you feel looped, but without the toxic effects. From a classical Chinese medicine perspective, puerh’s potency comes from the tea’s Qi – it’s life force – and ability “to open the heart,” says Freuhauf.)

And yet the flavors themselves are fascinating: rich and loamy and pungent, “like drinking the forest floor,” as Rosenberg puts it. By the end of the night, we had tasted teas that hinted of cherries and bark, tobacco and sea air, camphor and lavender, teas thick and viscous like broth.

Over the course of three hours, Rosenberg had served us 14 teas. Sometimes we sat for several minutes without anyone saying a word. And this was not unpleasant, as silence among groups can sometimes be. Instead, the smallest things felt heightened: the sound of the boiling water; the purr of Rosenberg’s wise, Rubenesque cat named Arjuna, who visited us for pets throughout the evening; the smell of the wet tea leaves; the reflection cast in a nearly 80 year old silver pot. And the way the leaves unfurl in hot water, as though they are waking up.

San Francisco-based author and photographer Jennifer Sauer, author of “The way to Tea,” a guide to that city’s tea culture, visited Rosenberg last year, and she described her experience in a way that stuck with me. “it’s almost like a heightened state of reality,” she said. “As if he’s bringing you into a state of meditation, without knowing it.”

All I know is that I did not want to go to sleep that night. Not because I was strung-out. But Because I did not want to stop waking up.


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