Five or six years ago, a tea shop opened in Minneapolis. It was open only 4 hours a day, which made it hard to get to, but I had just started exploring the world of specialty tea, so I took the time to make a special trip. They brewed no tea, just sold it bulk: “Thés et tisanes en gros,” read a small handwritten sign on the wall.
I told the proprietor that I was interested in some Keemun Mao Feng, as I had been reading about it and it sounded good. He sized me up, then took another tea off the shelf.
“No,” he said, opening the double-lidded canister, “you’re not ready for that. Try this first, it’s a basic Keemun. Then maybe you’ll appreciate the Mao Feng.”
I was flabbergasted. Here was this guy, refusing to sell me something that I wanted to buy! I wasn’t sure how to take this. On the one hand, he was making sense. The Mao Feng was over $100 per pound. Although I was only buying 4 ounces, the far less expensive basic Keemun was still considerably easier on the pocketbook. On the other hand, I have a pretty sophisticated palate. I roasted and tasted coffee for a living, I was quite capable of recognizing the quality of a tea. I told him as much. I don’t think the coffee bit helped.
So I took his advice and bought the basic Keemun. Even that was marvelous. Over the next six to eight months, I would make a few more trips to the tea shop, and eventually was allowed to buy a Mao Feng. Oh, happy day! Occasionally, to the amazement of my friends and some of his other customers, I would even be graced with a free sample or two of some truly exquisite teas.
My friend Michael was not so “lucky.”
Did you ever see the Seinfeld episode with the Soup Nazi? This guy made incredible soup, but ran his shop in an outlandishly dictatorial manner. Customers took what they were given, no questions or complaints. Those who got on his bad side would be banned (“no soup for you, come back one year”).
For months I’d already been calling the owner of this little Minneapolis tea shop the Tea Nazi when, incredibly, he described himself in the same terms — careful, of course, to point out that he’d never seen an episode of Seinfeld.
One Saturday my friend Michael stopped by the store half an hour after they were to have opened, but the door was locked. He peeked in and knocked. The Tea Nazi was sitting behind the counter, reading a newspaper. No response. Michael knocked again. The Nazi looked up, irritated, then made a big show of standing up, walking over to the door, unlocking it, and returning to his seat and his newspaper behind the counter.
Michael walked in, looked around, but got no reaction from the proprietor.
Bravely, Michael spoke up. “Do you have any white teas? A friend of mine has been telling me about them and I’d really like to know more.”
Without looking up from his paper, the Tea Nazi gave a disgusted sigh, then said in a flat tone: “There is a book, All the Tea in China, that will tell you everything you want to know about white tea.” Then he stood up, folded his paper, and retreated to the back room. Michael waited, hoping he might come out again, but he never did.
Needless to say, Michael never returned. Neither did I. A few months later, a tea shop opened up across the river in Saint Paul, run by a really nice guy who actually lets people buy the tea they want. I’ve never looked back.