To boldly seek the best leaves in the galaxy
Cherished and revered by millions for its many benefits, tea is a medicine, teacher, gateway to the sacred, psychological and energetic shifter, and tool for socializing. Legends, fortunes, empires, ceremonies, wars, treaties, traditions and rebellions have developed on account of this beverage.
While thought to have originated as a medicinal drink in southern China in roughly 1500 B.C., tea spread to Japan and Korea via teachers of Buddhism, where it was enjoyed by monks, samurai and aesthetes. In the 10th century, Chinese traders traveled the arduous 1,400-mile route from China’s Sichuan province to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, where Tibetan horses were exchanged for Chinese tea. Hence, the passageway became known as the Tea-Horse Road.
As the tea trade spread, Portuguese priests and merchants tasted tea in Lebanon in the 16th century and by the 1700s, Portuguese ships were trading tea with the English and Dutch where only the rich could afford it. As the British embraced tea traditions, they introduced it to India, hoping to cultivate it there to break the Chinese tea monopoly.
Today, tea bushes can be found in Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and Africa. The leaves from the shrub Camellia sinensis and its varieties are picked, chewed, dried, cured, smoked, soaked, steeped, crushed, powdered, roasted and whipped in efforts to obtain the most desirable quality and taste.
Tea appreciation in Utah is on the rise with unique one-off shops such as Tea Grotto, Tea Zaanti, Tea Bar and others offering quality tea leaves and blends to sample, even in spite of local religious objections to hot drinks laced with caffeine. With more than 3,000 tea varieties to choose from, these local shops give us a reason to sit, sip and ponder.
“Coffee is not my cup of tea.” —Samuel Goldwyn
A Healing Journey
Brad Heller, the well-traveled owner of the Tea Grotto (401 E. 900 South, SLC, 801-466-8255, TeaGrotto.com), says he drank herbal teas growing up and was introduced to green tea in college. He went on to become a geologist and suffered a serious fall that shattered his leg and ankle. The prognosis was grim, so when he was done with Western doctors, he visited a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner. Heller said he made great progress taking bone-nourishing, blood-purifying herbs.
This enlightening experience led him to further study Chinese herbs, tea and Eastern cultures. He embraced the lessons of patience, quiet and serenity.
The opportunity to run the Tea Grotto presented itself, and he gladly took it to establish a healing space similar to what he experienced during his recovery: a spot where people can pause to sip teas and visit in a peaceful setting.
He is going for the opposite of the busy, caffeine- and Wi-Fi-charged coffee-shop vibe. Heller considers himself a curator of fine teas, similar to a wine sommelier. “It’s using me, and I’m using it,” he says of his respectful relationship with the plant.
The Tea Grotto’s two-sided menu lists 160 choices that can be brewed on the spot while you relax in the bohemian-style atmosphere or while perusing the well-stocked shelves. Black teas are organized as “self-drinking” (usually sipped without milk or sugar), “milk and sugar” and “English favorites.” Dark, earthy flavored, highly valued Dragon, Mandarin and Royal Pu ‘ehr from Yunnan are available by the pot.
In addition, varieties of green, white and flowering teas are plentiful with chai, oolong, yerba mate, red Rooibos, ayurvedic, medicinals, herbal and boba teas with tapioca pearls mixed in. An unusual line from Nuwati Herbals of handcrafted combinations of Native American and traditional herbs with names like Buffalo Bone, Laughing Coyote and Share my Blanket are sure to spark interest.
There’s Magic in Tea
A tea-blending class was wrapping up on a recent Saturday at Tea Zaanti (1324 S. 1100 East, SLC, 801-906-8132, Teazaanti.com) when owner Scott Lyttle joined me for tea. Scott and his wife, Becky, took over the shop two years ago, name and all, and have made it flourish by tapping into the public’s growing interest. Revenues are up 50 percent over the previous year.
Raised in Canada where tea and biscuits are enjoyed daily, Lyttle spent years working for nonprofits. Now, he enjoys learning about tea and sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm with customers. He lights up when explaining the moment a new shade-grown tea called gyokuro from Japan arrived and went on to explain that it needs to be steeped in room-temperature water for 14 minutes. The complex flavor, he says, is “vegetable, buttery bean-like, a million flavors all at once.”
Lyttle thinks his customers are more conscious and aware because of social media and that, as savvy and selective buyers, they are willing to pay for high-quality tea from his trusted distributors. They count on and look forward to unique new teas being added. The Lyttles travel to Portland often where Lyttle tracks tea trends which he hopes will catch on in Salt Lake City.
At Tea Zaanti, customers can peruse the broad selection of tea tins—many containing Camellia Sinensis teas. Each tin has an easy-to-read label that explains how best to brew the tea including quantity, water temperature and steeping time.
Teas may be purchased to brew at home, but why not order a cup and sip in the comfy, well-lit setting? It will even taste better at the shop because Tea Zaanti has invested in a reverse-osmosis filter to remove tap-water minerals and help perfect the profile of each tea.
Lyttle loves knowing his customers come to the shop not only to enjoy tea but also each other as they sit at a table and talk. The magic of tea, he says, is that it brings a sense of calm.
British Tea: An indoors picnic
Another way to savor tea’s comfort and delight is a British style afternoon tea. Salt Lakers may experience one daily at 1 p.m. in the lobby lounge of the Grand America Hotel (555 S. Main, SLC, 801-258-6707, GrandAmerica.com). Fridays through Sundays, a second seating at 3:30 p.m. is also served
According to Rachel Eames, Grand America’s PR director, tea commences with strawberries topped with Chantilly cream followed by sweet and savory pastries on tiered platters (including finger sandwiches and scones with clotted cream).
“Flavors are updated seasonally, but a classic cucumber sandwich is always included on the savory tier. Macarons and madeleines are staples for the dessert tier,” executive chef Fernando Soberanis says. Guests may upgrade to Grand Traditions Tea which includes domestic and imported cheeses. Everything is served on Tunisian china and set upon the table spread with pastel linens while harp or piano music drifts in the air.
The Grand America proudly serves Steven Smith Tea. Choose black teas such as Lord Bergamot and spice-infused Masala Chai or oolongs like Ti Kwan Yin, which are tightly rolled nuggets made in a 36-step process. Smith Teamaker Blend No. 555 Dandelion Chai was custom crafted exclusively for the Hotel. Other tea offerings include low-caffeine white and green teas such as the minty Fez and hand-rolled Jasmine Pearls along with caffeine-free herbal infusions that blend hibiscus, chamomile, hyssop, rose petals and sweet linden flowers. Hot chocolate is available as well as a Child’s Tea, served with pastry shapes and flavors they love.
The Grand’s Afternoon Tea has been served nearly every day since the hotel opened in 2002 for the Winter Olympic Games and has seen increased popularity for local experience seekers and celebrations. Reservations are required for this unique experience.
Other Tea Connections
The Utah Tea Guild is a monthly gathering for community tea-lovers. Co-founder Josh Williams is an herbalist and the owner of Greenthread Herbs (GreenthreadHerbs.com), a tidy shop chock full of medicinal herbs and useful botanical preparations.
His passion for tea grew out of his interest in plants used for health and healing. Williams gladly shares his acquired tea wisdom and prepares the setting for a modest tea ceremony drawing from a variety of world traditions. For example, for a future meeting, the group planned how to make tea brownies using powdered tea and cacao.
Asked what it is about tea that makes it so desirable throughout the world, Williams replied, “Growers and tea specialists have such a deep connection to the plant it is as if it can tell them exactly when to pick it for particular flavor and benefit.”
When you sit quietly and drink a cup of tea, he says, “it reaches into you … and assists in the revelation of something you need to understand.” The guild is open to all interested in a tea-centric gathering.
Japanese Tea Ceremony
The intricate Zen tea ceremony was created to subdue the ego and inspire harmony among participants. Locals can experience a tea ceremony at Utah’s annual Nihon Matsuri (Japan Festival), on April 27, 2019, at Japantown Street (100 South between 200 and 300 West in Salt Lake City). NihonMatsuri.com
Tea leaves are graded based on the quality and condition of the tea leaves. Orange Pekoe, or OP, is the benchmark that denotes whole leaf black tea that can be graded Super, Fine, Tippy, Golden and/or Flowery. After the higher grades of whole-leaf tea are gathered, the smaller particles of tea that remain are called either “broken,” “fannings” or “dust,” which are often used in tea bags.
The basic taste of tea is determined by many things—soil, environmental conditions, cultivar as well as the “shaqing” process—achieved by sun drying, steaming, baking or pan frying—which deactivates the polyphenol oxidase (PPO) and keeps the leaf from oxidizing.
The taste of tea is evaluated by tea masters who look for four distinct characteristics: strength, brightness, astringency and briskness. A tea master with years of experience and the ability to discern taste and characteristics sample teas in “cupping rooms” at large tea makers. Tea masters “nose” a spoonful of wet leaves to take in the aroma and then the tea is served, after which they interpret the flavors.
While the English serve finger sandwiches and pastries with tea, in China, fine tea is served with very small nibbles like seeds, nuts and dried fruit.
In their book Culinary Tea, Cynthia Gold, a tea sommelier at Boston’s L’Espalier, and co-author, Lise Stern, rank tea pairings with mild, savory, sweet or spicy foods. They determined Dragonwell green tea pairs with certain cheeses. Oolong holds up to spicy and hot dishes. Darjeeling from India may accompany fruits, and its astringency compliments custards, eggs and polenta. Earl Grey—a black tea scented with oil of Bergamot—goes well with pastries, dairy, bourbon and chocolate.
A food guide at ArborTeas.com suggests that white teas be paired with mild dishes such as basmati rice, light fish and basic salads. Green tea goes well with seafood, chicken as well as Asian and Middle Eastern food. Black teas such as Lapsang Souchong pair well with chicken, smoked salmon and lemony desserts. The website also suggests combinations of chocolate and tea, and provides recipes for making tea-infused cookies.
Green tea is made from unfermented Camellia sinensis leaves that have not undergone the withering and oxidation process used to make oolong and black teas. Pale in color and slightly bitter, the more healthful green tea is chock full of naturally occurring catechins that have potent antioxidant properties.
Black tea is green tea put through significant oxidation by withering, rolling and drying to result in a different taste and color.
White tea is the least processed and has been developed only over the last 200 years. Its fine white hairs, or silvery pekoe, on the early-picked buds give it its name rather than the pale tea it produces.
Oolong tea is plucked later in the season when the leaves have acquired different chemical constituents that add to their flavor profile. Part of the oxidation process for oolong requires sweating the leaves in warmth and humidity where they become long and curly and are often processed in little balls with an extending tail.
Tea shops that warm the soul
CompileD by Anna Kaser
Hong Kong Tea House
If the colorful entrance and classic style didn’t welcome you into Hong Kong Tea House, then the smell of dim sum and tea will pull you in. With a menu featuring amazing prices (think $1 per cup of tea, and $8 for a plate of food), you won’t find any pretentiousness here. At the top of their tea menu sits jasmine tea, a fragrant light tea for the winter months. For something stronger, try the Shoumei tea, a white tea with a flavor similar to oolong.
565 W. 200 South, SLC, 801-531-7010
This little-known tea secret lies in the heart of Sugar House. Tea Bar offers not only a variety of flavors but a variety of tea types. Their menu offers classic Chinese herbal teas as well as milk teas—a sweeter, creamier option for those not a fan of more earthy flavors—and iced teas in many flavors. For hot teas, the ginger and brown-sugar herbal tea is sure to comfort and warm you on a cool day. Tea Bar even has tea toppings such as boba, aloe and red bean. The flavor combinations are truly endless.
1201 E. Wilmington Ave., Ste. 109, SLC, 385-322-2120
Do you love reading a comic book while sipping a delicious cup of tea or coffee? Are you seeking a nerdy environment with the added aroma of tea? Then, Watchtower Cafe is the spot for you.
In addition to comic books for sale, retro video games and other nerdy activities, you can enjoy a wide variety of tea, coffee and other drinks. Boba teas and other menu items even have charming fantasy/science-fiction based names.
Take BB-8, for instance, a blended Thai iced tea with caramel, or the Donatello, a hot jasmine tea with avocado, steamed milk and violet.
Maybe grab a cup of tea with your favorite action figure to round out the day. For more competitive company, try their Super Smash Bros. tournaments on Fridays.
“We have our game nights that are really fun as well as some writing groups that come in,” employee Cecille Osborn says. “We have people that like to nerd out and people that love to just keep to themselves and watch our cartoons. It’s great for people to meet others like themselves.”
A welcoming and warm place, Watchtower is LGBTQ friendly and inclusive to all groups. So, grab a comic book, or maybe a battleship, and make yourself comfortable.
1588 S. State, SLC, 801-477-7671, Watchtower-cafe.com