Joan Chissus, right, pours attendees oolong tea during the Cascadia Tea spring festival at Floral Hall in Everett, Washington on Saturday, April 15, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Joan Chissus, right, pours attendees oolong tea during the Cascadia Tea spring festival at Floral Hall in Everett, Washington on Saturday, April 15, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

At Cascadia Tea Festival, a sip for everyone

From earthy aged oolong to the dark depths of pu-erh, connoisseurs and newbies alike find communi-tea at Everett festival.

EVERETT — Tea, at its core, is just old leaves. Green, white, black, oolong: they’re all harvested from the same plant. Once picked, the leaves are subjected to oxidation, withering, drying, heating, shaping and beyond, and that’s where the true magic happens.

But watching the reverence with which Gabriel Lukeris steeps and serves a pot of oolong is enough to convince a tea novice that the magic is all in the ceremony. It’s not a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, not ceremonious at all, really — the tea fans watching Lukeris’s process laugh and joke about the “barnyard” notes of certain pu-erh tea blends and muse on the distinct flavor of Everett tap water.

Rowan Ryan-Brock, left, and his brother Willow Ryan-Brock, right, both 4, sip on tea and hot chocolate samples during the Cascadia Tea spring festival at Floral Hall in Everett, Washington on Saturday, April 15, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Rowan Ryan-Brock, left, and his brother Willow Ryan-Brock, right, both 4, sip on tea and hot chocolate samples during the Cascadia Tea spring festival at Floral Hall in Everett, Washington on Saturday, April 15, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

But it’s clear Lukeris, a longtime tea connoisseur and owner of Tea Dive in Bellingham, is steeped in ritual. There’s a delicacy, a reverence in the way he gently unwraps the aged oolong leaves from their faded blue-printed packet. He pours hot water over the leaves in the pot and watches carefully. Lukeris doesn’t rely on a timer to know when the oolong is ready to drink, he just… knows.

Before he serves the fellow tea fans seated around the circular table, Lukeris pours a small draft of the steaming beverage over the clay lotus seed pod seated on his tray amongst the cups. Tea “pets,” like this one, come in all shapes and sizes. Elsewhere in the bustling Floral Hall at Everett’s Forest Park, other tea vendors have pets shaped like frogs, dragons, and the wizened figure of Lu Yu, the ancient Chinese “Father of Tea.”

Tea lovers from all around Western Washington made the pilgrimage to the Cascadia Tea Festival on April 15 to take in demonstrations, try samples and peruse endless tea merchandise from local vendors. Most brought along their own tasting cups.

Tea saucers are displayed for sale during the Cascadia Tea spring festival at Floral Hall in Everett, Washington on Saturday, April 15, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Tea saucers are displayed for sale during the Cascadia Tea spring festival at Floral Hall in Everett, Washington on Saturday, April 15, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Lukeris’s audience now sips the steaming brew from their tiny cups, savoring notes of dried papaya and saffron. The tea has been aged since 1979, when it was plucked from crops grown in the rural Taiwanese town of Beipu. Lukeris notes a particular earthy, stony flavor in the tea, which he attributes both to its long aging process and to the unique terroir of the region where it was harvested.

“I came to tea from the wine industry, and it was kind of a natural fit,” Lukeris said. “There are a lot of parallels in tasting tea and tasting wine, all these tiny intricate factors that ultimately influence what you drink.”

Jessica Campbell, co-founder of Cascadia Tea Events, said those little subtleties are part of why she wanted to bring tea events like this one to the Everett area. The April fest was the group’s second, following an autumn tea festival in September 2022, and Campbell said that first event showed her the power of introducing new people to tea culture at an accessible, enjoyable level.

Mayna McVay, 44, left, and “arts and crafts empress” Chris Naqvi, 51, right, complete the final stages of making a button during the Cascadia Tea spring festival at Floral Hall in Everett, Washington on Saturday, April 15, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Mayna McVay, 44, left, and “arts and crafts empress” Chris Naqvi, 51, right, complete the final stages of making a button during the Cascadia Tea spring festival at Floral Hall in Everett, Washington on Saturday, April 15, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

At the welcome table in the center of the festival space, presided over by Cascadia’s bunny mascot Osmanthus, Campbell offered “new-to-us” teaware and intricately painted porcelain cups for a small donation. The event provided paper cups for those who didn’t bring their own tasters, but Campbell believes having a cup to call your own brings the experience to another level.

“We started this because we want to just share tea with our community,” Campbell said. “It doesn’t all have to be super serious, but if you have a little cup that’s all yours, I think it invites you to sort of consider the tea journey that you’re taking as you sample everything there is to offer here.”

At Whatcom Tea’s stall, you could certainly find a little of everything. Customers sifted through stacks of dried tea in flat, disc-shaped cakes wrapped in decorative paper and sachets of loose-leaf blends. Anais Dawson, daughter of the stall’s owners, expertly guided seasoned pros and tea newbies alike to the blend of their dreams. Peach-flavored oolong and classic jasmine green mingled with rarer offerings like a certain variety of shang pu-erh described by Anais as “electrically bitter.”

Nearby, her father Charles Dawson carefully scrapes leaves from a woven bamboo tube. Known as “10-tail” tea, the leaves have been tightly bound in their wrapping for 13 years. And it only goes up from there — there are 20, 50, 100-tail teas out there, each older and more intricately flavored than the last. Dawson said there is even a hotel in China built entirely from the discarded bamboo containers.

Charles Dawson pours a Taiwanese black tea during the Cascadia Tea spring festival at Floral Hall in Everett, Washington on Saturday, April 15, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Charles Dawson pours a Taiwanese black tea during the Cascadia Tea spring festival at Floral Hall in Everett, Washington on Saturday, April 15, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Dawson has many options for brewing teas at home, which he does at least three or four times a day: Persian and Russian samovars, tea presses, even occasionally a good old-fashioned bag in a mug. But today, he’s demonstrating using a gong fu setup, a traditional Chinese method.

In Chinese, gong fu translates as “done right” or “with practice.” Dawson has clearly had plenty of practice, expertly blooming the 10-tail leaves in precisely heated water. He lets the first pour overflow the clay teapot, rinsing the leaves before starting the steeping process. Tea spills over into the slatted tray on which Dawson’s equipment rests.

“Traditional Chinese tea like this is supposed to be social and messy,” Dawson said. “You’re talking as you brew, you’re rinsing, things spill over and that’s what the tray is there for. It’s an art, but it’s supposed to be a little informal, too.”

When he divides the rich brew among onlookers, he doesn’t neglect his tea pet, a three-legged frog perched on the tray. Tea drinkers traditionally offer a bit of the brew to their “pets” as a symbolic offering, Dawson said, and the frog, who holds a coin in his mouth, is meant to bring good luck to the drinker in exchange. Over time, the unglazed ceramic of the pet will absorb the tea it bathes in, eventually developing a rich glossy shine and a faint tea aroma.

Joan Chissus, right, talks to attendees about oolong tea during the Cascadia Tea spring festival at Floral Hall in Everett, Washington on Saturday, April 15, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Joan Chissus, right, talks to attendees about oolong tea during the Cascadia Tea spring festival at Floral Hall in Everett, Washington on Saturday, April 15, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Glen Bowers, of Seattle’s Crimson Lotus Tea, used a specially built driftwood tea table to brew a sampler of pu-erh teas. These leaves are fully oxidized and allowed to ferment, creating a dark, rich, earthy brew with a animalic smell reminiscent of damp alfalfa hay. Tasters around the wooden table take deep whiffs of Crimson Lotus’s Dark Depths blend, detecting the scent of petrichor or of a walk deep into a dark forest.

The tea is naturally caffeinated, but beyond that, Bowers said it offers the drinker a certain “tea energy.” As he brews pot after pot from the same leaves, the journey into the blend’s subtle notes deepens, and tasters begin to feel a faint glow from within — not a coffee buzz, but something more pure and less jittery.

A former coffee addict, Bowers fell deep into the world of tea after learning there were so many varieties to choose from, each with their own growing region, aging process and social history that combine into a unique beverage each time they’re combined with water. And all without the crippling caffeine addiction.

“Tea is easy to nerd out on,” Bowers said. “There’s not a wrong answer on how to make it, drink it or taste it. And with pu-erh, it gets exponentially more complex the more you get into it — I haven’t found the end yet.”

Riley Haun: 425-339-3192; riley.haun@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @RHaunID.

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