Growing up in Taiwan, Elena Liao consumed more cups of tea than she can count. “My family is tea crazy,” she says. “Everywhere we went, we brought it with us—to my mother, it’s like water.” It wasn’t until she moved to New York City, however, that she developed a true taste for tea. “I’d been drinking it all my life, but I knew nothing about it,” Liao admits. So she started researching the traditional sip. “It was a lot of Googling and reading,” she recalls.
Liao’s fascination grew, and in 2012, she began selling tea wholesale to a few fine-dining restaurants in Manhattan—among them Atera and Eleven Madison Park—all while working
full-time as a merchandise buyer for a big-box retailer. That is until last year, when she and her chef husband, Frederico Ribeiro (formerly of Il Buco and Per Se), successfully launched Té Company, a petite tea shop in the West Village that focuses solely on oolong. “The idea was to educate people on oolong and create a very comfortable environment for them to experience the tea,” Liao explains.
On any given day, Té Company offers up to 30 varieties of oolong handpicked by Liao, who ventures to her native land every spring on sourcing trips. By far the most popular is a variant that dates back to the early 1900s called Oriental Beauty. This traditional oolong owes its distinctive flavor to tiny wild crickets that nip at the plant, causing it to secrete a protein that, when highly oxidized, gives off a unique and natural aroma of honey and roses. “It’s an additional element and layer of complexity that makes the tea extremely precious and very delicious,” Liao says. (The shop features three grades of Oriental Beauty—“the quality depends on how bitten or infested the plants are,” she clarifies—with the most expensive priced at $52 for 50 grams.)
Clients can order anything from a to-go cup to bottled cold brew—or contact What Should We Do to book a sit-down, two-hour tasting led by Liao. The bespoke experience, which spotlights five teas, is ideal for the uninitiated: “It’s like a guided tour that showcases the differences in processing and how they lead to various flavor profiles,” she says, adding that oftentimes, tea reflects the personality of its maker. “A deeply roasted tea has a bit more formality and structure—it will seem more serious or masculine, even—while some teas are heavy on the rose, which you would articulate as a very mature woman with sex appeal, if you will.”
The charming shop serves a smattering of snacks to accompany the delicate drinks, from tortilla with potatoes and egg to its signature spicy linzers (a nod to the classic pineapple cakes ubiquitous in Taiwan, the vanilla bean shortbread pastries are filled with pineapple-rosemary jam and yuzu kosho paste and sprinkled with sea salt and lime zest).
Soon Liao hopes to offer more seasonal and limited-edition oolongs. “Buying tea is very much like purchasing your favorite brand of wine—you tend to keep getting the same thing. I want to encourage people to try different teas,” she says. Though even if you buy the same tea, she notes, “it’ll be a little different every time. You get to learn and appreciate the variations of nature.”
The biggest mistake amateur brewers make? Steeping full-size tea leaves with a metal ball strainer. “You want to allow room for the leaves to open,” Liao reasons. “So the best thing to do is let them freely roam in a teapot or Pyrex measuring cup and use a strainer when you pour out the tea.”
To prepare the perfect sip, Liao recommends heating the water to 195 degrees Fahrenheit and infusing four grams of leaves—a little less than a teaspoon—per standard cup. “Good teas get great mileage,” she says, which means you can resteep each serving several times and drink it all day long. “Tea has a long shelf life—it ages quite well. As you drink an aged tea, you can taste the evolution of the tea itself. It loses its original character, but gives you something else.”
Té Company is located at 163 West 10th Street. It’s open 10:30 a.m. – 7 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, with bespoke tea tastings for two to three guests ($48 per person) at 10:45 a.m. and 4 p.m. on weekdays and 10:45 a.m. on weekends.
The Té Company is the perfect place to have a relaxing catch-up with that special someone. Contact our planners to book your own bespoke tea tasting experience.