A tea revolution is brewing.
You can hear it in the pots burbling away at Teavana, a specialty tea shop in the Walden Galleria.
You see it at restaurants. Serene Gardens, on Grand Island, boasts: “Our Premium Japanese Green Tea comes from the Kyoto Obubu Tea Plantations.”
You can sense it in the wider variety of teas crowding the shelves of supermarkets.
And, of course, you can taste it.
We have seen the renaissance of coffee, the gentrification of beer. Today, you could say, is tea day. The simple labels of black, green, white and oolong do not begin to describe it. (Herbal varieties, which are really brews of different plants, are a whole separate story.)
Teavana carries countless varieties of loose tea and tea brewing equipment. Joe Laraiso is behind the counter. Laraiso, in his 20s, belongs to Dangerous Green, a Buffalo progressive rock group.
“Lots of musicians work here,” he says.
Teavana entreats you simply to try tea – even if you do not see yourself as a tea person. In the doorway sit two pots full, with an invitation to sample them. A weekday evening offers a berry blend. And Maharaja Chai Oolong, spicy and delicious.
Inside, every few feet or so, a different variety is brewing. Some pots are glass, others are made from exotic materials native to distant lands. Plastic cups let you sample the brew – Monkey-Picked Oolong, for instance. (It’s supposedly picked by monks, not monkeys.)
Laraiso offers an invitation to inhale the fragrance of the dry tea leaves. He opens a canister and fans the aroma out. He brews a cup. The flavor is a chocolate, deep, dusky and rich.
“People who are creative and open-minded toward other things tend to be open-minded toward tea,” Laraiso says. “Tea is great for you and it tastes very good. You just have to get past that ‘I haven’t done this before’ thing.”
To your health
Surely when it comes to tea, Buffalo is the final frontier.
Our original British settlers were tea drinkers, and so were the waves of Irish immigrants. But they have been outnumbered by coffee-drinking immigrants from Germany, Poland and Italy.
Times have sure changed since 1776, when the tax on tea led to the Boston Tea Party. The tea tax was seen as tyrannical in part because tea was a necessity, a staple of life.
That was the moment, you could say, when the country woke up and smelled the coffee. Britons arriving in Buffalo now would not recognize their national beverage.
Alenka Lawrence grew up in London, England, married a lawyer and now lives with him near Springville. She laughs about the resulting culture clash on her blog, “Turkeys on the Sunlounger: The America I Didn’t Expect.”
“One of the things I find in America I can’t understand is when people ask, ‘Do you want hot tea?’ Of course I want hot tea,” she laughs.
Iced tea leaves her cold. “I still haven’t brought myself to drink that. It’s an absurd idea.”
She pauses, brooding.
“You do know what goes in first, don’t you?” she asks in her charming London accent.
A reporter is puzzled. “Do you mean the tea bag or –”
“The tea or the milk.”
“But I don’t put milk in tea.”
There is the soft exhale of a British sigh. “Oh, dear.”
On the bright side, there appears to be a growing interest in English tea.
“A lot of people are coming in looking for imported British teas that are not easily found,” says Nancy Knoblauch at Premier Gourmet.
The craving could have something to do with the American passion for Britain and British history fueled, perhaps, by “Downton Abbey.” (One of Lawrence’s witty blog posts involves how she went to get her hair cut and was astonished to find that the conversation in the salon all focused on the recent finding of the bones of King Richard III.)
Psychology is involved, too. Whereas coffee is all about get up and go, tea evokes rest and indulgence, ever at a premium in today’s hectic world.
“I think having a cup of tea is more of a process,” says Elizabeth Gleason, who moved to Elma from Southhampton, England. “You boil the water, you actually make the pot of tea.
“Especially if you have friends around, it’s a social thing. A cup of coffee is throw it in the cup and go.” A cup of tea is different: “You walk into the door exhausted, and you say, ‘I could murder a cup of tea.’”
“Murder” a cup of tea?
It’s an expression, she laughs.
For savvy entrepreneurs, that pot of tea could become the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Arriving in Western New York, Gleason met another Englishwoman, Lauren Tucker from Gloucestershire. They were delighted to discover they had several things in common besides their background. They both had husbands who worked for Moog, and they both had a fancy for tea.
A few months ago, they launched a business, the English Tea Ladies. The English Tea Ladies stage teas for birthdays, showers, any occasion. Gleason and Tucker bring their impressive collection of bone china and a goodly spread of scones, quiches and other traditional treats.
Business has been brisk, they beam. “We did a wedding shower, with everyone from children to grandmas and great-grandmas,” they report. “We’ve done reunions. We had a group of nuns.”
They keep an eye out for new offerings. Sometimes, they say, they text each other pictures of stores’ tea aisles.
“We just bought a black tea blend,” says Gleason. “My husband was on a business trip in India. He called me from the tea shop, said there was a choice of 250 different teas and which ones would we like.”
The tea business thrives on people’s sense of adventure.
“Part of it just comes down to the excitement of finding and trying new varieties of tea,” says Jennifer Stolte, senior director of marketing at Celestial Seasonings.
A legendary hippie tea brand based in Boulder, Colo., Celestial Seasonings changed its longtime packaging design several years ago, and is branching out with tea varieties, too. The company finds it pays off.
“The ‘treasure hunt’ in the tea aisle has always been part of the allure for Celestial Seasonings fans,” Stolte says. “We have over 70 different varieties of a wide range of teas – from herbal and green to chai – so there’s always something new to discover. You don’t have to give up your coffee, but it’s great to mix in some new and different varieties of tea to keep things fresh.”
Serene Gardens, a new Japanese restaurant and garden center on Grand Island, tries to tempt new tea drinkers with an array of loose green teas you can smell and examine up close.
Josh and Satomi Smith, who met at Buffalo State College and opened Serene Gardens last year, have spent time in Satomi’s native Japan. They became intrigued by the Kyoto Obubu tea plantation.
It runs on a co-op basis, Josh Smith explains. You can invest in rows of tea and either bring in the harvest yourself (the plantation invites visitors) or, more likely, arrange that the workers in Japan harvest it for you.
Smith likes Kyoto Obubu for keeping alive Japan’s tea tradition, which is threatened now that fewer young people are going into farming. Plus, he is steeped in the allure of the tea itself.
“I’m not anti-tea bag,” he says. “But I think the problem with some of the tea bag companies is the manufacturing process. It gets chopped up a lot finer than the loose tea. It’s going to have a harsher taste. Once they package tea in the tea bag, it can sit on the shelf for half a year, a year at least. There isn’t really an expiration date. It’s not going to be bad. You’re not going to get sick from it. But it’s not going to be potent.”
Loose tea is different. “People try it and say, this was roasted like a month ago. Or, two weeks ago, this was on a little bush in Japan.”
Like the British tea drinkers, Smith has come to love how the tea process, a ritual as old as time, slows life down. Serene Gardens serves the tea with a timer, so you sit, steep, watch and wait.
“It puts you in the mood to relax,” he says. “Think about what you’re drinking. The taste, the smell. Eating and drinking should be an experience, not a necessity.”
Knoblauch, at Premier, agrees. She gazes happily up at a world of teas: Kusmi tea from Russia; Barry’s Tea from Ireland; canisters of white, green and black tea from a California company, the Republic of Tea.
“You’re going to find your favorites over time,” she says. “But try not to get yourself in a rut. Every time you buy a tea, try something different. There are so many to choose from. It would be a shame to miss out.”