“Vancouver is a few years behind when it comes to tea” Pedro Villalon tells me as I sat down at his O5 Tea Bar in Kitsilano late November. The charismatic Mexican-born tea hunter starts to mix me a drink as he elaborates by what he means.
“Vancouverites know fresh food and coffee. We like small-batch, locally-roasted coffee like 49th Parallel. We like to go to Granville Island Market, to Whole Foods, to the farmers markets. But when it comes to tea? Vancouver is still a few years behind.”
As Pedro pours a concoction of hot water and Kale & Nori Lem-Marrakech bitters into a champagne flute, I realize three things:
1) I’m in good hands.
2) This isn’t any ordinary “tea bar”.
3) My concept of tea will likely be changed after the next 3 hours.
O5 self-identifies as a “terroir based, obsessively sourced rare tea bar and boutique”. As written on their website,
O stands from our obsession with Origin. We travel the world learning about the soil on which our tea grows and the people who care for it. Because healthier, better earth yields the teas that we want to share.
5 represents nature’s elements: Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and Void. In harmony, these elements express the best qualities that each terroir gives to tea.
Having opened on West 4th and Arbutus three months ago, Pedro, co-owner Brian Noble, and Brian’s wife Ronnie are hoping to change the way Vancouverites think about and experience tea.
First, the setup.
You don’t come to O5 to slouch at a table lurched over your cup of tea, or your laptop for that matter. One long table extends down the entirety of the room with the staff on one side and the guests on the other. The seats are bar stools without backs, a way to force everyone into the proper posture. “This is meant to be interactive” Pedro explains of the O5 concept. “Some customers become so comfortable here that they’ll come behind the bar and prepare the tea themselves”.
Pedro also explains that by sitting up straight, we can properly enjoy the tea to the fullest, something that’s lost when we drink it slouched over. Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a traditional tea ceremony, but a social space where the the love of quality tea does take centre stage.
Although there are plans to obtain a liquor licence, right now the O5 Tea Bar serves only single varietal tea, either a single pot or as a multi-tea sampling session which also includes gourmet tapas. They also host special events, like the upcoming Kale & Nori cocktails, tea, and tapas event “2 Alchemists + 2 Tea Hunters” on December 19.
All the tea is handpicked by Pedro and the tea farmers in small farms in China, Taiwan, Korea, the Himalayas, and elsewhere. Again, this is single varietal tea (tea originating from one source, one farm, one harvest) so it may differ from batch to batch. All the details about the tea are then printed on a card, including the date when picked, the geospatial coordinates, and even the name of the farmers.
Slideshows of Brian and Pedro’s tea hunting expeditions to Asia loop on a projector on the far wall. While serving the tea, Pedro tells stories about how he found and met the tea farmers, including a few accidental discoveries. It’s here, upon listening to these stories that the tea I was drinking became more than just tea; there was now a personal connection.
It hit home that it’s not everyday you get to interact with somebody that actually went to Asia to bring the tea you’re drinking back to Canada, nor is it everyday that you get to see personal iPhone photos of the people who grew and picked the tea you’re drinking.
Over the span of my three hour tea tasting, I learn that O5 Tea Bar uses an induction cooker to heat the water perfectly in 90 seconds, so you’re never waiting for water to boil. The tea is then prepared in a variety of ways, depending on the varietal.
While waiting for my first official tea (the Kale & Nori bitters was merely a sampling of a product they use and sell), I’m handed a caramel – as fresh as they get – made with nothing but butter, sugar, and Darjeeling tea. The caramel is one of the softest I’ve ever had and I can’t get enough of it. Apparently they also make them with matcha, which they were sold out of due to their popularity.
As I gobble up my caramel, Pedro heats water for my next treat, the matcha shot – perfect for when you want a jolt of energy. “Are you sensitive to caffeine?” asks Pedro, and I shake my head. Rather than order tea to go, Pedro recommends the matcha shot for people in a hurry.
I’m first given a super sweet strawberry (it’s been candied from being cooked on the induction cooker) and am told to eat the strawberry first, and then drink the matcha, quickly. The sweetness stays in the mouth while the bold earthiness of the matcha provides a beautiful balance.
Throughout the evening, I sample several other teas, predominantly Oolong. Oolong, I learn is a tea that’s partially oxidized. By contrast, a black tea is fully oxidized, and a green tea isn’t oxidized at all. (Pan frying or steaming the tea leaves halts this process).
The next tea I try is called Oriental Beauty and it originates from Taiwan. What makes this tea particularly unusual is that its distinct woodsy tangerine flavour is the result of a chemical reaction that takes place when a cicada bites the tea leaves.
This is one of those “make lemonade when life gives you lemons” situations. Rather than waste the insect-bitten leaves, the tea farmer decided to turn this tea into a delicacy, marketing the tea with a pleasing moniker. Sounds weird, but believe me, it’s delicious.
What was also delicious was the plate of tapas that were brought over to snack on which consisted of artisan crackers, a beautiful soft cheese, and delicious ratatouille-style antipasto. Unfortunately my photos didn’t turn out, but take my word for it – it was absolutely delightful.
The third tea I try is my favourite of the night: the Balhyocha Noeul from South Korea. With a pleasing chocolate aroma and warm, toasted flavour, it’s no secret that this is a favourite amongst women. Apparently this tea just gets better and better the longer it steeps, and so I have several servings of this tea over the next half hour. It’s absolutely delicious when paired with O5’s Oaxacan hibiscus flowers, cooked with sugar and water on the induction cooker until they’re turned into dried cranberry-like fruits. These flowers, by the way, can also be prepared as a tea.
My next tea is called Golden Curls. Prepared as an iced tea, its delicate flavour reminded me somewhat of jasmine tea with a subtle hint of pumpkin. While looking at the dried tea leaves on the shelf, I understood where it gets its name.
For my final tea of the evening, Pedro asks if I’ve had too much caffeine – it’s late evening after all. When I shake my head no, he says he’s going to prepare a tea he equates to a “Japanese espresso”.
Apparently this tea is rarely consumed in Japan, but given as special occasion gifts. The leaves are not only handpicked, but are sorted by hand to remove all stems. The leaves are then individually rolled up into tiny fragile grass-like slivers which are steeped in a tiny amount of water.
This prized delicacy steeps in the pot for a few minutes until the leaves soak up the water, and then the tea is strained out, creating a vibrant green liquid that’s intense with a satisfying pungent earthy flavour, strong with caffeine. The flavour reminds me a little of matcha, but this is much more intense. There’s only a little bit of this tea, and it’s just as well – it’s potent, and it’s almost 10pm!
At the end of my tasting, three hours had passed by without even knowing, and I came away from my experience feeling like I had been at dinner party entertained by a long lost friend. I also learned a lot more about tea than I had before, despite spending a lifetime consuming it. It wasn’t even the physical tea so much as the stories of the people behind it. Who knew that this kind of scene existed on West 4th, or at a tea bar no less? It was certainly the most fun I’ve had at night on West 4th, ever, and I can’t wait to return.