The idea of an underground tea scene always intrigued me. Not sure when the notion entered the deep recesses of my tea-soaked brain; maybe it was Robert “The Devotea” Godden’s ebook Tea Story, or maybe someone mentioned the idea of it in passing? Whichever, whatever. Point being, the notion always fascinated me. I even envisioned an underground network of “steepeasies” in a story I had . . . yet to write.
Little did I know, though, there actually was such an underground tea network threading itself together. From Austin, Texas, to San Francisco, California, and further northward to Portland, Oregon; people communed over tea just under the radar. I had some affiliations with various members of this fledgling network, and in my various tea blog dealings, one name kept coming up.
I first heard mention of him from West China Tea’s So Han Fan. Apparently, he was So Han’s China-trotting, direct-sourcing tea-bro-in-cuppa-crime. His named popped up again among some of my San Francisco contacts. At the time, he worked in various tea houses and hosted his own tea retreats in the wild mountains of . . . Santa Cruz. But then I heard his name echoed among my Portland tea compatriots.
References to his traveling tearoom—a decked-out van—showed up on Fly Awake Tea’s Instagram. That’s when I learned he had his own start-up tea company—Rabbit’s Moon Tea Arts. I made a mental note to connect with him at some point, but said “note” got lost in the shuffle of other thoughts. And then, finally, his name came up again during two separate brewing sessions. Nicky “Steady Hand Tea” Evers brought him up as someone I should touch bases with. Epic Tea Beard Man, Omar Riverstone, also said he partnered with him on various projects. And lastly, Sacred Summet Tea’s Dan Pappas also mentioned him, and the fact that he hosted a weekly “Speakteasy”. In short, a tea speakeasy.
It took me weeks to realize that, through all these mentions and murmurs, everyone was talking about the same person. But it was the tea speakeasy concept that caused it all to crystalize. I had to meet him, if only to find out what sort of madman was trying to put himself out there in the disparate warring fiefdom that was the Portland tea scene.
After a couple of months, I finally made contact with him over Facebook. On his suggestion, we set a time for a one-on-one tea tasting, and he put forth an invite to attend one of the many weekly “Speakteasy” events he hosted. On some random Wednesday, I finally made my way to the wilds of Southeast Portland to meet this Steve Odell character everyone was talking about.
In regards to tea underground spaces, I was surprised to discover that his living quarters/tearoom was literally underground. He rented out a basement apartment of an old Portland house. In less than six months’ time, he converted it into a dual-purpose tearoom.
There was the spare tearoom with an ornate gaiwan set and an unusually comfortable futon.
And then there was the central tearoom.
It was very communal and séance-y, but the environs were both soothing and welcoming. Teaware and tea cakes lined the walls and shelves. And there were other various knickknacks that I found whimsically wonderful. Particularly the presence of Princess Mononoke spirits dotted throughout the enclosure.
As for Steve himself?
Prior to our meet-up, I was expecting a tea-hippie, but he far transcends that mere generalization. Imagine if Gene Wilder and Bill Nye [the Science Guy] somehow fused into one being, and said being traveled to a steampunkish parallel universe, then came back clad in tea cakes. Yep, that’s Steve.
We talked shop for a few minutes, and then he pondered what to brew up first. He asked what my preferences were. I informed him that I didn’t really have any. That led to a follow-up question of what got me started on tea. I told him about my history with white tea.
He snapped his fingers, and immediately brought out this lovely . . .
A sixteen-year-old Shou Mei white tea cake. How did he go from white tea to THAT?! I thought to myself. Not that I was complaining.
I knew he went on direct sourcing trips to China, but I didn’t expect him to have my particular penchant for the weird and esoteric. The aged white tea surprised me. The last time I had an old Shou Mei, my palate was convinced I imbibed a puerh. It was rather dusty. This Shou Mei, though? Once the essence of “old” left the first steep, it shed its geriatrics and smoothed out into Buddhist sage-like stone fruit.
While we were still nursing that beauty, he also brought out these.
“Are those aged oolong leaf-balls?” I asked.
He simply smiled elfishly and shook his head. “No, they’re tea seeds.”
Seriously, Fujian tea seeds from old growth trees. Weirder still? The way they had to be brewed. They required a continuous boil or simmer in a teapot.
What resulted was straight grapes and floral magic.
Eventually, we were just . . . double-fisting both teas.
To the point where the taster notes for each started to blur. It was as if the souls of both these teas—one young and one old—were touching tips across time and space. No other way to describe it.
The overall tea session lasted three hours. At 10PM, I finally called it a night. I bid farewell, and promised that I would attend the week’s upcoming Speakteasy that Saturday.
A bit of an aside: Steve Odell migrated up to Portland because it seemed like fertile ground for his type of underground. Northern California already had its own well-established tea community. Portland’s own tea scene was still very much in its infancy. The building blocks were there, but there was very little cohesion. Above ground or otherwise. With his weekly event—The Speakteasy Underground Community Tea House—he sought to change that a little bit. That and to offer an alternative to Portland’s decidedly beer-‘n-wine-soaked nightlife.
Honestly, though? I was slightly dreading it. I was worried I wouldn’t be “New Age”-y enough for the gathering, or young enough. Most of the people in these underground tea gatherings were in their 20s and 30s, and I was now one of the “old guard”. A rank and title I was still getting used to.
Most of those fears melted away once I went.
How did the event go?
Well, I’ll just let this crappy live video I filmed speak for itself.
Speakteasy sounds and merriment!
Posted by Geoffrey Norman on Saturday, March 18, 2017
It was festive, all-inclusive, and—mostly importantly—FUN!
That and I actually knew (or knew of) some of the people in attendance. Somehow/someway, tea vendor friend Josh “J-TEA” Chamberlain made it up from Eugene to attend. Another pleasant surprise was the presence of Dario Barone of Sacred Summit Chocolates & Elixirs. He brought some of his specialty chocolates and microbrewed Jun (made from Steve’s own Dan Cong black tea) to share with the group.
I left in a state of overall reverie. Steve Odell is onto something here. Tea appreciation and enthusiasm is still very niche—a very underground concept to most. Sure, people know tea to be healthy, but few know that it is about the people. It’s more about the experience and those you share a cup or two with. Not just the cups themselves.
Sometimes that simple concept is easy to miss, and all it takes is a tea drunk madman with an underground tearoom to remind us.
For more information on Steve Odell’s tea experiences and Rabbit’s Moon Tea Arts mission, go HERE.
If you’re from Portland or visiting soon, and want to be informed of future Speakteasy events, follow on Facebook!