A New Leaf: Tea, Qi and Ursa Major

5 mins read
A table topped with lots of different items that are sitting on a desk
Non-flying saucers and teapots at Callisto Tea Shop. Photo: Victoria Thomas

On Friday, January 5th at 10 AM, you’ll have a delightful opportunity to learn how to create your own scented tea blend under the guidance of Nathan Epstein, a San Gabriel resident who co-owns and operates the charming Callisto Tea House.

The hour-long workshop is offered free of charge at the Altadena Library, and requires reservations since space is limited.

Epstein makes an important distinction between “flavored” and “scented” teas. Flavored teas, he explains, combine several ingredients with the tea leaves, while a “scented” tea will contain tea and just one solitary addition. For instance, jasmine tea is made when jasmine blossoms are arranged over green tea leaves during the curing process, nothing more.

“What’s important is that you are still able to taste the tea itself,” he says, cautioning that many flavored teas are overloaded with a jumble of competing herbs, spices, aromatics, botanical flavorings and sweetening notes (sometimes synthetic), which threaten to turn the tea into something resembling a steaming fruit-cup.

Replacing Buzz and Jitters with Balance

Epstein and his wife, Wendy Chen, opened their tea house in July 2022, taking over the airy, sunlit site formerly known as Café Culture located just north of where Washington Boulevard crosses Altadena Boulevard in East Pasadena.

Stepping into the space feels energizing yet relaxing, so unlike the frenetic buzz of some coffee shops, especially those offerings in the form of super-sized, super-sweetened drinks that Epstein calls “coffee-flavored milkshakes.”

It’s no coincidence that these dual sensations reflect the complex duality of tea itself.

“The health benefits of tea are largely unknown in America,” comments Epstein, a former software developer. “Caffeine is the chemical we associate with coffee, and there is some caffeine in tea. But the other active compound in tea is an amino acid called L-theanine, which many people find relieves stress and reduces anxiety.”

The shop stocks an array of teaware, including classic individual-sized Brown Betty teapots, the charmingly short-and-stout mainstay of British tea drinking at least since the 17th century. Although the original Brown Betty gleamed with a deep, glossy, chocolatey finish called Rockingham glaze, this iconic teapot now appears in every color of the rainbow.

Epstein notes, “As far as decor, we didn’t want to create a minimalist or Zen experience for our guests.” The walls of Callisto Tea hum with life in the form of flourishing, trailing potted plants set against walls painted a warm terra-cotta tone, contrasting with circular accents in a tender shade of wisteria petals. Insider tip: this space is available as a unique and refreshing location for small parties and gatherings.

The artwork in the shop also hums with life in the form of girl power. Images of Mother Kali, Artemis, Hecate and Kwan Yin, among others, are shared on the walls and shelves. The shop takes its name from the Greek myth, known to aficionados of the long-running series “Xena: Warrior Princess” as the brazen blonde nemesis of Lucy Lawless. In the myth, jealous huntress Artemis turns beautiful Callisto into a bear who is subsequently bow-hunted by her unsuspecting human son. In the nick of time, Zeus blocks the son’s flying arrow, whisking Callisto up into the heavens to form the constellation Ursa Major. Her son is eternally by her side in the form of Ursa Minor.

Considerably less grisly is the artwork currently on seasonal display, “Telling Images” by local artist Debbi Swanson Patrick, who uses found objects (broken toys and figurines, stray bits of jewelry, lost keys), natural elements (leaves, flowers, feathers, even food!) and her high-def scanner to create dream-like and award-winning digital still-life compositions.

A Warming Winter Cup

Callisto Tea offers 30 to 40 teas at any given time, and selections shift in accordance with the seasons. On one recent (comparatively) chilly afternoon in East Pasadena, Epstein prepared and poured “Dragon Girl,” a robust, dark tea with a comforting, nutty, even bread-like perfume. Other names for this particular tea include “Old Spirit,” since the leaves were gathered from a mature tea bush perhaps a century old, while many more teas are plucked from much younger plants between 20 to 50 years old. This mature tea-bush was the inspiration for the brand’s logo. Incidentally, the tea bush or “tree” we’re talking about here is unrelated to Melaleuca alternifolia, or tea tree, the potent, menthol-ish member of the Myrtaceae (myrtle family) that aboriginal cultures of Australia and New Zealand have used for millennia as an antibacterial topical and inhalant. In fact, tea tree oil is dangerous to drink and lethal to pets.

“Age can be a good thing when it comes to tea,” says Epstein. “This is only the case if the tea is good quality to start with. In that case, as long as it’s stored correctly, age endows the tea with more Qi, more life force.”

And along with age comes a sense of ease. Epstein brews our “Dragon Girl” using the modern Gong Fu Cha ritual, the Chinese method of preparation meaning, essentially, “skill in making tea.” Warming both the teapot and the porcelain cups in advance of drinking is a crucial step Epstein calls “waking up the tea.” He explains that this is essential when preparing and presenting tea that’s been tightly rolled into “pearls.”

The first 30-second brew is not drunk but poured out through a geometric design in the center of the tea caddy, which holds an unglazed clay teapot, a small borosilicate pitcher of steaming water and two exquisitely translucent porcelain teacups, along with tongs for selecting the tea and moving the cups.

“The porcelain cups capture the aroma of the tea,” he explains, adding that the unglazed pot, with time, takes on the character of the specific tea. With this in mind, true tea fanciers may dedicate a specific teapot exclusively to each particular tea in their collection.

Tea for Beginners

Epstein shuns any reference to his being a tea “master,” assigning that honorific to whoever actually produced the tea. And it’s perfectly fine if you’re not a purist: the Callisto Tea Shop team will serve your selection with milk and sugar if you insist. “Again,” says Epstein, “we’re hoping that people will give the tea a chance to be experienced on its own first, for its depth and subtlety.” Cream and sugar may be helpful if you let the tea steep too long and turn bitter or if it’s just simply not good tea.

The shop also features a curated selection of lending books from the Altadena Libraries system. Epstein explains that the process of Gong Fu Cha is an invitation to slow down and savor, vastly different from the thrill-seeking rush promised by coffee, made even more inviting by offering eclectic, interesting reading material.

“The coffee culture is so strong in America,” he says, “I think lots of people really don’t know where to start. We like giving them an entry-point into the experience of tea.”

And, once your whistle has been whetted for something beyond the (tea) bag, reserve your spot for a second complimentary tea treat this month, taking place at the Japanese Tea Hut at The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens on Thursday, January 18, 4:00 PM to 5:15 PM. This virtual event with Japanese tea ceremony expert Bruce Sosei Hamana of the Urasenke Tankokai Federation will explore the chashitsu or traditional tea house structures used in chado, “The Way of Tea,” and how they played a vital role in spreading an understanding of tea esthetics outside Japan. This is an East Asian Garden Studies Lecture and the Genshitsu Sen Annual Tea Lecture.

TEA BLENDING WORKSHOP with Nathan Epstein of Callisto Tea Shop

THE ROLE OF THE JAPANESE TEA HUT IN UNDERSTANDING THE WAY OF TEA

with Bruce Sosei Hamana of the Urasenke Tankokai Federation

More from Callisto Tea House!

Open Mic Night at Callisto – Evening Experiences:

Monday, January 22, 2024 – 6:00 – 7:30 PM

Dig “The Moth?” Then you’ll love this cool opportunity to read, recite, rap, rhyme, and freestyle spoken word. Arrive early – it will be packed! (No charge for the event)

Cozy Crafters Club

Friday, January 26, 2024 – 4:00 – 6:00 PM

For fiber-arts crafters. Sit, sip, meet, greet, stitch, tat, crochet, knit one, purl two. (No charge for the event)

The short URL of this article is: https://localnewspasadena.com/29cm

Victoria Thomas

Victoria has been a journalist since her college years when she wrote for Rolling Stone and CREEM. Victoria describes the view of Mt. Wilson from her front step as “staggering,” and she is a defender of peacocks everywhere.
Email: [email protected]

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