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Ku Cha’s Tea Room and Shop Bring Delicious Peace

By Kate Jonuska

Photos by Phil Mumford

Qin Liu founded Ku Cha with his wife, Rong Pan.
Qin Liu founded Ku Cha with his wife, Rong Pan.

Colorful, modern, busy, stylish: These are some words that might come to mind to describe Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall. “Relaxing” and “contemplative,” however, rarely make the top of the list—until you visit the calm oasis of Ku Cha House of Tea, which strives to be a peaceful counterpoint to the bustling world outside.

“Downtown Pearl Street is usually a very busy place, and there are a lot of nice restaurants and shops, but it can often be crowded,” says Qin Liu, who founded Ku Cha with his wife, Rong Pan, in 2006. In 2011, they moved to their current location on Pearl, which is painted in rich reds and yellows and scattered with Asian antiques and handmade teapots.

“People come in here and step into a different environment and culture that’s not the same as their everyday life,” Liu says. “The whole idea we have here is giving the customer not a purchase but an experience they will remember and appreciate.”

Exploring with Your Senses

The experiential nature of Ku Cha begins in the front of the store, the home base for the shop’s main business of selling loose-leaf teas. More than 150 varieties are in stock from all over the world, including China, Japan, India, South America and South Africa. Ku Cha sells its teas in sealed black bags, but provides a clear canister of each variety for customers to experience with their senses.

“For each tea, we have information and a small sample jar that customers can open and smell, and also see what the loose-leaf tea looks like,” Liu says. “They feel better that they can participate in the decision-making process. It’s not just seeing a box. You know what’s inside.”

[quote]Ku Cha House of Tea (303-443-3612; www.kuchatea.com) is located at 1141 Pearl St., Boulder 80302. It’s open Mondays-Saturdays 10 a.m.-9 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m.-8 p.m. [/quote]

The label tells the source of the tea, how it’s processed, the fragrances and flavors, and often, the tea’s health benefits. Liu, Pan and their well-trained employees—two full-timers and six working part-time—are excellent sources of information and advice.

For instance, green tea is said to cool the body and is therefore ideal for summer or hot afternoons, while black tea’s caffeine content and warming qualities make it a natural as a breakfast beverage. Both types of tea actually come from the same Camellia sinensis plant, but green tea is almost unprocessed while black teas are fully oxidized.

Ku Cha also sells teas that are less familiar in American culture. “People are not as familiar—but are catching up—with oolong, pu-erh and white tea,” says Liu, explaining that oolong, for instance, is semi-oxidized, which places it somewhere between green and black. “Oolong is very good for digesting and has better and stronger fragrance than green or black. There’s also a lot of variety in taste because of the variable oxidation.”

Pu-erh, on the other hand, is created with fermentation rather than oxidation, and is coveted by tea aficionados who love the flavor and how it improves with age. In fact, pu-erh teas are often collected, stored and aged like wine. Rounding out the world tea offerings, Ku Cha also carries rooibos (or red tea), yerba maté and herbal blends. Different teas and tisanes have health benefits for the eyes, digestion, brain function, detoxification, blood-sugar control and more.

Ku Cha offers more than 150 varieties of tea from all over the world.
Ku Cha offers more than 150 varieties of tea from all over the world.

While loose-leaf sales are the bulk of their business, the shop also serves tea to go—including samples for customers to try before buying—and carries a selection of fine tea ware, such as teacups, pots and other accessories. Much of the inventory is handmade or traditionally crafted, most in the Chinese style. This means smaller pots and tiny, handle-less tea cups sized for only a mouthful, because, as Liu says, “In Chinese culture, you taste tea using small cups. With a big mug, we consider that drinking tea, not tasting tea.”

Tea Garden

Answering customers’ questions about tea and its traditional service fueled the creation of the final component of the business, the lovely Tea House in the back of the shop. Inspired by traditional Chinese gardens, the Tea House is decorated with wall hangings, low tables, a water feature and plants, but no wifi and no cellphone conversations are allowed. During business hours, it offers dine-in tea service with cups or pots of tea and homemade tea snacks.

“We also serve very traditional Chinese gong fu tea, which is pretty unique,” says Liu. This method of preparation uses a traditional tray, a small pot and tasting cups to drink tea communally with a friend or group. “Because tea can be steeped many times—especially oolong teas and pu-erh teas—the taste varies throughout the process, so you can actually see how the tea goes through its life cycle.”

The appeal of gong fu again circles back to Ku Cha’s focus on experience and participation. Instead of being served tea, you are making tea yourself. Instead of just a retail transaction, you have a conversation, and often an education.

In fact, the shop does weekly tea tastings and offers a series of four tea classes for $20 per person throughout the fall and winter. But spring is tea season, meaning the owners are often hopping around the world in search of Boulder’s next favorites.

[accordion title=”The owners recommend:” close=”0″]Oolong tea: Rou Gui. A “rock tea” that grows in the weathered-rock soils of Zheng Yan in the heart of Wuyi, China, an area known for high-quality oolong. It brews to an amber color and tastes of cinnamon spice.
Black tea: Golden Eyebrows. From the Fujian Province of China, this tea has small, curled leaves of a dark golden color. The resulting brew is golden and smooth, with a lingering finish reminiscent of honey.
Pu-erh tea: Bing Dao. This tea is Ku Cha’s first exclusive pu-erh pressing, meaning the aged leaves are pressed into a disc or cake, which can then be further aged. Harvested from 500-year-old wild tea trees, the brew is refreshing, sweet and rich, with almost no astringency.
—K.J.[/accordion]