Inside Lucky Dragon Casino & Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, employee Lola Zhao stands over her table, laying out the pieces as her clients sit, hushed, in front of her, watching her hands carefully. The dexterity of her motions is mesmerizing, almost hypnotic. This isn’t a blackjack table – it’s a gongfu tea set-up, a ritualized form of Chinese tea service that dates back centuries.
Zhao hands the patrons their individual tea cups, filled comfortably with a roasted black tea. They breathe in the aroma, then take a sip. The effects are intoxicating.
Believe it or not, Las Vegas is becoming a hub for traditional Chinese tea.
When Elyse Petersen moved to Vegas in 2012 to start a direct-trade loose-leaf tea company called Tealet, the traditional Chinese tea scene was virtually non-existent. Nowadays, she works with 138 regular wholesale buyers, with several hundred more wholesale accounts in her funnel – all specialty tea businesses that want to do direct trade with her growers. What’s more, her teas can be found in roughly a dozen retail spaces throughout the Nevada megacity. She’s both a wholesaler and an educator, supplying instruction on the proper way to serve the beverage and convey the stories behind each leaf.
And what better place to do it than at Lucky Dragon Casino & Hotel? The first resort in Sin City designed specifically to directly target Chinese customers features a full-fledged teahouse on the ground floor called Cha Garden, complete with a tea sommelier and premium equipment. This tea bar sits adjacent to the check-in counter in the lobby, with seats spread out so casually across the room that it takes a while to notice that the lobby and the tea garden are one and the same.
The menu boasts a full-range of Chinese selections – 50 in all – from minimally processed white tea to a fully oxidized Pu’er. Among the selections: Biluochun, a green tea from the mountains of Jiangsu province, and a buttery oolong from the hills of Taiwan.
Tea service is conducted at the bar or tableside, and if you’re lucky, the person doing the brewing for you will be Zhao, a young Chinese woman with bold black-framed glasses. The sommelier hails from the northeast Chinese city of Shenyang, where she grew up playing in the tea shop owned by her uncle.
At Cha Garden, the clientele – consisting mostly of Chinese expats – is treated to the full tea experience, complete with porcelain gaiwan (a lidded bowl for the infusion of tea) and teacups, a glass pouring vessel, and a wooden tea tray. First, hot water is poured into the gaiwan to warm up the vessel, followed by a scattering of loose-leaf tea, which is strained into the pouring vessel and then slowly portioned out into the individual tea cups. From start to finish, it is performed like an art form, meant to be admired.
The menu notes exactly where and when each tea was produced, and by whom.
There’s an oolong called Rou Gui (“cinnamon” in Chinese), crafted by a family with the surname of Chen, who own 13 acres in the Wuyishan Scenic Area of Fujian province. Developed during the Qing dynasty, Rou Gui oolong features a warm, spicy scent deeply reminiscent of cassia bark – hence its name.
Another offering is a delicate white tea called Yue Guang Bai (“moonlight white”), made from the large leaf assamica typically used to make Pu’er, but instead of being sun-dried, it’s dried overnight. It is produced in Yunnan province by the Li family of Duoyi Village, who own four fields of tea trees 5,900 feet up the south side of the local mountain.
These stories of single-origin tea leaves represent a level of transparency that is rare within the industry. Most commercial tea companies buy their leaves in bulk from multiple sources and blend them. By doing so, they can mix high-grade tea with cheaper leaves, lowering the cost while still allowing them the liberty of marketing it as a “premium tea blend.”
Tealet is intent on reversing that trend. Petersen believes in providing her buyers with all the information necessary to educate their consumers on the origin of what they’re sipping. The strategy appears to be working. If Tealet’s wholesale revenue is booming, it’s because American consumers are starting to appreciate tea as an artisanal tradition. “It’s really cool that there’s this conscious tea community here in Vegas now,” Petersen says. “It’s just growing exponentially.”
A couple of miles away from Lucky Dragon, in the suburban neighborhood of Henderson, sits a shop called Tea & Whisk. With its sterile white walls and shelves of tea canisters, the shop was intended to be merely a retail space specializing in loose-leaf tea. But as owner Leosdianto Lukidi became aware of the increasing interest in traditional Chinese teas in Las Vegas, he decided to start hosting weekly tea meetups at his shop. People are invited to bring their favorite teas to share. Lukidi provides the teaware, the hot water, and cheerful commentary on everybody’s tea leaves.
At the tea meetup that I attend, a mix of middle-aged and young folks, mostly white, gather around the main table near the front of the shop. The crowd even includes a few employees from the corporate tea chain Teavana, who have stopped by on their lunch break to enjoy Lukidi’s diverse selection. A gongfu tea set has been brought out and participants take turns brewing. In this congregation of tea enthusiasts, everybody knows the basics of the pour.
“It was a challenge in the beginning because more people know about boba tea than traditional tea,” Lukidi says, referring to the sweet milky drink that mixes tea with tapioca pearls. “I’m carving out a market segment and a culture with these meetups. It’s all about education.”
Lukidi, who is Chinese-Indonesian, grew up thinking of tea not as a ritual but rather as a daily beverage. Tea was the drink you were given at restaurants in a large teapot, or that your family would sip “grandpa-style” – with loose leaves floating around in a mug. No one in his immediate circle paid much attention to varietals, though everyone seemed to know that the gongfu cha ceremony involved many subtleties.
It wasn’t until he moved to Las Vegas that he saw the retail opportunity in Chinese tea. Here in the US, he discovered, people have fewer preconceived biases about tea. In Asia, for example, people tend to prize the green tea picked in the spring, and the Pu’er cakes from ancient trees that are naturally aged; the market for loose-leaf teas is highly saturated. Ask the average American what they know about tea, though, and they’ll probably tell you about their favorite brand of tea bags or iced tea. Loose leaf is a market segment that has yet to be explored. It’s not that Lukidi’s customers can’t taste the difference per se – more that they’ve never been exposed to the wide world of tea types and styles.
As part of his business model, Lukidi offers unlimited free tea samples to his customers. “First I’ll ask them what type of tea they normally drink,” he says. “And then I go into flavor profiles like sweet or floral or roasted.”
Lukidi stresses that he’s not a purist. If people want their tea sweetened with milk, he’ll happily oblige. “The tea space can be quite pretentious,” he says. Just as with the wine industry, a single varietal can contain intricate differences, the kind that cause connoisseurs to get lost in endless debates on technicalities and serving styles. Lukidi’s approach is simple: “You have to give people what they want and slowly introduce them to different types of teas.”
Indeed, novices can find the world of tea quite overwhelming. Although all Chinese tea comes from the same species, Camellia sinensis, widely varying processing methods and terroir have yielded more than 3,000 varieties. And then there are the countless permutations of how tea is served: ready-to-drink iced tea, boba milk tea, tea bags, loose-leaf tea served in a mug, and loose-leaf tea served in a ritualized setting.
The last one – the most formal approach to savoring tea – is the rarest in the Western world, but it is slowly gaining a foothold in Las Vegas, thanks to tea evangelists such as Petersen and Lukidi.
In many ways, Vegas is ripe for this burgeoning scene, given the significant influx of Chinese tourists in recent years. In 2015, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, 206,743 Chinese tourists visited Las Vegas – nearly double the number of visitors from just five years prior. And that’s not even counting the flow of Chinese daytrippers from nearby states like California. With that kind of growth, any business that can cater to the Chinese palate is investing in making Chinese visitors feel at home.
Back at Cha Garden in the Lucky Dragon lobby, Petersen begins pouring a handcrafted Ruby 18 black tea, the pride of Taiwanese farmer Alfredo Lin. It’s bright yet earthy with a radiant caramel hue. We do a total of four brews, each one differing subtly in taste and texture. It’s one of the most exquisite varietals I’ve ever had. Then again, I’m biased.
I first met Petersen a year ago in Taiwan, where the two of us traveled to the mountains of Nantou County to stay with Lin. His farm is located 2,600 feet above sea level. We got an intimate tour of the entire operation – a field of tea bushes carved into the depths of the Taiwanese jungle.
“Look at the leaves – like women’s legs dancing in the sunlight,” he had remarked out loud, referring to his tea bushes.
Lin comes from a long line of tea producers. His family has grown oolong tea in central Taiwan for decades. His mother works full-time as a tea picker, rising daily at 6am during the harvest season to pluck tender tea buds underneath the harsh Taiwanese sun.
Lin always knew he wanted to stay in the family business. Tea is in his blood, after all. But oolong bored him. It is the most popular varietal in Taiwan and quite frankly, he was tired of dealing with it.
So he latched onto organic black tea, which has a flavor that’s earthier and spicier than oolong, and spent a couple of years as an apprentice near Taiwan’s Sun Moon Lake before launching his own farm.
Lin is very particular about soil quality, which he says is an indicator of the farm’s sustainability. Unlike many of his family members and colleagues, he is adamant about using organic farming methods. Strong pesticides, he noted, can strip the soil, thus shortening the lifespan of a tea bush from a couple of decades to a couple of years.
As I savor Ruby 18 in Las Vegas, I think about Lin’s farm, where the guest room I stayed at was stuffed to the ceiling with gigantic sacks of tea and where every single meal was prefaced with enormous quantities of Ruby 18.
Sitting here in Cha Garden, is it the Ruby 18 I’m tasting? Or my nostalgia for that short weekend trip to Lin’s farm? Either way, it’s marvelous.
And that’s entirely the point of traditional Chinese tea service. Just as with wine, tea reflects its terroir – the soil and landscape of its birth. Every leaf tells a story, and different teas conjure up different emotions. The ideal consumer wants the know the backstory of the tea. The ideal vendor provides it.
During my visit to Las Vegas, I spend much of my time at Petersen’s tea studio, where her friends and clients mill in and out. It’s a carpeted office suite on the second floor of a commercial office building. She’s converted the main room into a tea hub, where the comfy fat couches huddled around a small coffee table play host to occasional Chinese classes and musical jam sessions – always accompanied with tea.
It reminds me immensely of the months I spent in Taipei, where my life had revolved around tea and teahouses. I spent my afternoons at Wisteria Tea House – in a Japanese-style wooden structure, complete with tatami mats and charcoal burners for the hot water. My friends and I would take turns brewing tea and sharing our leaves. As we performed the age-old motions of brewing and serving, we were participating in a culture of giving. This is a beverage that brings people together.
Though it’s still very much an underground scene in Vegas, this culture has taken root and is slowly growing. To my surprise, everybody I encountered in Petersen’s studio had a basic understanding of how to navigate a tea tray and all its components.
The leaves are brewed in a miniature teapot or gaiwan, emptied into a serving cup and poured into tiny cups. The server doles it out to the attendees, one by one. As one sips, intentional pauses are taken to reflect on the taste, the color, the aroma, and the turbidity of the brew. The daintiness of the teaware – which necessitates multiple servings and brews of a single varietal – heightens the sense of mindfulness. At its core, the act of drinking tea becomes a meditation on the leaf.
For Petersen, who began her career as a food scientist, the thoughtfulness of the ritual is what ultimately drew her to tea. It gave rise to much contemplation and ultimately inspired her to travel to Asia and meet the tea farmers in person. There, she discovered that the source and consumption are interlinked.
“It’s not about conducting a fancy ceremony,” Petersen says. “It’s about the intention of making a great cup of tea and being mindful of every step.”
text and photos by Clarissa Wei
Clarissa Wei is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles. She has spent extensive time in China and Taiwan. Find more of her work at www.clarissawei.com