By Catherine Spangler
Northwest Asian Weekly
Some things in life come to mean much more than they seem at first glance. Things like a sentimental blanket from childhood or the wedding band on a ring finger. For 19-year-old Jeffrey McIntosh, it’s tea.
Four years ago, McIntosh studied photography in college. He trolled the streets of Seattle’s International District looking for photo opportunities. Inside a tiny hole-in-the-wall shop known as Seattle Best Tea, McIntosh had an experience that would later compel him to drop out of school and begin his studies in tea.
“There was this wonderful woman who was very happy and energetic. She invited me to sit down and try their tea. So I sat down, and she just gave me cup after cup of tea,” McIntosh said, describing their first encounter.
Friends and family were used to his sudden and short-lived interests in different pursuits like cooking and meditation. But this passion would prove to be different.
McIntosh was absolutely captivated with what he experienced in the tea shop. It was partly from the extravagance of the tea ceremony and partly from feeling so welcomed — and disoriented — by the shop’s enthusiastic owner, Lydia Hsu.
Lydia was thrilled to see a young person interested in learning about tea. Most of the shop’s devoted regulars were of an older generation.
He began coming back every week — and then every day.
Before he knew it, he was serving tea to customers while Lydia ducked out to walk her dog. As he learned more about the art and practice of making tea, his visits turned into a formal apprenticeship with Lydia’s husband, Joe Hsu. Slowly, McIntosh observed the proper temperatures and steeping times associated with brewing an exquisite cup of fine tea.
Now, three years later, McIntosh is a veritable encyclopedia of tea knowledge. He elaborates in great detail on the history, traditions, health benefits, and spiritual aspects of tea to interested customers. His tea habit now includes imbibing approximately three gallons a day.
When McIntosh tastes a cup of high-mountain Oolong tea — the shop’s specialty — he might taste bitter chocolate, caramel, or even a trace of the cave the tea was stored in. His education in tea has come from many hours of observation and communication in broken Chinese with his tea master, who speaks very little English.
“Becoming a tea master can take anywhere from 15 to 20 years, depending on who you learn from and the schools you go to. It’s a very respected title,” McIntosh said.
Beyond learning the finer details of making a cup of tea, McIntosh has gained lessons in life through his time at Seattle Best Tea. Tea has opened up a whole world of culture and language, prompting McIntosh to learn Mandarin and plan a visit to China. Tea, he says, has changed how he sees the world.
“I was an extremist. I went to school very young. I had very impulsive behaviors. My mind was constantly overly active, so tea just really allowed me to take a step back and just appreciate the moment I was in. It has increased my patience and become my practice,” McIntosh said of his new lifestyle.
This lifestyle includes an unexpected relationship that has developed from long hours at the shop. “Chinese call it fate. He came here because he loved tea. We learn from each other. … For me, Jeffrey is very special. He’s like a son,” Lydia said about McIntosh.
With such unexpected turns in his past, McIntosh says he isn’t sure where he will be in the future. But he does know that wherever he is, he will have a cup of tea in his hand. ♦
Catherine Spangler can be reached at email@example.com.