Back in November, I wrote about #TeaAcrossAmerica, a program that’s putting tea bushes in all fifty states plus the District of Columbia. By joining the program, I agreed to host Montana’s tea plant, which arrived at my tea shop yesterday. The plant, which we named “Tea H. White,” is a China bush (Camellia sinensis var. sinensis), which is tolerant of cold, but not nearly tolerant enough to spend a Montana winter outdoors. The plant can take an occasional light frost, but not temperatures like the -27(F) we had for a couple of days early last month. This means that Tea H. White will be living indoors.
My tea bar has east-facing bay windows that should be a great place to keep the plant, with full morning sun and afternoon shade. We’ll have to work on the humidity, since it’s pretty dry out here, but we can do that. In the picture above, you can see that our cutting came out of the shipping box a wee bit dehydrated, which is to be expected after a few days in USPS trucks and planes. The first thing I did — after dragging him around the store and showing him to everybody — was get him into the sink, where he soaked up a lot of water and started perking back up.
Why the name? Well, our shop is a bookstore, which is why we’ve gone with literary names for some of our tea blends (e.g., Lady Greystoke and Fifty Shades of Earl Grey). In looking for the author-related puns, Tea S. Eliot was the first to pop to mind, but Shannon Brewer Land already used that name for the Alaskan Tea Across America plant — although she later changed it to Captain James Tea Kirk.
As it turns out, Tea H. White is a better name for our plant anyway. T. H. White is the author of the groundbreaking The Once and Future King series, which tells the King Arthur legend starting with Arthur’s childhood. We are definitely lovers of fantasy novels and Arthurian stories, and as a children’s author myself, I really enjoy good young adult literature.
As soon as little Tea H. White started perking up, our assistant manager, Doug, was ready to pluck a leaf and start drying it. After fighting him off with my trusty pu-erh knife Excaliber, we decided to let the plant turn into a bush before we start trying to drink it. I sympathize with Doug, though. Patience is not my strong suit either.
I am curious. I’d like to know whether this is the first tea bush in Montana. Has anyone else tried this experiment? Is there a little tea garden growing in a greenhouse in Missoula? A tea bush in a shop in Helena? A cutting thriving in someone’s sun room in Bozeman? If any of my readers know about another Camellia sinensis bush in Montana, let me know. I’d love to compare notes with someone else who’s done this!
The more I learn about tea, the more I want to learn. The more I experience, the more I want to experience. I experiment, I read books, I read blogs, I attend tea conferences, and I take classes. I buy tea from all over the world, and try out different blends and combinations. Basically, I do whatever my budget allows.
One thing my budget has not, alas, allowed has been traveling to the world’s great tea growing areas and getting familiar with tea bushes. My tea experiences all start with processed leaves, not with the plants themselves. Today marked the first step in changing that.
I got a phone call this afternoon from Naomi Rosen, of Joy’s Teaspoon. I met Naomi at a blogger’s panel at World Tea Expo 2013 this summer (CAUTION: this link to World Tea Expo plays video and makes noise — careful where you are when you click it). Naomi was calling because she’s working with Jason McDonald of FiLoLi Tea Farm and the United States League of Tea Growers on a new initiative they call #TeaAcrossAmerica.
Their simple yet ambitious objective: put a tea plant into every state and the District of Columbia. Some U.S. states already have established tea plantations. Others have hobbyists with a few bushes going. Many states have climates that Camellia sinensis considers inhospitable. I happen to live in one of those states: Montana.
Naomi asked if I’d be willing to represent Montana in #TeaAcrossAmerica, and I jumped at the opportunity. To participate, I need to take a cutting from FiLoLi Tea Farm in Brookhaven, Mississippi, and grow it here in Montana. Jason has written up some directions to make caring for the cutting easier, and I’ll be able to keep it indoors where the harsh Montana winters won’t kill it. My tea bar has east-facing bay windows that should be a great place to keep the plant, with full morning sun and afternoon shade. The only problem will be humidity — it’s very dry here — but we can deal with that.
It’s going to be a month or two before my little tea bush arrives, so we have plenty of time to prepare. I will keep everyone up-to-date on the progress as we get things going. In the meantime, thanks to Jason for the opportunity and to Naomi for suggesting me as a volunteer!
If my tea bar was in Georgia, sweet tea wouldn’t be a problem for me. I would always have a pitcher or two sitting in the fridge. But here in Montana, the demand for sweet tea is pretty low. If I serve three or four glasses of sweet tea in a week, that’s a lot. Why is that a problem? Because properly-prepared sweet tea is made in advance. Ideally, it should sit overnight, but a few hours is probably okay. It will keep for a little while, but not indefinitely. If I make it by the pitcher, I’m going to end up throwing away most of it.
My goals are simple: I want it to taste like sweet tea (in the opinion of my Southern friends), and I have to be able to prepare it from scratch in about five minutes.
I’ve been fiddling with solutions to the problem, and I think I’ve come up with an acceptable solution. My method is based on my 20-ounce iced tea glasses, my ice machine (which makes very small cubes), and various other things specific to Red Lodge Books & Tea. Obviously, you’ll need to tweak it a bit for your own use.
For sweetening iced teas (especially boba tea), I keep simple syrup on hand all of the time. We make it using equal quantities of boiling water and plain sugar, and then cool it down to room temperature. It’s much easier than trying to mix granulated sugar into cold tea.
First, I add a tablespoon of strong black tea to the infuser — I use our Irish Breakfast Tea, which is a blend of Assam and Tanzanian tea. The leaves are finely broken, which maximizes the surface area for steeping.
To the leaves, I add four tablespoons of simple syrup and about 10oz of boiling water. I suppose I could use some alternate method for sweetening the tea, but I have never heard a request for diet sweet tea. If it’s not real sweet tea with sugar, it’s just sweetened tea, I suppose.
While it is steeping, I fill the glass all the way to the brim with ice.
I steep the tea for five minutes. I would never steep a cup of Irish breakfast tea that long for myself — especially with that much leaf — because I’m a bit of a purist and I don’t add milk or sugar. Steeping that long makes plain tea very bitter. Using this much sugar, however, offsets that bitterness, and adding it to during the steep makes the tea taste different than if it’s added after the fact.
When the tea is poured over the ice, most of the ice will melt. Add a straw and you’re good to go.
I was perusing a post from a fellow tea blogger about World Tea Expo 2013 … well, perhaps I shouldn’t call it a “post.” It’s more of an essay. Or perhaps a minor tome. If you bound it in creepy leather and added a few paragraphs about demons, you could even call it a small grimoire. But I digress…
Ahem. Anyway. Geoffrey F. Norman (a.k.a. “the Lazy Literatus“) wrote about his experiences at the expo and featured a little snippet about me in which he mentioned one of my blends: Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey tea. I mention this for four reasons:
1) He posted this picture of us with the caption, “Tall Montanan is Tall.”
2) It’s a good blog post. If you’re interested in tea and/or World Tea Expo, I recommend giving it a look.
3) It reminded me that I promised to send him a sample of Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey and forgot in all the hubbub. Sorry, Geoffrey. I’ll get that on its way ASAP.
4) And, last but not least, he’s a perfect example of not blogging on a schedule!
From the day we bought our bookstore ten years ago, customers started asking if we planned to put in a coffee shop. At the time, the store was only 475 square feet, which would have made it impossible even if we had wanted to. When we moved to a bigger location the following year, requests stepped up. Since I don’t like coffee, and there’s a great coffee shop a block away, I continued to say “no” to the idea.
So how did we end up with a tea bar in our store?
I have long been a tea aficionado, and the store has been carrying loose tea in tins for over a year. After regular requests from customers to try the teas, my wife Kathy and I started looking at possibilities. Having just moved to a larger building yet again (the store is now about 2,000 square feet), we determined that a serving counter would, indeed, work.
After securing all of the required permits, and spending several months researching bulk teas, we put together a menu of about 80 different teas and pulled together all of the infrastructure. Since an 8-page tea menu can be overwhelming, we put up a “Staff Favorites” board with eight teas that the employees like. The back wall of the store is lined with shelves displaying jars of tea, and a large world map shows where many of the teas come from.
Red Lodge Books has always had a heavily local feel, and we wanted to carry that over to the tea bar. Since you can’t grow tea plants in Montana, we decided to bring the local flavor in through the accessories. We sell alfalfa/clover honey from a nearby ranch, and handmade pottery teaware from a local artisan, and we are carrying Montana-grown sage and apple mint teas from On Thyme Gourmet in Bridger.
Everything in the tea bar is designed around making the tea look good for bulk buyers. We serve our hot tea in clear glass mugs and iced tea in clear “to go” cups to show its color and clarity. Displaying the bulk tea properly raised some questions. Tea leaves should be stored away from sunlight, yet they sell much better when customers can see the product. To solve this, I bought smaller jars that show the tea well, but we store the majority of the backstock in airtight, opaque bags in the storage room. The back wall never gets direct sun, and the inventory turns fast enough to prevent the tea from getting stale in the jars. Allowing customers to see the tea definitely helps with sales.
Since many customers are unfamiliar with the different types of tea, we chose to prepare the teas ourselves rather than just tossing a bag in a cup and handing it to the customer. We use tea timers (or tea timer apps in our phones – yes, there’s an app for that), and adjust the quantity of leaves and steeping time based on what kind of tea the customer orders. That way, each customer gets a cup of tea that’s prepared just right, which makes them more likely to want bulk tea to take home for later.
In building the menu, I brought in some lesser-known varieties simply because they were personal favorites. If they didn’t sell, I figured he could always drink them myself. Much to my surprise, I found quite a few like-minded tea aficionados in town that were very excited to discover a local source for obscure teas. Although most of the best-sellers are predictable favorites like Earl Grey and Moroccan mint, drinks like lapsang souchong, aged pu-erh, and roasted maté are selling very well also.
To keep the tea theme going, we brought in a large collection of related items as well. Kathy tracked down several suppliers of shortbread, which goes better with tea than the biscotti served at coffee shops. Several of the shortbreads have tea baked right into them. We also carry tea filters, glass pots, flowering teas, handmade maté gourds, and (of course) a selection of books about tea.
We are also working to maintain a “green” tea bar. We save and compost all of our tea leaves, and the go cups (including the clear ones) are all compostable.
Once again, we’ve found a way to turn one of my personal passions into a part of the business. And the best part is that – as best I can tell after only a month in operation – it seems to be working!
[UPDATE May 2012: You can visit our tea bar online now!]