Bay Area/ San Francisco/ Arts & Culture
Published on October 13, 2015
Red Blossom Tea Celebrates 30 Years In ChinatownAlice Luong. (Photo: Holly Erickson/Hoodline)

It's easy to pass by the unassuming Red Blossom Tea Company, situated in a narrow, understated storefront in the heart of Chinatown's busy and flashy Grant Avenue.

But if you wander in, you'll probably learn a thing or two about tea you never knew. Red Blossom (831 Grant Ave.) is celebrating 30 years in business, and owner Alice Luong and saleswoman Amy Covey gave us the lowdown on everything from how the shop started to how tea is grown to how to pair it with food.

Producing teas is as complicated and variable as producing wine, and like wine, individual teas can have terroir. Covey whipped out an atlas to show us the varying tea growing regions of China and Taiwan, all while gracefully brewing a cup of tea for tasting.

Tea table. (Photo: Holly Erickson/Hoodline)

Red Blossom's story begins in the 1930s, when Luong's father, Chiem Luong, fled the Japanese invasion of China for Vietnam. There, he married another Chinese migrant and raised a family. Following the end of the Vietnam War, he brought his wife and children to San Francisco, where a mere three years later, he was able to open his tea and herb shop on Chinatown’s Jackson Street. In 1985, Red Blossom moved to its current Grant Avenue location.

As a kid, Luong worked in the shop, dashing off with her pocket money to eat at Basta Pasta or play tennis at North Beach Playground (now Joe DiMaggio Playground).

She had no plans to take over the family business once she grew up. Instead, she studied accounting and got a job with a bank in Hong Kong. But if she’d had her tea leaves read, they might have told her that before long, she’d be bringing the tea shop into the twenty-first century. The shop has a chic, uncluttered design and elegant packaging.

Photo: Geri Koeppel/Hoodline

Though Luong absorbed plenty of tea lore and knowledge as a child, she says she still doesn't consider herself a complete expert on tea. "It sometimes irks me when someone considers themselves an expert after one visit to China. I’m learning more every year. It’s very exciting: Sometimes something comes along accidentally, and it turns out pretty awesome!”

Red Blossom differs from other tea purveyors in Chinatown because Luong avoids tea fairs and brokers and instead purchases teas from the Chinese and Taiwanese growers themselves. Flying into Taipei and driving winding roads several hours into the verdant Taiwanese mountains is a typical jaunt for her.

Meticulous about the quality of her teas, Luong tries to keep pesticide use to a minimum. She flicked on her cell phone to show us a photo of an anti-pest contraption—a solar panel which attracts insects to its warmth, only to drown them in a tin of water.

But not all insects are a scourge for tea growers. Aphid-bitten tea and cicada-bitten tea are two varieties that benefit from insects gnawing on young tea shoots. “Aphid-bitten tea has a thick almost milky finish and a natural sweetness,” Luong says.

Red Blossom does not flavor its teas, “letting the tea speak for itself," she added. “Our one ‘scented’ tea is made by laying fresh jasmine blossoms over the tea leaves and refreshing it daily with new blossoms.”

Luong makes certain that the farms where her tea is grown let their fields rest, so future crops will retain their strong flavor. She also specifies the roasting technique, preferring a higher fire for the roast and using longan wood to roast the oolongs. “It’s like with applewood-smoked bacon or cedar-smoked salmon,” she explains. Ask, and you can take a whiff from any of the cans on the shelf to get a sense of the roast.

Cans of tea. (Photo: Holly Erickson/Hoodline)

“Good tea is not one-dimensional. It can be very flavorful and fruity." She discourages adding milk or sweeteners. ”If you use the best quality tea, it’s like eating heirloom tomatoes or fresh mozzarella,” as compared to factory tomatoes and mass-produced cheese, she says.

At Red Blossom, teas are sold by the ounce, in two-ounce or more packages resealable for freshness. (Because Luong buys in small quantities and sells most of her stock, she says Red Blossom's teas are also naturally fresher.) Prices range from $8 to $120 an ounce, but an ounce of high-quality tea goes a long way: the same tea can be re-brewed three to six times. The shop also sells gift packs and some unusual tea ware and accoutrements, though Luong is phasing out Chinese herbs from the business.

Luong also knows about pairing tea with food: she recently consulted on pairing teas to the menu at Benu, Corey Lee's Michelin three-star restaurant in SoMa. She says that lighter teas complement vegetables, seafood and tofu, while a more tannic tea can aid in the digestion of meats and fatty foods.

Luong says anyone is welcome to pop in for a taste of tea and an oolong education. Groups can even reserve tea flight tastings: Wok Whiz, the tour company started by the late Shirley Fong-Torres and now run by her daughter Tina, stops in regularly.  Hours are Monday–Saturday, 10am–6:30pm, and Sunday, 10am–6pm.