Perhaps you’ve noticed the slow but steady proliferation of tea shops and bars throughout NYC? If you haven’t, you will now: The spread of the tea movement (not to be confused with the floundering Tea Party movement), the second most-consumed beverage in the world after water, is currently in its Stateside infancy; Americans lag far behind the rest of the world in consumption. However, strategic moves by major players show the drink is gaining purchase with U.S. consumers, and savvy companies are hoping to snag some of your morning caffeine share — or at least expand your horizons beyond your daily cup of coffee.
And if you’re thinking about dipping a toe in this ocean of possibility, take it from a beverage purist: Invest your time and money in the small boutiques selling high-quality teas.
If you tend to think tea is boring, tasteless, or downright dreadful, it might be due to lack of exposure and access to the good stuff. Lipton and other large commercial tea bag brands make for awful drinking — basically the gas station coffee of the tea category, or Tea 1.0. Meanwhile, Tea 2.0 is being embarked upon by the original “Starbucks” of tea companies, Argo Tea. Not content to let another brand lead the category, however, Starbucks itself, the 19,000-café behemoth, acquired a brand of its own called Teavana, a chain of mall stores that sells tea and teaware. Yes, mall stores. That should say it all, but I’ll carry on.
Starbucks recently opened the first Teavana tea bar on the Upper East Side on October 24, and it has plans for mega-expansion. Although these commercial tea bars sell loose tea and equipment — and will certainly encourage tea consumption — they also operate on the Starbucks principle, pushing fruity, sugar-laden concoctions that currently infest coffee-chain menus, only here those drinks are prepared with tea. Consider, for example, the horrific-sounding “Coco Caramel Sea Salt Latte.”
Here’s the thing: While the big brands expand their beverage menus with flavored, fruit tea blends, boutiques focused on educating consumers while procuring and selling premium loose teas have quietly spread throughout the city. These stores have ushered in the Tea 3.0 movement, and that’s the one curious tea-drinkers should join.
Find out where next.
One excellent place to start is Palais des Thés (156 Prince Street, 646-513-4369), a Parisian-based company with boutiques on Prince Street in Soho and in the UWS. The company, founded in 1989 by François-Xavier Delmas, sought to fill a void in Paris at the time — namely, to directly source and sell fine tea by forming lasting relationships with suppliers. Although Palais des Thés has grown into an international brand, the company’s focus hasn’t wavered.
Aurélie Bessière, Delmas’s niece, runs the Soho store, and she has no disdain for the growth of tea bars around the city. “The big chains do all the marketing, helping create a tea culture; when customers decide to upgrade to more sophisticated teas, then they come to us,” she observes. The company runs a well-respected Tea School in France, and it now brings tea education to Prince Street by way of small group classes. Last week, I sat in on one of Bessière’s introductory classes to gain a deeper understanding of the drink.
As with all things, the more you know about tea, the more you appreciate it. If you understand its origins, production methods, and the differences between white, green, oolong, black, and rooibos, for instance, you’ll derive greater pleasure from what’s in your cup; classes are meant to foster this.
Bessière offers two $45 courses a week. Class runs about two hours and includes an intro to the history of tea plus a tasting of four different varieties of the drink: white, green, oolong, and black. Bessière begins with an explanation of how to evaluate a tea: Take in the scent of the dry leaves, compare it to the wet leaves and the aroma of the brewed tea, then taste the tea while aerating it in your mouth. It’s akin to tasting wine.
My small group of four received a lesson in determining tea quality. One highlight of our class: When purchasing a tea, always look at the leaves. If they are whole, a measure of quality has been met. If they are broken or, worse, dusty and reduced to powder (often what is found in a cheap tea bag), then you may as well drink something else. For inexpensive teas, the producer’s goal is to create intense color, not flavor, so tea bags will often turn dark brown quickly without providing a commensurate complexity of taste in the glass.
Bessière also shared instruction on best brewing practices: Tea should be weighed, water temperature should be measured, and brew time should be monitored. Just like coffee, the tea-to-water ratio can dramatically alter the flavor profile of the final cup, thus precision measurements using an electric scale are ideal. Water temperature plays an even greater role: too hot and delicate tea leaves may burn or bitterness could develop; too cold and extraction is inhibited. Finally, timing is everything, and each type of tea has recommended guidelines.
I won’t give away too many more of the class’s insights — it’s best to attend and taste for yourself. The bottom line, however, is that tea is a nuanced beverage with a rich history that continues to be produced in an artisanal manner — predominantly by hand — around the world. And just like a fine wine, a carefully produced tea should be savored — not sweetened, flavored, and dumped in a to-go cup.
See photo highlights from the class on the next page.