A cup (or six) of tea with Hidden Peak
Teahouse proprietor David Wright
Photography by Michelle Magdalena
As someone who spends most days chained to a computer and suffers from an average to medium-high iPhone addiction, there is something powerfully nourishing about a space where I must forgo all such technology.
For this increasingly rare and wholly replenishing state, I turn to redwood-lined trails or the quiet of a yoga class, but not often to busy cafés. Unless the café is Hidden Peak Teahouse in downtown Santa Cruz.
Nestled in a tranquil alley that splinters off Pacific Avenue, Santa Cruz’s main drag, the teahouse is steps from the city’s lively nucleus but miles away in spirit. A digital-free policy makes the space noticeably absent of laptops and keeps patrons from habitually trolling the contents of their smartphones. Music is played live or on vinyl while customers talk, read or simply sit and enjoy their Eastern-style tea service.
This oasis of mindfulness is cultivated by what owner David Wright calls “tea space.”
“It all begins with the atmosphere,” says Wright, who opened Hidden Peak with his wife, Marilee Wright, in 2012, after previously operating Chaikhana Tea Culture on nearby Cedar Street. “You walk into a space and immediately you are confronted in ways you don’t even register with the space talking to you. Tea is so subtle, it needs to be served from neutrality.”
Wright greets me in the foyer, where I peruse vintage tea ware, and leads me into the back office, which, in fact, hardly resembles one. It is dimly lit and ornately decorated, and in its center is a long, low Chinese tea table surrounded by tree stumps-cum-stools.
I lower onto a seat across from him as he explains that Hidden Peak’s low-key ambience is actually crafted with utmost intention, starting with the removal of digital frequencies and devices. (Wright himself has never owned a cell phone or used a computer, although the teahouse does maintain Web and e-mail addresses.) As per the traditional Chinese gongfu tea practice that Hidden Peak follows, its simple and delicious food menu (developed by Noah Kopito of Mortal Dumpling) is devoid of animal products, garlic and onion. The prohibition is important enough to Wright that even the servers, who move about unobtrusively in simple black clothing and without fragrance, are asked to not bring these foods in their packed lunches.
“When it’s about tea, it’s about choosing foods that don’t interrupt the experience of the tea in any way,” explains Wright, who hasn’t eaten meat since the age of 16.
Wright himself has never owned a
cell phone or used a computer,
although the teahouse does
maintain Web and e-mail addresses.
He plucks a small, white clay teapot from the shelf behind him. Yixing teapots like this, Wright explains, are meant to be seasoned like cast iron pans. Cleaned only with hot water, the unglazed pots get better with age, acquiring a glossy patina over time.
Wright sets water to boil in an electric kettle and reaches into a woven basket, extracting a brick of vintage pu-erh, a fermented tea that also improves with age. He breaks off a corner and places the dried fragments into the pot. By the time my small cup is filled, I notice that the day’s stress I’d carried in with me is dissipating with the curls of steam circling upward from my tea.
“We want to give something that is not really seen that much these days,” Wright says of the venue. “How can we help a person walk in and have an out breath and feel relaxed? The digital-free [setting] is a thing a lot of people in this day and age don’t even know they need. A lot of people say, ‘I had no idea how much I needed this.’”
I can second that, I think to myself.
Soon, the kettle is gurgling again. Wright flakes off more of the late-1990s Mang Fei Shan pu-erh we’ve been drinking and repeats the tea-making ritual: All vessels before us are rinsed with hot water. Wright fills the teapot and pours the first steep over a figurine of Lu Yu, the author of The Classic of Tea, which is considered the first definitive book on tea, and allows the tea to cascade into small depressions carved in the surface of the table.
“There are multiple meanings to all of this,” Wright says, pouring our second cups. “There is even meaning in which direction you pour and how high you pour from.”
Although Hidden Peak practices the gongfu (also known as kung fu) style of tea ceremony, he is emphatic that there is no right or wrong way to serve tea.
“Tea is the second most-drunk beverage in the world, next to water,” he says. “And with that, every country that has adopted it has a different way of going about it. Even within a culture, everyone likes it a slightly different way. This is just our perspective.”
By the time my small cup is filled,
I notice that the day’s stress
I’d carried in with me is dissipating
with the curls of steam circling
upward from my tea.
Wright admits that Hidden Peak can seem intimidating, or at least esoteric, from outside the front gates, but he wants to foster an openness and accessibility that encourage anyone to stop by, try some tea and ask questions. Prices range from $0.99 for the Big Bowl of house pu-erh to hundreds of dollars for vintage teas dating back to the 1970s, and can be served by the cup or as a full sit-down tea ceremony.
As a third round is dispensed, our conversation returns to the notion of subtlety: to not only appreciate tea, but to have it at its healthiest and most delicious, Wright says it must be pure, chemical-free, whole leaf tea. This is the case for Hidden Peak’s entire menu, which includes five pages of pu-erhs (all sourced from China’s Yunnan province by Wright’s tea guru, Master Wang), as well as green, black and oolong teas.
The fourth and fifth cups behind us, I’m alert and upbeat but not the slightest bit jittery. Wright, who can drink a gallon or more of pu-erh in a day, describes the dark tea’s
high as a gentle slope rather than the peak and crash of other caffeinated drinks. That gentle effect, as well as pu-erh’s alluring, earthy taste and purported digestive benefits, are making it more popular today than ever before.
The dregs of our sixth cups now drained, we walk through the kitchen and down a stair- case to a 2,000-square foot basement where the tea is stored. A custom-built room keeps the humidity, temperature and airflow just right for preserving and aging the teas that are the heart of Wright’s offering to his guests.
“I relate everything in the world through tea,” Wright says. “It’s more than a beverage or a food product or a way of life, even. It’s a reminder. Teatime is about coming home and remembering that we are alive right now.”
This is one reason the tea is served in such small vessels, he explains—in contrast to the thoughtless chugging that a 16-ounce bottle can prompt, the mind must return to the present moment with each refill of a tiny cup. After all, as the old Eastern adage that Wright likes to quote explains, “Zen and tea are one flavor.”
Hidden Peak Teahouse
1541-C Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz
Elizabeth Limbach is an award-winning freelance writer based in Santa Cruz.