During the first weekend in February I found myself at the Toronto Tea Festival for the first time. It’s Canada’s largest tea festival and in its sixth year running. Over the weekend I caught up with friends, ate some amazing food, and got properly tea drunk. My duffel bag was ten pounds heavier with tea going through airport security on the way home. “Nothing to see here, officer, just a humble tea addict.”

If you’re a Torontonian and tea fan,  the best way to see the tea festival is to grab a $20 early bird pass when they become available. That ticket will get you into both days of the festival.

Once inside, you can sip samples to your heart’s content from the 50+ vendors that set up shop in the Toronto Reference Library. You’ll also have access to all the speaker talks and tea ceremony demonstrations happening throughout the day.

At the Toronto Tea Festival I tasted everything from delicious chai brewed in coconut milk, to rare yellow tea from China, to pu’erh tea aged inside citrus rinds. Here are some of my highlights from the weekend.

Meeting Vendors and Tasting Teas

I was finally able to put some faces to the names of tea vendors I’d only seen online, or emailed with. Here are a few vendors and people who stood out for me this weekend (in no particular order).

  • Camellia Sinensis—Wonderful company, very knowledgeable team, and one of my favourite tea store websites. They recently opened Montreal’s first Chai Bar. I picked up their De Jiang Long Zhu green tea from eastern Guizhou in China.
  • Jalam Teas—Genuine pu’erh by Jeff Fuchs, subject of The Tea Explorer documentary by the CBC. They have a tea club monthly service where you’ll get a postcard and a story from Jeff each month along with a selected tea. I picked up their Zhang Lang Sheng Puerh Summer 2014 Harvest.
  • Genuine Tea—Enthusiastic young Canadian couple based in Toronto who’ve just started some nice relationships with growers in Japan. I look forward to watching them grow!
  • T By Daniel—Stylish blends and dessert teas and a super personality.
  • Chaiwala Chai—Their chai blend made with coconut milk was super yummy.
  • Momo Tea—Serving fresh tea from Japan, I snagged a bag of their award-winning Hojicha (Japanese charcoal-roasted green tea) which is deliciously nutty.
  • Tearoma—Beautiful Chinese teas, and some very attractive tea caddies.
  • Tillerman Tea—(Any Cat Stevens fans?) Always serving up the best in Taiwanese oolongs. Owner David is a Canadian who’s cultivated the best teas through his relationships with Taiwanese tea farmers. I bought his Cuifeng Gaoshan Oolong Winter 2017
  • BeTeas Inc. & The Tea Lounge—Owner Michelle recently came back from a sourcing trip to Hawaii and had some great samples from the Big Island. I really enjoy all the talk of tea cultivation in Hawaii I heard around the festival and picked up their limited edition Hawaii Rainforest White.
  • Zhen Tea—Had a hard-to-find Huang Da Cha (yellow tea) for sale, so of course I picked some up!
  • Tea With You—Here I found a fun orange pu’erh tea made from Yunnan tea aged inside of a fruit skin from Yinhui District in Guangdong, China.  This was a fun and unexpected find, and it turns out these dried orange peels are a huge export from Xinhui, used across China in traditional cooking. The tea has a dark and earthy taste, with little punchy overtones of citrus.

Cheese Foam Tea

Although they didn’t have a booth at the tea festival, I also made a visit to Icha Tea on Spadina, specifically to try their “cheese foam tea,” a freshly brewed beverage topped with a foamy cream cheese-type substance. It was surprisingly good. The sweet and salty combination from the cheese was a nice pairing to the jasmine rose version I tried (the oolong version is also highly recommended). You can also choose how sweet you want it. I got half-sweet and it was the perfect amount for me.

In a separate room at the back of their tea shop, Icha Tea has a tea bar where I steeped a nice Da Hong Pao (red robe tea) gong fu style. During the Tea IQ part of the Toronto Tea Festival, where you blind taste test six teas and record your answers, I mistook a Da Hong Pao (Chinese oolong) for a long-oxidized Taiwanese oolong (shame!!!). I’m determined not to make the same mistake again.

My companion at the tea bar was a very fashionable lady doing some business over her iPhone in rapid Mandarin. At one point she put down her iPhone, sized me up, leaned over and said, “You like Chinese tea?” to which I said, “Yes! I love it.” She nodded her head at me in approval and said, “Good.” I left Icha feeling very pleasantly tea drunk. 

Watching Tea Ceremonies

Chinese Tea Ceremony performed by Sabrina Chen at the Toronto Tea Festival.
Chinese Tea Ceremony performed by Sabrina Chen at the Toronto Tea Festival.

Throughout the Toronto Tea Festival on the main stage there were demonstrations of the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese Tea Ceremonies. As each speaker went through the ceremony, they would explain the different utensils, ceremony flow, and some history. They did a great job of showcasing the ceremonies’ traditions. 

  • Japanese Tea Ceremony performed by Austin Wong, certified teacher of the Ueda Sōko-ryū style of tea ceremony popularized by the samurai class in Japan.
  • Korean Tea Ceremony performed by Sun-hee Jung, who learned about Korean tea from Chel-hung Lee, the Korean tea master who was the founder and President of Korean Tea Association.
  • Chinese Tea Ceremony performed by Sabrina Chen, graduate of South China Agricultural University with a major in Tea Science and Ceremony. She also teaches sometimes at Icha Tea mentioned above and works with Tearoma.

The Toronto Tea Festival was packed this year, with seats for observing the ceremonies disappearing quickly. You had to turn up early to get a good spot near the stage.

Japanese Tea Ceremony performed by Austin Wong at the Toronto Tea Festival.
Japanese Tea Ceremony performed by Austin Wong at the Toronto Tea Festival.

Listening to the Toronto Tea Festival Speakers

As the tea festival-goers are swirling in the main hall, filling their sample cups with tea and buying loose leaf from the vendors, in a conference room just to the side there were speakers with talks running throughout at one hour intervals.

I managed to catch 5 out of 12 speakers. Next year I hope I can see more! Here were a couple of my favourites.

‘Tea and Terroir’ by Kevin Gascoyne 

Did you know…

  • There are 11 soil orders and the Hawaiian Islands are the only place you can find all of them together.
  • Darjeeling’s strike last year means none of the workers pruned the tea gardens after the first harvest and subsequently, this year’s first flush will be extremely interesting to taste because of all the time the bushes had to rest and the accumulated plant matter on the ground.
  • An inch of topsoil in the mountains takes ten years to grow.
  • The main factors that affect terroir are: soil, weather, topography, altitude, plant environment, insects, and human interaction.
  • You can tell whether a tea has grown fast or slow by looking at the internodes (the space between tea leafs). Large internodes = fast growth. Small internodes = slow growth. Small internodes usually means high altitude, where slow growth means more nutrients are likely to have accumulated in the plant.
  • There were so many good tidbits in her—it made me want to study soil and botany. 
  • If you dig this, check out Kevin’s award-winning book, ‘Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties.’

‘The Evolution of Authenticity in Wenshan Bao Zhong Tea’ by David Campbell 

Did you know…

  • There is far more Taiwanese tea sold than produced.
  • Thus, there are many fake Taiwanese teas sold.
  • Tea bushes that look flat are hand-picked, and rounded bushes (like you see in most of Japan) are machine-harvested.
  • Only 12% of Taiwanese Tea is exported. 
  • Taiwanese tea fields are almost one hundred percent cloned.
  • The Tea Research and Extension Station, established in 1903, plays an important role in Taiwanese tea development, and deciding which Taiwanese teas get promoted.
  • All in all it was a super informative talk on a niche I’d like to learn more about.
  • You can read more about this in David’s blog article, ‘Over the Rainbow: In Search of Authenticity.’

Tea Explorer VIP Night

To kick off the Toronto Tea Festival on Friday night there was a screening of the CBC’s documentary, ‘The Tea Explorer.’ It’s a 70-minute film about Canadian Jeff Fuchs (of Jalam Teas) and his relationship with the Tea Horse Road in China. He was the first westerner to ever travel the entire road (it took him seven and a half months).

The Tea Horse Road is a sort of Asia-only version of The Silk Road. It brought tea and other trade goods through Southwest China, Tibet, Nepal, and Burma up until the early 20th Century. Local ‘muleteers’ would load up their mules with dried tea bricks and make the journey. Sometimes they settled in small villages along the way, or big cities at the road’s end.

Brick of bamboo fermented tea.
Taking a closer look at a brick of tea fermented inside a stalk of bamboo, a traditional transportation method on China’s Tea Horse Road.

I really enjoyed that there was a Canadian-made documentary about such an important part of tea’s history. Jeff is an expert in pu’erh and tea’s history along the Tea Horse Road. He also speaks a few local dialects and used to live in China’s Shangri-La. I also appreciate his focus on the human connection to tea, and the relationships it makes, instead of just thinking of tea as just, “Oh, there’s a mushroom-esque base with overtones of clear pine sap,” and thinking of tea in a more heady and taste-only way.

That being said, I would have liked to see a bit more interview content from all the muleteers that Jeff interviewed as part of his journey. At times the documentary is a bit too focused on the Canadian’s experience, instead of that of the characters he meets. However, as a CBC documentary, we can expect that there were certain Canadian Content (oh, the infamous CanCon) requirements to meet, and presumably that’s why the focus more often shifts to Jeff instead of on his destination and the stories of people he meets.

Documentary vs. Book

Jeff Fuch’s 2008 book, ‘The Ancient Tea Horse Road,’ is a nice compliment to the 2017 ‘The Tea Explorer’ documentary. It has more content featuring the muleteers and his climbing companions and guides, and is a good educational resource about the Tea Horse Road. The writing is okay, but does suffer at times from more telling (‘this happened, then this happened’) than showing.

In the (apocryphal) words of playwright Anton Chekhov, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining—show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

Meeting Other Canadian Tea Bloggers

Although it was a super busy week, there was still time to meet up with some other Canadian tea bloggers (THERE’S MORE OF US!!!) who came to the city for the Toronto Tea Festival. 

  • Lu Ann at The Cup of Life writes tea reviews, tea recipes, and does weekly roundups of interesting posts in the tea world.
  • Deb at The Sugared Teacup, creates tea boxes featuring Toronto tea vendors.
  • Connie at Tea in Spoons is an urban planner and tea enthusiast who posts a ton of tea reviews. She’s also on her way to the same tea farm in Japan that I’ll be headed to this spring! (Obubu Buddies!!!)
  • Rita at Adventures in Tealand is an organizer of the Toronto Tea festival. I only chatted with her briefly as she was running around making the festival happen—Thanks, Rita!

Eating Food With Friends

If you made it through all the really nerdy tea stuff, you now get to read about this delicious food! With the luck and guidance of friends I ended up trying some really great restaurants this weekend, all within my favourite price range of, “I want to eat some great food, but don’t want to go broke.”

Wvrst

A sausage hall with other wonders. Contains amazing sausages (including vegan sausage options), pickled veggies, and a stunning choice of brews from local and abroad. I recommend Communal 9, a golden sour farmhouse ale aged 8 months in a tequila barrel and brewed with oats, agave, and golden plum. Any carnivore would feel right at home here. Try the duck fat fries with raclette cheese on top. I’m excited to come back here for a friend’s wedding in September!

Sausages at WVRST in Toronto, Ontario.
What’s the “wurst” that can happen?

Pai

Super homey and casual Northern Thai food done SUPER WELL. Chow down on some super good pad thai, or any of their other dishes. Great for kicking back with friends and beers. If you close your eyes and pretend the Toronto snow isn’t happening outside, you can also imagine you’re at a little bar in Thailand. Despite its casual atmosphere this place is so good that it books up FAST. Make sure to reserve a spot ahead of time so you don’t miss out on getting a table. Song choices while I was there included “I Believe in Miracles,” and a few other upbeat tracks that contributed nicely to the atmosphere.

White Brick Kitchen

Fried chicken, beans, aged cheddar pimento cheese, and comfort food of all sorts. We went for brunch but apparently they do good dinner too. Diner-style comfort food near Koreatown that made for very cozy eats. I had the fried chicken eggs benny and it was YUM. Meet friends here to to talk about life, guzzle some eggs, and then maybe head to Koreatown for taiyaki afterward (if you still have room).

La Carnita

Everything I ate here made my brain subsequently happier. The Mexican street corn with queso añejo and árbol to start was awesome. Then I tasted the In Cod We Trust taco with fried cod, Voltron sauce, lime crema, pickled red cabbage, green apple and cilantro, and was like, “Hell yeah!” Then I grabbed the Tostada de Ceviche with tuna, guacamole, coconut milk. Habanero, tomato, and cucumber, took one crispy bite and was like, “Oh my god. This place is awesome.”

Dessert was churros with housemade cajeta (caramel sauce). They also do daily paletas (popsicles) with different feature flavours. The lunch special will get you everything above for $15.99. A pretty good deal in Toronto.

The Oxley

This gastropub in the style of British public houses is just waiting to become your next regular haunt. I was waiting for my buddy to show up and easily found a corner of the bar to cozy up in. Tracks played included a good dose of Joni Mitchell and Elton John’s Tiny Dancer. This place reminds me of a good old leather chair in my Dad’s study that you could sink right into. 

Chinese gaiwan sitting on a tea boat at the Toronto Tea Festival
Chinese gaiwan sitting on a tea boat at the Toronto Tea Festival

I’m coming to Toronto again this week for a friend’s wedding, as part of my 2018 adventures. If you know any other nom-friendly places I should try, let me know!

Thanks for sticking around and reading. Did you visit the Toronto Tea Festival this year? Thinking about visiting next year? 

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