In a world where everyone’s in a hurry — catching the train, going to work, hitting the gym, studying for finals or even attending social events — and where our belief that “time is money” overpowers the human need to slow down, the art of tea making and drinking is most definitely not everyone’s, well, cup of tea.
According to legend, tea was first discovered in China in 2737 BC after some leaves from a Camellia sinensis tree fell into a boiled drinking water that was to be served to a Chinese emperor. The accidental drink eventually became China’s favorite drink.
Tea — the entire process of making it — involves a specific ratio of water and herbs, the right temperature to boil water, and the perfect way of pouring it on the cup. This means preparing tea can’t be done in a hurry; instead, it should be done in a careful, precise and slow manner. Even drinking tea needs full focus; after all, it’s a drink that calms and centers the mind.
Opened in 2017 in San Diego, California, PARU Tea Bar is on a mission to spread the art of tea to a coffee-dominated American society. PARU transformed from a pop-up tea bar to retail shops in Point Loma and La Jolla, and has become a prominent addition to a growing constellation of excellent teahouses in the city. Founded by Vietnamese American Amy Truong and Filipino American Lani Gobaleza, PARU Tea Bar prides itself on directly-sourced, single-farm, and hard-to-come-by loose tea leaves, matcha, and tisanes from the far off local farmers in East and Southeast Asia.
The idea first came when co-founders Truong and Gobaleza met in 2010 during an educational trip to Japan. Truong, who has always been fond of tea, was mesmerized by the tea culture that was embedded in her familial traditions. “At the age of 5, my mom always gave me either non-caffeinated or Vietnamese green tea to drink. It always felt like such a treat,” reminisces Truong.
Meanwhile, originally a coffee-lover, Gobaleza was later inspired by the rich history and culture of Japanese tea. “My mother grew up on a coffee farm in the Philippines, so I grew up drinking a lot of it. But I usually feel jittery after drinking coffee,” Gobaleza says. “When Amy and I studied abroad in Japan, I got to know about the tea ceremony there. Amazingly, when I started drinking green tea — a lot of it — I didn’t feel any jitters. That’s what sparked my love for tea.”
As a history lover and educator, Gobaleza worked in the Japanese countryside the following years, where she deepened her knowledge in the different grades and purposes of tea from the local community.
Their passion for tea gradually transformed to something bigger. PARU was established in 2017 with a clear vision from the dynamic duo: to create and share moments of calm and tranquility through tea. In addition to leading the team, Truong serves as a primary tea educator, tea sourcer and blender, and operations manager. Gobaleza is in charge of marketing and partnerships.
Truong owes her entrepreneurial mindset from her Vietnamese ancestors. “My grandfather was a really successful entrepreneur as Panasonic’s distributor of rice cookers in Vietnam. Growing up hearing his stories and spending a lot of time in his shops where I helped unload cargoes and see how hardworking he was, I grew up wanting to work for myself and having full control of my own visions. That dream became a reality when we opened PARU.”
Truong admits that while establishing PARU was a dream come true, it requires tons of work and dedication. “We only have a small team, but we need to make sure that every person is not only well-equipped with product knowledge but also knows that we are not a franchise where you can just read a script. PARU tea is very personal, both to the team behind it and to the customers. We do our best with training to foster good team culture, but it takes a lot of time and energy to do so.”
Honoring Asian heritage
Hand-brewed mindfully and traditionally, PARU is a reflection of a growing appreciation for tea cultures in East and Southeast Asia. “Southeast Asian teas don’t get as much spotlight as the Chinese and Japanese tea, even though the tea cultures there are equally rich and interesting. PARU aims to introduce Southeast Asian tea culture to our customers.”
Proudly sourcing tea leaves directly from Vietnamese local farmers, PARU works with tea plantations in Moc Chau, Yen Bai and Ha Giang for local specialities like green, black, white, oolong tea, and pu'er style (dark teas). “Vietnamese teas have a slightly more earthy and smokier flavor due to the tropical terrain where it's grown.” Other herbs are sourced from Japan, Thailand and other tea plantations from Asia.
“We think that beyond tea, we are bringing farmers’ stories to the US because they didn’t export tea to the US before. That’s what makes it even more special to share their stories to our customers in California.”
Through tea, Truong found an opportunity to learn more about her Vietnamese heritage. As she searched for farms to source tea leaves from, she was able to learn more about her parents’ home country, and made special connections with many locals.
“Some of my good Vietnamese friends now are the tea farmers that I’ve worked with. Sometimes they send me videos in the middle of the night and say ‘look at what I’ve been working on!’ and usually it’s about them processing tea — I just feel so lucky that even though we couldn’t travel to Vietnam right now because of the pandemic, I still get to experience being Vietnamese with them.”
The approach to showcasing “local varieties” means that in addition to stocking some of the best sencha and matcha, PARU also does exquisite examples of Southeast Asian tea-inspired blends that even highly versed American tea drinkers didn’t know before.
PARU only carries a small collection of seasonal teas compared to other tea shops in the US. The high-grade herbs are brought in San Diego immediately after they’re harvested, and blended in small batches to ensure freshness.
As a master tea blender, blending tea is also a way for Truong to honour her roots. For instance, Pandan Waffle, Truong’s favorite blend, was inspired her memories as a child visiting Vietnamese shops that served a dessert called Bánh Kẹp Lá Dứa. The tea delights with a toasty Assam tea base from Chiang Rai in Thailand, roasted sticky rice, and creamy coconut.
“Many of our Vietnamese American customers love this tea blend so much because it reminds them of their childhood — it was really exciting to make that blend and represent Vietnamese and Asian cultures,” says Truong.
Coconut Chai, Gobaleza’s favorite, is a deliciously calming infusion that will comfort you and remind you of home. With sweet and creamy coconut from the Philippines, earthy rooibos from South Africa, and warm spices, the blend embodies warmth and hospitality in every sip. “It’s like a hug for someone who has just been through a bad day,” says Gobaleza.
Asian tea culture has a long history of being a staple at celebrations, family get-togethers, and a peaceful communion with nature. “We always hope our customers who walk into our shop feel like they are being welcomed into a home,'' says Gobaleza. “Some people who don’t know anything about tea may find the store intimidating. But our real goal is to make quality tea more accessible in America, where not too many people drink it.”