If you’re on the other side of Errol Street to the brunch bunch waiting to get into Auction Rooms, it’s hard to walk past Kuura Tea's white-walled, sunlight-steeped space without peering in.
The site that was formerly Auction Rooms’ takeaway stand is now a tea studio owned by Ayden Graham – but it feels more like a tiny, four-seat bar.
The shop has been cleared of everything but a few elbow-height ledges that now function as display shelves for beautifully wrapped teas and locally made ceramic cups, pots and gaiwans (traditional Chinese teapots).
The fit-out was a DIY job. Graham did all the painting himself and has covered up blemishes on the walls with photos he took of tea plantations in Yunnan, a province in south-western China. At the back, behind a grey curtain, sits roughly 280 kilos of tea.
Portishead overlaps with the whirring kettle. Graham inconspicuously brews gaiwan after gaiwan of tea at the island-bench counter for his business partner, Matthew Perger, seated on the stool opposite.
When Broadsheet first met Graham, he'd just launched his one-man puer tea (a tea produced exclusively in Yunnan) operation. He was traveling regularly to Yunnan for spring and autumn tea harvests, bringing stock back and selling it in his online store.
Now, Graham spends his days at his first bricks-and-mortar shop, pouring samples and guiding customers through their selections.
Puer (sometimes written “pu’er” and “pu-erh”), comes in two varieties: raw and ripe. Raw is the most common. It’s pale yellow and tastes like a strong green tea. Ferment raw puer for two months to create ripe puer, which is dark (it looks almost like coffee), and has an earthy, fermented, chocolatey flavour.
Kuura Tea sells five teas, including a ripe puer. When Graham first tasted it four years ago, it became a gateway tea to aged puers, which are even bolder in flavour.
“If I don’t sell all of [each batch of raw puer] then, sweet, because it’ll keep ageing. Hopefully in 10 years I’ll have a war chest of nice, aged tea that I made myself,” says Graham.
Depending on the tea, Graham says it can have an intense effect. “If you drink a high volume of tea then you feel a bit loopy because of all the caffeine,” he says.
There’s little evidence to suggest drinking puer makes you feel tea drunk, but it’s something tea drinkers talk about.
“When I was first getting into this kind of stuff people are like, ‘Yeah, this tea will make you feel like this’, and it seemed a little New Age,” says Graham. He says he changed his mind when he started drinking “the right tea” from the Yunnan area.
According to Graham, aged puer is hard to come by, and pricey – a 300-gram cake can set you back upwards of $300 – but he often offers a tasting for the studio’s Thursday night tea club.
The tea club “is basically just like this” says Graham, gesturing to the three of us sitting around the counter, drinking a 2005 aged puer that he bought on his last trip to China. It’s not a class – Graham will break out some of his more lavish drops, and guests are welcome to bring an interesting tea from their own collection to share and discuss.
Kuura Tea Studio
104 Errol Street, North Melbourne
Wed to Sun 10am–6pm
This article first appeared on Broadsheet on September 10, 2018. Menu items may have changed since publication.