Steeped in Tea - How Teahouse Kuan Yin Initiated Me Into the World Tea

When I was choosing a naturopathic medical school back in 1991, my options were limited to two in the US - Bastyr University, then named John Bastyr College of Naturopathic Medicine, in Seattle, WA, and National College of Naturopathic Medicine, or NCNM, as it was called then, located in Portland, OR. While several issues influenced my decision, one factor that swayed me towards Seattle was my discovery of Teahouse Kuan Yin. Little did I know that this Teahouse, established by Miranda Pirzada and Frank Miller, opened its doors only one year prior to my arrival. I still remember the night after my admissions interview at Bastyr, strolling down 45th Street in the Wallingford neighborhood, contemplating my future and my potential move to Seattle, when I stumbling upon the delightful storefront. In the early evening, it was rather busy with people. At that time, Kuan Yin was connected to the adjacent store, Wide World Books & Maps, through a set of opened shoji screens. People would browse through travel books then return to a  seat in the teahouse to pour over their purchases while pouring themselves a cup a tea. Never a coffee drinker, I brewed pots of tea and drank it for hours as I studied for the MCATs earlier that summer. Still, a teahouse was something out of the ordinary for this Pittsburgh raised boy. 

That fall I enrolled at Bastyr for naturopathic medical school and spent countless hours at Kuan Yin. I studied there, learning my required coursework, but also receiving a sustained education in tea. I thought I knew about tea, and even thought I liked tea, but I had no idea. Oh, the learning curve! Quickly I recognized I could never go back to Lipton again (I must confess that more often than I care to admit, I ingest some poor excuses for “green tea” made from…gasp...tea bags. However, now that my collection of travel tea bottles has grown, I rarely find myself without loose leaf tea - of course, drinking from glass or metal bottle bares its own set of issues, too.. ).  I came to learn the difference between reds (blacks), oolongs, greens, and whites. I discovered my ignorance for calling herbal preparations teas. I learned about proper amounts, steeping times, water temperatures, and serving methods. In those early days, I was still consuming black teas, but as my palate developed and I was able to distinguish the subtleties of flavors, I range expanded, and I started carrying loose leaf tea and a tea strainer whenever and wherever I traveled. The thought of visiting my parents in Pittsburgh without my “stash” seemed like being banished to hell with nothing more than a Stash tea and lukewarm water.

My time in Kuan Yin was meditative, even if studying, alone or with a colleagues. The mere act of having a pot of tea on the table which you had to steep and pour elevated the energy. This was in a time before laptops were ubiquitous, and reading and writing involved paper. Even though my fellow tea drinkers were involved in their own pursuits (reading, journaling, knitting, drawing, etc.), a palpable sense of community pervaded the air, and I never felt as if people were utterly absent from the room, as if the screen to which they were glued sucked out all of their life force only leaving their empty vacant body present. Back then, people actually talked to one another, either to the stranger sitting next to them, or to the person with whom they were sitting. Case in point, this week while visiting a new tea spot, I watched a group of 4 friends spend 15 minutes sitting next to each other never saying a word, each glued to their phones.  And they were not the only ones. As more and more people and groups shuffled into the spot, many people didn’t TALK to one another. While I did spend some time taking pictures of the environment, the tea presentation and food, I would quickly show them to my companion and we then put our devices away and savored the matcha before us. 

The world of tea is expanding as more people are learning about the art of tea. This summer Teahouse Kuan Yin, my first tea school, closed their physical location, and I grieved. Over the years it, and I, changed, yet I will always be grateful to Miranda and Frank for opening the teahouse, to Jim and Marcus for keeping it going, to the numerous employees who have have served me some excellent tea, and to all the people who have joined me there for hours of deep, meaningful and transformative conversations.  Thank you all.