New Century Tea Gallery, in the International District, is one of the few places in Seattle where you can learn how to make traditional Chinese tea. They have continued their business for 18 years, providing a wide range of teas, as well as brewing supplies like teapots, cups and more.
The shop also features a tea demonstration table. If customers want to taste teas before buying them, co-owner Grace Li can make a cup of any kind that they want. During this interview, Mrs. Li generously offered to let me taste a number of teas, sharing her knowledge.
I caught up with Mrs. Li to talk about New Century Tea Gallery’s roots, products and future goals. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Yukino Kumada : Please tell me about your roots and personal history.
Grace Li : Dafe Chen [Grace’s husband, co-owner of New Century Tea Gallery] came to America in 1996. His background in China was in tea: tea production, marketing, owning and operating a small business. My family was involved in Chinese medicine and herbs in China.
…[Dafe] is from a tea farmer [family]. So my parents-in-law, and then my husband’s grandpa started the tea farm. We don’t own the land anymore, but we sell the tea from the same land. …
YK : What led you to open New Century Tea Gallery?
GL : Dafe started business in 1999 focusing on marketing architectural molding, columns, antique furniture, tea and tea accessories. The purpose of this first business effort was twofold: first, to get a feel for doing business in America, and second, to raise the capital necessary to enable him to focus on building New Century Tea Gallery.
YK : How did you decide to open your store in the International District?
GL : When we first came to America, our English was barely understandable. This part of Seattle was about as close to home as we could find. The people, the food, the atmosphere reminded us of China, and it didn’t hurt that most of the people also spoke Chinese. It felt like home.
YK : Can you tell me a little about your products?
GL : We sell a very wide range of authentic traditional Chinese tea, from the sweet Jasmine pearl to the darker/richer Pu-Er tea. All tea is imported directly from hand-picked tea [farms] in China. It is as authentic as traditional Chinese tea can get. We also sell all necessary accessories that come with making traditional Chinese tea, from hot water boilers to teapots and cups.
YK : How do you select your teas?
GL : We first select teas that help the human body. For example, teas that help with digestion, etc. With that said, we always select the highest quality tea we can find, and we try to import a variety of different teas. When selecting teas to sell, we always import a little bit to test ourselves before we sell them (to test the quality). We can’t expect our customers to buy a tea we don’t like to drink ourselves.
YK : What kind of tea is the most popular?
GL : …Actually, [people] drink all different ones. A lot of people start liking Pu-Er tea a lot, because… they can search [for it] on the Internet. The benefit [of Pu-Er tea] is very good.
People like flavor. Drinking tea, you [should] not just drink one kind. Unless you drink a few different kinds, like three to four… during the daytime, you can drink some green tea [with] a little bit of caffeine, so you won’t feel too tired. And then you don’t need coffee to wake up. And also, if you have a full body, you can drink black tea or hot Pu-Er tea.
I then tried some teas. First, I tried white tea. I found it to be light in flavor. Mrs. Li explained that because of its subtle taste, they recommend customers drink it at night, to help their mind and body relax.
Next, I asked about their Pu-Er teas. Mrs. Li explained that Pu-Er is very different from white tea. It is aged, and much darker in color, often with an earthy flavor when it is younger. She said Pu-Er is good for digestion, and it’s good to drink a cup after eating.
Since Pu-Er is aged, I asked Mrs. Li what age of Pu-Er is best to drink.
GL : [When is it] better to drink? [After] 5 years is better. But some people want a lower price, so they drink it very new, like 1-2 years. But the better one is like 5 years or more. It gets smoother, and not really earthy.
YK : So [between the] 1 year one and [the] 5 year one, what’s different?
GL :The very new one, you will feel [it’s] a little bit rough…on your tongue. And then if you age [it] – let it sit for a while, for a few years – the tea becomes smoother and smoother, and it reduces the earthy flavor. And then the sweetness becomes [greater] after aging.
She explained that these are three kinds of Pu-Er tea: black, green and white. Black Pu-Er has less caffeine than green, if you are watching your caffeine consumption. We then moved on to talk about Oolong tea.
YK : What is the most popular Oolong tea in this shop?
GL : It is “Monkey Pick.”
YK : What [does] “Monkey Pick” [mean]?
GL : Monkey Pick Oolong. Just high mountain tea. This is the very formal, famous name. These two [Monkey Pick Oolong and Competition Tea] sell very good. But compared [between] these two, Monkey Pick is better.
After tasting the teas, I asked Mrs. Li more about her business and hopes for the future.
YK : What has been the most difficult thing running a small business?
GL : The most difficult thing about running a small business is owning a small business. America is not like China. There are tons of big businesses and corporations, versus in China where most shops are small, family-owned businesses who rely on returning customers to pay bills and such. In America, you are always at risk of a big business coming in and taking over. These big businesses also have the resources to advertise, etc. We are not able to reach a wider audience like these big businesses can.
YK : What are your hopes for New Century Tea Gallery in the future?
GL : Create a larger customer base for the New Century Tea Gallery, which would allow [us] to share the health benefits of Chinese tea with a larger audience. We would also like to expand tea culture; for example, the correct way to prepare tea, proper way to use a tea pot, Gai Wan, and other tools associated with making tea. We hope to make more healthy tea drinkers as the years follow.
New Century Tea Gallery’s opening hours are 10:30 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. everyday. New Century Tea Gallery is located at 416 Maynard Ave S, Seattle, WA 98104 in the International District. For more information, check out New Century Tea Gallery’s official website: newcenturyteagallery.com.