David Wright of Hidden Peak Teahouse. Photo by Chip Scheuer.
Several months ago, a friend served me pu-erh tea for the first time. He talked of an “expansion” and a “clear headedness”—highs that sounded particularly useful at the time. After the first miniature cup, a calm washed over me. I felt relaxed, yet more mentally open than I had been even 30 seconds before.
By the fifteenth miniature cup, the top of my head felt like it had come unhinged, and my mind, which had expanded without limitation, was sitting somewhere in the clouds, stroking its beard with the immortals. The conversation traversed the seldom-visited outskirts of our metaphysical neighborhoods, yet our feet were still firmly planted on the ground.
Since that first encounter with pu-erh tea, I haven’t reached quite the same mental state, nor have I forgotten it. Plundering Google revealed that the tea, which comes from the Yunnan province of China, is credited with a range of health benefits, from encouraging weight loss and fat synthesis to having antimicrobial and cancer-fighting properties. It’s even a hangover cure.
But the question remained: could pu-erh have psychoactive effects? Or had I experienced some insane placebo effect? I took my quest directly to the source of the pu-erh that I had been served: to David Wright, 41, owner of Hidden Peak Teahouse.
“It’s the beauty of the relationship that you develop with the tea when it’s in this kind of context,” says Wright. Barefoot and sitting cross-legged on a stool, Wright pours boiling water around the outside of a small tea pot, then fills it to the brim so that more water sloshes over the sides when he plunks the lid on. He speaks in a low and soothing voice and smiles with his eyes after he finishes a thought he particularly likes.
“The longer it goes on, the slower people get, not faster,” he says. “I believe that if you were to be checking their EKG then you’d really see that it’s a serene, calming experience for a human being that you don’t have to prepare for. You don’t have to tell them to act any particular way, you don’t have to demand anything, you just start doing it,” says Wright, who has been serving people tea since his early twenties.
Wright has devoted his life to sharing high quality pu-erh teas from China with the Western world, some of them so precious and rare that they cost $500 a pot. Those particular teas are extremely psychoactive, without a doubt, says Wright. But even the affordable blends of pu-erh that Wright carries offer the mellow yet invigorating buzz so different from the rapid jolt that coffee offers.
The most common psychoactive phenomenon Wright has witnessed over the years in his tea rituals is that people often are reminded of a childhood memory.
“It’s almost the antithesis of intoxication,” says Wright. “Most other things that people sit down and share with each other, from the ganja culture to beer and sake, will actually bring you further and further out there. Tea has always been separated from the pack because of the way that you can drink a lot of it and still be functional and not intoxicated. You come closer and closer to yourself,” he says.
Wright slurps his tea loudly. “Slurping and spilling are encouraged,” he says. “It’s very liberating for the Westerner.” I raise my steaming cup of amber-colored pu-erh and produce a self-conscious burble. I will be working on that.