Tea time in Durango
White Dragon Tea Room opens on Main

Michael Thunder, of The White Dragon Tea Room, pours a fine Chinese Oolong on Thursday. Thunder and Deborah Demme recently started the venture to celebrate the art of tea./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Stew Mosberg

Surrounded by the clicking of keyboards, ambient music, art shows and people waiting to pick up lattes and cappuccinos, coffee houses do not always offer a moment’s peace.

Enter the dragon. The White Dragon Good Feelings Tea Room and Gallery recently opened in the back room of There’s No Place Like Home, at 820 Main Ave.

Owners of the dual business venture, Deborah Demme and Michael Thunder, have created the new space to include original tea ceremony scrolls, aged iron kettles, and early Chinese porcelains. The gallery aspect of the name showcases local, national and international potters who fashion wares specific to tea and its presentation. The utilitarian objects d’art includes bowls, pots and plates, as well as vases for Ikebana flower arrangements. The work of neighborhood ceramics artist Lisa Pedolsky is currently being exhibited at The White Dragon.

Every detail of the pocket-sized room, including the chartreuse walls and tea package colors, has been selected to provide a peaceful and attractive setting in which to enjoy tea and amity.

The ritual of tea preparation can be traced back more than a thousand years and when savored for its full range of attributes, tea is an elixir and sedative and helps center the body and mind.

Exotic named teas like Monkey Picked, Dragon Well, Drum Mountain, Gunpowder (which looks like its namesake), as well as fermented Puerh tea called Camel’s Breath, are all available at The White Dragon. Puerh comes as a tiny acorn-size package, hand wrapped in paper like a small gift. The unwrapped cake is submerged in very hot water and slowly dissolves into a fragrant brew. Patrons can also experience a cup of matcha or “cha” made with powdered tea that is stirred in an antique bowl using a tiny, intricately made bamboo whisk. Cha’s green powder looks very much like wasabi, but has none of the fiery taste. The teas served at the White Dragon range in price from $3 to $7 depending on the varietal.

Thunder, a Durango resident since 1997, is more than just a connoisseur of tea; he actually lived with monks in Japan and came to understand the ancient practice first-hand. While explaining that 1983 experience, he shares the reason behind his tearoom’s name. “I lived in a temple in Beppu at Cho Shojii (Tall Pines) and at a monastery outside Kyoto for specific instruction. White Dragon is my Buddhist name, given to me by my teacher Rhyu who as per the lineage is also dragon named.”

According to Thunder, the dragon energy symbolizes creation and protection of the sacred and, as such, the large antique scroll vessel (c 1200) decorating one corner of the room incorporates the imagery of pearls and dragons and can be purchased.

In ancient Chinese temples, tea was used as herbal medicine, but people soon found it to be pleasing to the palate as well. Monks began to use tea to teach a respect for nature, humility and an overall sense of peace and calm. Japanese monks traveling through China during the 13th century learned about tea and its unique traditions and brought it back to their homeland, where tea ceremonies were blended with their own culture. Continuing to refer to it by its Chinese name, cha dao it wasn’t until 1970, when a tea master coined the term cha yi, or art of tea, to distinguish it from the Chinese ritual.

There are several essential elements needed to create a proper tea ceremony and they reflect both the product and the server. The “performer” should convey calmness and an attitude that is happy and confident. In addition to fragrance, shape and taste, the tea should have a beautiful story and name. It is vital to use the best quality water along with the best tea leaves and is important to select both beautiful and functional tea ware for brewing the miniscule leaves. A peaceful and calm environment with a clean, comfortable and quiet room greatly enhances the experience. In addition to the fundamental skills of brewing tea, grace through hand movements, facial expressions and clothing are all important.

According to Thunder, each tea is different and requires slightly different portions, water temperatures and steeping time. “Even the same tea from a farmer two years running will differ,” he explains, “The teas are like varietal wines. Their taste and quality is dependent on the weather, the soil and the location. Most of (White Dragon’s) tea is from above 3,000 feet and is organic or natural and grown far from sources of pollution in China.”

Thunder points out the complex nature of the Japanese tea ceremony and says he prefers to focus on the Chinese method at the White Dragon which, “Is messy and fun and the cups are literally hot, and there is a special cup for the leaves so that an individual can enjoy the scent of the moistened leaves. It’s quite different from Japanese and very easy to differentiate when you see the method of preparation and the equipment.”

How the tea room will fare is anyone’s guess, but Thunder says, “I want to gauge the response from Durango folk, their needs and their support of this project.”

To continue his education he will soon be attending the World Tea Expo in Las Vegas and says, “I think it will create a huge exponential leap in my thinking.” •

Tea Time is from 3-5 p.m. daily. White Dragon has 12 Chinese teas available and like wines, each is priced according to current market value. Customers can stop in to have tea from the menu without any reservation.



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