The cultured taste that lingers

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Sergey Kaln at a recent tea workshop in Saigon which introduces more than dozen kind of tea from all over
Asia. Photo courtesy of Sergey Kaln.

In a city where the commercial beverage list is dominated by coffee, beer and soft drink, an American from Ohio has chosen to focus on a different drink, one that promotes the contemplative, leisurely side of life.

Simply put, Sergey Kaln prefers sitting down and enjoying a pot of tea with friends and fellow connoisseurs of the leaf.

Like many visitors from English-speaking countries, Sergey came to Saigon to teach at a language school. Soon after his arrival two years ago, he realized that something was amiss.

"Here, it is easy to find and enjoy good coffee in pleasant surroundings, but not good tea," says the 25-year-old of Ukrainian descent.

And so in October, Sergey launched Operation Tea with a mission to find and supply the finest tea from around the world, organize tea tastings, and teach an appreciation of tea for the benefit of anyone interested in this important beverage.

Tea drinking is an unobtrusive yet commonplace ritual in Asia, and busy people still make time to relax together around a pot of tea.

Unlike beverages whose taste is immediate and lacking in subtlety, tea takes time to make, to smell, to hold in the hand and sip slowly, and while the taste of tea comes slower, it lingers longer.

Unsurprisingly, Sergey sees tea as more than just a bag of dust sitting in a cup of hot water with milk and sugar. It is a five-thousand-year old beverage with a history of taste and custom that places it above all other beverages.

"Our mission is to spread tea culture and educate the public about the benefits of drinking high quality whole leaf tea," says Sergey, who only deals in unflavored tea and reckons flavoring is often used to disguise tea of poor quality.

Sergey studied photography at Ohio University then worked in a tea house in Ohio. Since then, with the encouragement of his father, he has traveled the world, a bit like tea itself, and to date has spent time in more than two dozen countries.

His experience at the tea house led Sergey to visit ancient tea gardens and exotic tea caves in China, Japan and other countries in Asia to learn more about his favorite beverage.

"All tea comes from the same plant. The taste is different because of the way it's processed. We can know whether it's good tea or not by examining the leaf, by its shape and color," he says.

"It's believed that the Buddha used tea for meditation. With tea, we enjoy the time better and the conversation is deeper than when we converse around beer."

"The Japanese tea ceremony focuses more on ritual, while the Chinese ceremony is all about sharing tea," says Sergey, who prefers the latter approach.

He organized his first tea workshop in Ho Chi Minh City in late October and took along tea from all over Asia to explain how it should be prepared and appreciated.

At the workshop, his fellow enthusiasts tasted Organic 'Precious Eyebrow' Green Tea, Silver Needles White Tea, Shu Puerh, Genmai Matcha, Gyokuro Hoshino, Matcha and finally Tie Guan Yin, heard the cultural stories behind each kind of tea, and learned about the different ways of processing and preparing tea.

Sergey explained how each kind of tea was made, when it was picked, where it grew well and even how hot the water should be.

He is pleased to see more tea houses opening in America as a growing number of his compatriots opt for a quieter, more reflective life and shun the mad dash to nowhere.

Talking about his self-appointed assignment in Vietnam, Sergey says he is teaching something that he finds of great interest, something that comes from the heart of Asia.

To expand his knowledge, he intends to travel to northern Vietnam and discover the tea available in Thai Nguyen and other renowned tea-growing areas.

While Operation Tea is yet to find a permanent home, its products can be obtained at Soham Yoga Studio and Boutique in District 1 and Lyon Center in District 2. There is also a home delivery service.

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