Tea may be part of our morning routine, but for Rong Pan — co-owner of Ku Cha House of Tea — it is so much more than a refreshing beverage to start the day.
Pan and her husband Qin Liu opened The Leaf in 2005 and a couple years later they rebranded as Ku Cha House of Tea with a flagship shop in Boulder. Through multiple location changes, new stores throughout Colorado and an extensive online enterprise, the homegrown business remains the Front Range’s premier source for loose-leaf blends that offer nuances and medicinal properties far beyond the offerings of Lipton.
According to legend, in 2737 B.C., Chinese emperor Shen Nung was sitting beneath a tree while his servant boiled drinking water. A fire allegedly caused some of the tree’s leaves to dry out, and a strong wind blew them into the boiled water, thus creating a golden and deliciously scented tea.
Tea ceremonies are common in China. Whether alone, with a friend, partner or group, they bring a bit of ritual and relaxation to the everyday.
While Pan hasn’t provided tea ceremonies to the public at her four Colorado shops since the start of the pandemic, she has enjoyed them at home and does so almost daily.
“It’s part of my life,” Pan said. “I usually do it in the evenings because tea doesn’t have that much caffeine. Me and my husband, since we own the business together, we will discuss a lot of things over gongfu tea or talk about kids things. We have two boys together. All those things can be talked about when we drink gongfu.”
Gongfu in this context translates to “taking time and care to do something well,” and a gongfu tea ceremony is a practice that lends itself to enjoying the present and putting an effort into creating a pot.
“It isn’t something you do between texting or watching a TV show,” Pan said.
Pan is hopeful that consumers are open to learning more about the practice and perhaps implementing it in their own homes.
Ku Cha has established relationships with tea farmers throughout the world, sourcing products from China, India, Japan, South African and elsewhere.
Visitors to the store never want for a selection that’s evolving, and plenty of tea wares and accessories line shelves.
“I think the gongfu tea ceremony is really the best way to appreciate the flavor and the fragrance of the tea with all your senses,” Pan said. “You can enjoy the color, the taste, the fragrance and then you are always in the moment. You are always with the tea.”
Rather than just letting leaves steep in boiling water, each dance-like move has a purpose.
There’s even a tiny ceramic “tea pet” that Pan bathes in whatever blend she has brewed. The animal can come in a variety of options such as a pig, deer and rabbit. There are also animals of the zodiac.
“Whenever the water is flowing, it brings you good luck,” Pan said.
From “waking up” the leaves with a bit of boiling water to utilizing empty vessels to capture the fragrant aroma of the tea and inhaling deep before moving on to the first sip, all steps build to create a memorable experience that is undeniably peaceful.
With water poured over cups to warm them first and on top of the tea pot to seal it, there is almost a baptismal or cleansing quality to the ceremony. A gongfu tray is specifically designed to catch the excess water.
Some ceramic tea pots are adorned with floral designs. Pan is from Jiangsu Province Yixing, a region known for its exquisite pottery.
From the incredibly fragrant Jasmine Silver Needle White Tea to Rock Oolong, the amount of pure varieties Ku Cha carries each possess characteristics that are sure to appeal to different palates.
A fermented tea — Sui Yue Liu Xiang Ripe Puerh — is said to aid with digestion and help lower cholesterol. But its notes, that are reminiscent of saturated hay or suede, may be an acquired taste for those used to something more basic.
“It’s like the Colorado mountains after rain,” Pan said.
Pan recalls the first cup of tea that she thoroughly enjoyed that left a lasting impression.
“When I grew up in China, it was pretty poor,” Pan said. ”Usually we reserve the teas to serve guests. Kids wouldn’t have a chance to drink good tea. My first good cup of tea has stuck in my mind to this day. When I was in high school, my second brother graduated from college, he got a job and bought Dragon Well. It’s pretty much the most famous green tea. In China we have about 6,000 different greens. That was the first time I had actual good quality.”
Pan makes a multitude of blends in her shop and educates staff about the properties of the single-origin teas.
“The vast majority of the knowledge comes from doing the business,” Pan said. “We are in the tea business for 16, or almost 17 years, so there is a lot of self-education going on, too.”
During the pandemic, Pan created a line of iced teas and kombuchas while the shops were closed for six weeks. While some of these products are sold in neighboring establishments like Japango and Avanti, it’s her goal to eventually get them into grocery stores.
No sugar is added to the iced teas, and surprisingly none is needed. Fruit-forward flavors like cherry and peach delight the taste buds.
“If you have good ingredients, you really don’t have to cover it up with billions of things,” Pan said.
The ingenuity doesn’t stop with beverages. Pan has also expressed a desire to capture the aromatic wonder of specific teas in a line of perfume for both men and women.
For now, she’ll continue to brew up enriching and unique cups for folks to savor.
“We’ve made Boulder home,” Pan said. “It’s really nice to connect to the Boulder community. We have many devoted customers helping us through all those years, especially the COVID times.”
Customers are encouraged to enjoy tea in to-go cups in the inviting back room tea house that was closed for two years during the pandemic.
The warm space almost has a greenhouse feel with natural light pouring in from the high ceilings. Red walls draped with vines, lush plants, lanterns and a fountain to drop a coin or two into elevate the space to something beyond a typical cafe.
It’s a place that lends itself to moments of much-need zen.
Beyond Boulder, Ku Cha has locations in Fort Collins, Cherry Creek North and Denver Pavilions. Owners have plans to open up a fifth location at Park Meadows Mall in Lone Tree.
“The business makes me feel very rooted in the Boulder community,” Pan said. “Both my husband and I are first-generation immigrants. I came here for college. We didn’t know anybody. Now we have kids here, we have businesses here and Boulder people are nice. I do feel very fortunate to be here serving our community.”