Take a Chance With Lydia at Seattle's Best Tea

She treats tea as part of a healthy lifestyle as opposed to a lifestyle beverage.

Traveling teaches you that good things happen when you put fear of embarrassment aside and make the most of opportunities. Sometimes letting yourself be led, be it through a meal or a sweet shop or a tapas bar, can make the difference between an experience you'll never forget and one that just blends in with memories as mundane as a trip to the grocery store. At Seattle's Best Tea in the International District, where they specialize in high-quality Chinese tea, play it safe and you'll leave satisfied, with a pack of subtle white tea, or maybe a basic black. However, let yourself be led, just a little, and you'll come away with more than just a half pound of amazing tea. Ask for a look at some of the varieties in the big bronze-colored canisters, and the superiority of the tea here will be immediately evident. The tea is always in whole or large chunks of leaves, depending on whether it was hand- or machine-harvested. It's glistening and soft to the touch. Stick a nose into a pile of fruity, dark keemun black tea, the main base for English Breakfast–style teas, and that sorry little bag of shake in the cupboard won't cut it anymore. Whether you want a hearty, rich black tea or something delicate like Darjeeling, above all, you must listen to Lydia. Listening to Lydia talk about tea makes you feel comfortable right away; she treats tea as part of an everyday, healthy lifestyle as opposed to a lifestyle beverage. If you are undecided, she will escort you to the tea service set up in the back of the shop, a small table with a perforated metal reservoir holding a gaggle of ceramic tea cups and small beaker-like jars. Lydia will make you a pot of black, or sample you on her latest shipment of oolong, a tea style somewhere between green and black tea, and casually talk you through the flavors. She has no rigid rules regarding steep times or temperatures. "Every tea is a little different," says Lydia, "you must find what you like best." Every pot of tea, at this quality, can endure steeping in hot water for up to four or five times. Each steep will bring about a new flavor or aroma character from the tea. A third pot of three-leaf handpicked mountain oolong is a moment taught. Without anything to memorize or recite, the experience lingers, a mini big band of herbal, fruity, and earthy aromas. Excited for your reaction, Lydia enjoys and savors the tea with you. The woman must drink fifty pots a day. Then she'll say, "OK, you'll try second steep and then you can go." She'll say this before the third and probably the fourth, too. Before you know it, you've tasted everything these tea leaves have to say, you're hooked, and you're either buying the place out, hugging Lydia, or both. mdutton@seattleweekly.com

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