Innovation in tea
Quora can be an interesting place. Questions tend to fall into a few broad categories:
- Thoughtful questions that inspire experts in the subject to post answers. These are educational and often fun (“Why do closed captions still look like they did in the 1990s?“).
- Questions that could have been answered by a quick Google search or a visit to Wikipedia. Often, the same question (or slight varieties) are posted over and over and over… (“Does green tea have caffeine?“).
- Questions that start with a bizarre or incorrect assumption (“Why does visiting a library or bookstore have an instant laxative effect?“).
This post is inspired by a question in the latter category.
A Quora user posted the question, “Why don’t you get innovative tea shops like you do with coffee shops?” I wrote a short response to it, and then decided that it would make the basis for a good Tea with Gary blog post, so here we are!
I’m not a coffee fan, so I’ve spent very little time in coffee shops. On the other hand, I’ve visited a lot of tea shops, met a lot of tea shop owners at tea conferences, and I just happen to own a tea shop.
I challenge the assumption behind this question.
There are some incredibly inventive, innovative, and creative tea shops out there. In fact, because the overwhelming majority of tea shops are single-location “mom & pop” shops rather than corporate chains, they have a great deal more personality than the chain shops that represent the majority of coffee shops in the U.S.
Tea shops vary in quite a few ways, and each one leaves room for innovation.
Traditionally, tea shops either follow an Asian or Victorian aesthetic. It’s easy to find a tea shop serving Earl Grey in fine porcelain cups with scones and clotted cream, and every tea connoisseur knows at least one Chinese tea shop serving tea samples gongfu style or a Japanese tea shop where you can get a real authentic matcha whisked to perfection in a beautiful handmade chawan (matcha bowl) with some wagashi.
In visiting other tea shops and talking with tea shop owners & employees, I’ve found a whole lot of variety beyond those standards, though, including the “tea tavern” aesthetic of my shop, and tea shops that are steampunk, modern, art deco, fusion, and about any other style you can imagine.
Coffee shops tend to have a handful of basic varieties that they serve on a day-to-day basis, and a ton of additions you can make (steamed milk, sugar, sweet syrups, flavorings, whipped cream…). The one down the street from me has dozens of coffee varieties that they roast and blend on premises, but most of those aren’t available every day by the cup.
Tea shops, on the other hand, tend to have a lot more varieties, and all of them are available all the time. There’s no one single variety that you’re guaranteed to find in every tea shop, either (yes, there are a lot of tea shops that don’t have Earl Grey tea). Tea shops use a variety of criteria to choose their teas:
- Medicinal properties: There’s a tea shop in the big town down the street that’s run by an herbalist. She has a selection of good flavorful tea, but that’s not her focus. She has every variety of herb you’ve ever heard of (and many you haven’t), and an encyclopedic knowledge of their reputed effects on the human body.
- Flavor: A lot of shops focus exclusively on flavor, ignoring health benefits, sourcing, and quality of the underlying tea (which is overwhelmed by all of the added ingredients).
Quality pure tea: My friend Kevin Gascoyne owns the Camellia Sinensis Tea House in Canada (he’s the one I got the Laotian pu-erh from). They are deeply focused on super high-quality estate-grown teas. He can tell you exactly where every tea on his shelves came from—sometimes right down to which section of the estate the plants grew in, when it was picked, and sometimes even the name of the person who picked it or processed it. You can get some absolutely extraordinary tea from him!
- Creativity: I confess. We do this. One of us will wonder, “what if you made masala chai with pu-erh instead of black tea?” or “would a smoked Earl Grey work?” Next thing you know, we have another new & different blend on the shelf.
- The latest trends: Oh, yes. The tea biz is just like any other business. When boba tea became popular in the U.S., boba shops popped up everywhere (some don’t even put tea in their “boba tea”!). Ditto kombucha. When mainstream media started plugging the incredible benefits of matcha, tea shops dedicated exclusively to matcha appeared in the big cities.
Most shops are a fusion of these (we all touch on the trends from time to time), but one of these will be the focus.
Almost every shop can make you a cup of straight black tea. Some will make it with teabags (yuck), some with teapots, some with funky infusers. Some use monstrous electronically-controlled brewing systems.
Even the options for that hot cup of tea vary. I’ve been in two Teavana shops, and neither one offered milk or cream to pour in your English Breakfast tea (we offer 2%, whole, half & half, cashew, almond, and soy). Some shops will make a great tea latte, like a traditional masala chai or London Fog. Some pre-sweeten the teas, while others offer a dizzying array of sweetener options. Some offer syrup flavors, others focus on just straight tea.
Traditional serving methods from other countries show up, too. If you pick the right shop, you may be able to drink yerba mate from a gourd, matcha from a bowl, or strong black tea with salted yak butter from a samovar.
And there are always new methods cropping up. For example, we’re experimenting now with carbonated iced teas, fresh-brewed in front of the customer.
So I say to the original poster on Quora, if you haven’t seen an innovative tea shop, you’re looking in all the wrong places.
As I write this, I’m enjoying the third infusion of a well-aged single-serving “mini-brick” of shu pu-erh and paying the price for my inattention. I usually give the first steeping an extra minute or so to let the leaves soak up water and separate, and then cut back on steep times for the next few infusions. Typically, I’d give the third infusion two minutes. My daughter would do one minute and my wife would do three. I wasn’t paying attention and steeped it four minutes. It’s quite a bit stronger than I’d prefer, but it’s certainly still drinkable.