Growing up in a Chinese-American household in San Rafael, Anwen Cai Baumeister has long been intimately familiar with Chinese tea. On family trips to China, she spent many summer days in Chengdu tea houses in the Western Sichuan province and at public parks, drinking tea while her grandmother took tai chi class, her grandfather practiced calligraphy with his friends and her mother played mahjong with her friends.
“I just loved what all these elements brought about, which is connection and community, and I think that the way to foster abundance is through community,” Baumeister said.
When Baumeister reopened The Well in May, taking over from its original founder, Marielle Amrhein, she not only wanted to bring in a line of organic Chinese teas, but to recreate that feeling of community in the space.
Like the teas she sipped during her childhood, The Well’s Chinese teas are sourced from a variety of different farms around China, almost exclusively from organic or bio-organic farms. Fortunately, the organic Chinese tea movement in China has recently seen a revival of small, sustainable agriculture, and Baumeister has been grateful to be able to find those farms. The Chinese teas the café currently offers include white teas, green teas, black teas, oolong, pu-erh and flower teas.
“There are just so many amazing Chinese herbs out there, so many amazing plants that I grew up with from China that are used in traditional Chinese medicine, and I’d love to offer them at The Well and have them be more accessible to the community,” she said.
Harkening back to the peaceful, slow serenity she experienced drinking tea in public spaces in China, Baumeister wants to take the ritual of tea drinking beyond tea bags in disposable cups. Although The Well will continue to offer Chinese teas served like any of its other herbal teas, Baumeister offers tea tastings and tea workshops at The Well. She also hopes to introduce what’s known as the gongfu-style ceremony into the café’s repertoire.
Gongfu-style is a method of brewing tea using a gaiwan, a small brewing cup or pot. The leaves are steeped multiple times, from three to six times, depending on the type of tea. Tea leaves are added into the gaiwan before hot water is poured in, steeping the leaves for about a minute before transferring the tea into drinking cups. Subsequent washes are increased by about 15 seconds, allowing the leaves to reveal different flavor profiles each time. The careful, time-intensive method is designed to bring you into the present moment.
The method “allows me to have a really intimate connection with the tea leaves I’m drinking from,” said Baumeister. “And it fosters the slow-food culture of just, for me, really being present and grateful for the soil that grew the leaves, the camellia sinensis plant it came from, the hands that fertilized it, that picked the leaves, that processed the leaves, and allows me to really feel the depth and the story behind each type of tea.”
Although she guides me through the ceremony, Baumeister said that traditionally, the parties at gongfu ceremonies don’t talk and are just present with the tea and the process. “The belief in the tea ceremony is that we’re bringing in all of the elements into this experience,” she said. “So in some traditions, they’ll only use spring water, or they’ll only heat the water over the fire to bring in the fire element, and the earth element comes through the tea leaves itself.”
The first wash is mainly to awaken the tea leaves and warm the palate. On my visit, Baumeister chose the Superfine Taiwan Ali Shan Oolong tea, leaves sourced from the mountainous region of Chiayi County in Taiwan. Hand-rolled into tiny balls, the leaves unfurl the moment the water hits them. Following Baumeister’s example, I relax in my seat; a soothing calm washes over me as the tea steeps.
Over the last few years, Baumeister has not only delved deeper into the culture of Chinese tea, but has studied Ayurvedic medicine and western herbalism. Currently, she still takes courses at East West School of Planetary Biology, an herbalist school based in Ben Lomond founded by Michael and Lesley Tierra. She grows her own herbs, and considers food as medicine.
“It wasn’t until the past couple of years that I’ve been really trying to dive back into my Chinese ancestry,” she said. “I think that a way of healing for myself has been through the Chinese food and Chinese tea. I might not have teachers that can directly teach me a lot of the cultural pieces that I’ve been searching for, that I’ve been missing from me in China because of everything that happened in the last century, but I have these teas, I have this food and Chinese herbs that I can study more and be with more and that I can learn from. So for me, it’s the rewriting of my narrative around my ancestry and to be proud of it, too.”
In addition to Chinese tea, Baumeister has added nourishing foods with roots from her heritage, like bone broths and congee (rice porridge), to The Well’s menu of granola and yogurt bowls, rice bowls and other healthy bar bites. Under her ownership, The Well also now serves kava, a crop from the western Pacific Islands known for its calming effects. Because many people in the community have told her that they wanted a safe, late night spot that was alcohol free, she has extended the café’s hours. The Well is open on weekdays and Sundays until 10 p.m. and Saturdays until 6 p.m.
“What I love about drinking tea this way is just this presence that I have with this tea and the presence that I have with you right now,” she said. “It’s so different from coming in and grabbing a to-go cup and drinking it in the car. It’s really like honoring all the energy that it took to create this moment and to create these tea leaves, just honoring that this is the only time that you and I will ever sit here around these specific tea leaves in this moment drinking this specific tea. That’s where the ceremony is for me.”