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It's tea time: downtown tea shop connects with visitors and serves up tradition

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Nika Wei prepares tea in the traditional Chinese Gong Fu style, an involved process of steeping tea. The combination of careful preparation and quality leaves produces tea that surprises customers who haven’t thought of themselves as tea drinkers, Wei said.

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A mixed floral and white tea produces a blossom after several minutes of steeping.

Nika Wei was intent on guiding Web analyst Michael Plummer through a fulfilling journey of tea sampling as he rested on a dark brown stool, and when Rabbi Moskow Itz and his daughter Ariela Itz walked by Vital T Leaf, Wei was no less determined to serve up Asia’s finest tea.

Wei’s amiability complemented the aromatic tea fragrance permeating the store.

“The water must be boiled. Cover it for 20 seconds, then flip it over,” she said.

Wei proceeded with a ritualistic process in which she poured boiled water into a thin black cup, containing Oolong tea, and covered it with a small black tea cup. After 20 seconds, Plummer was instructed to flip the thin cup over and smell the now empty cup.

“Close your eyes and smell the aroma steaming from the dark tea cup,” Wei said.

With eyes closed, he took in the natural fragrance from the cup and chased it with a fulfilling sip of the tea in the other cup.

Situated on the southern tip of the Pike Place Market, Vital T Leaf is a hybrid between a wine bar and China’s oldest past time.

One of Vital T Leaf’s best sellers is Lychee Black, a naturally sweet tea that complements desserts, which is among a number of teas from the store’s inventory of more than 400 selections.

Replacing what used to be Tully’s Coffee, Vital T Leaf is located on First Avenue and Union Street, an ideal spot to attract tourists and lure locals alike.

“We’re going to the Pike Place Market; it’s the first thing we see,” said Christine Shumway from Poulsbo, who was stopped to sample Oolong tea with her friend Vicky Devana on their way to the Pike Place Market.

Tourists are fascinated by the welcoming, earthy textures inside Vital T Leaf.

“We just walked by here, and we saw it, and it just looked beautiful,” said Rabbi Itz.

While he was attracted by the aesthetic appeal, Ariela Itz, a tea connoisseur back home in Colorado, was intrigued by what Vital T Leaf had to offer.

“This is my favorite tea”, said Wei, resuming her cordial ways as she served a captivated Ariela Itz some aroma green tea. This grassy, nutty tea is good for daily prevention of sickness.

Wei advised Ariela Itz, as she had previous patrons, that different teas require different temperatures. Aroma green tea is best if picked before spring and is to be boiled between 270 to 280 degrees.

“He’s young, like a baby, not supposed to overheat,” said Wei.

Ariela Itz was pleasantly surprised by the aroma green tea she sampled.

“It was interesting,” she said. “It was a good new, don’t worry.”

Tea tasting at Vital T Leaf is a unique experience.

“So, the tea you drink this time, you’ll like it, but maybe not next time,” said Wei.

These teas come from particular mountains throughout China, Taiwan and Japan. Since the weather always varies, the smell and taste is affected. They grow differently and smell differently every time, adding to the dynamic experience of tea tasting at Vital T leaf.

According to the Vital T Leaf Web site, Stanley Gee and his son Ming Dong comb all parts of China, visiting tea sellers and growers, and return to the States with an assortment that will appease a variety of tastes and senses.

Ben Chen and wife Winny Chen started two Vital T Leaf stores in the Emerald City after seeing the success of the family business Uncle Gee started in San Francisco.

“If you want to do business, you got to be interested,” said Winny Chen.

Winny Chen said the Vital T Leaf at Pike Place Market was started in 2006 and the one on Western Avenue followed suit in August 2008.

The idea is for patrons to sample the tea and then buy it along with some of the accessories.

It doesn’t hurt that just outside of Vital T Leaf is a view that overlooks the Port of Seattle and the Olympic Mountains.

“This is a lot better than going to the International District,” Plummer said.

The store is split into two sections by a walkway leading into the rest of Pike Place Market.

The tea sampling bar resides on one side while the other side sells creatively carved tea tables, hand-painted tea sets, Yixing purple clay pots, glass, porcelain and other ornaments with prices ranging from $30 to $300.

Wei has been working at the Pike Place location since its grand opening and noticed that a lot of people are strangers to tea.

“We show the customers,” she said. “Plus, it’s a Chinese tradition. You have to let the customer taste and smell. They might like the smell but not the taste.”

Wei differentiated tea tasting from wine tasting as she served what appeared to be a teacup filled with seeds.

“Wine is called bitter,” she said while explaining that the seeds are Chrysanthemum seeds from East Asia. “Tea is called stronger, not bitter.”

All the teas at Vital T Leaf are essentially good for the body and soul. Benefits include improved skin, increase in blood flow, enhanced antioxidants and reduced anxiety. Chrysanthemums seeds, for example, are a strong floral beverage that’s good for dry throats, fevers and acne.

Wei encourages students who aren’t native to the Northwest to come experience Seattle and China over a cup of tea.

“During the weekend, you can come to downtown and check it out with friends,” she said.

Reach reporter Julian Estrada at features@dailyuw.com.

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