Steeping with Charm
In hopes of discovering why tea has grown so popular recently, The Georgetowner interviewed the owners of two local tea shops, Hollie of Ching Ching Cha in Georgetown and Guy of Zen Tara Fine Teas in Bethesda, MD.
Tell us about your background and how you decided to open a tea shop.
Hollie: 15 years ago I ran into a Taiwanese Teahouse in Paris during my year of traveling in France and decided to have my own. I am chinese from Hong Kong.
Guy: I teamed up with co-owner Methee Thavornvongkajorn to open the shop. My background is in architecture and design, Methees' is in the spa industry. We wanted to create a more contemporary version of a tea shop. We actually started looking onto it back in 2007 and worked on become knowledgeable about tea while having a part-time tea counter at the Farm Women's Cooperative Market in Bethesda. We were attending the World Tea Expo every year and took almost 2 years to find the right location which turned about to be less than 2 blocks away from the Farmer's Market on Wisconsin Avenue. We're happy with the way things turned out, the shop is 1600 sq.ft., the largest tea shop we know of in the Metro DC region, we have a separate glass walled tea tasting room where we hold monthly events and true to our Zen name, it is a very relaxing, serene environment focused on tea.
Why do you love selling tea?
Hollie: I love selling tea because I love tea!
Guy: It is a great tasting beverage that is good for you. It is great to be able to go to the shop every day and work with a product that has such positive qualities. It is also a product with a tremendous history that literally has changed the fortunes of more than one country from Asia to Europe to the United States - tea has a great story. Here in the U.S. it is a particularly exciting time to be a part of the tea industry as our country is (finally?) living up to its' potential of being great tea consumers. Right now, we're probably getting the widest variety and some of the best teas we've ever been able to import into the U.S. We have 114 teas at the shop and weekly get customer requests recommendations for just one more tea they would like us to find.
What about tea do you think is making it so popular all of a sudden?
Hollie: It's a beverage taste delicious and good for health which is a rare combination.Nowadays, most of us are searching for food and drinks that will benefits our health. It's also affordable, and easy to prepare.
Guy: Better tasting loose teas are available now - grocery store tea bags aren't the only options (similar to when the coffee industry broke open from a limited number of coffees in a can or "freeze-dried" jars in grocery stores). Consumers are more aware of health benefits. There is also a generational shift in more than one direction perhaps. The baby boomer generation is more sensitive to coffee's effects and seems to be stepping away from caffeine spikes and crashes to the more gentle sustained lift of teas. At the same time for younger tea drinkers, now that there are more contemporary teahouse options that aren't just about lace tablecloths and finger sandwiches, tea has become something hip they are embracing, like what happened with coffeehouses 20 years ago.
What is the question you get most when customers visit your tea shop?
Hollie: A lot of people come in asking what kind of tea will benefit health or help them lose weight.
Guy: It would be a tie between a question and a misunderstanding. The question is about caffeine levels of different teas or between coffees and teas (in general, tea has half the caffeine per cup depending how it is prepared). The other is that loose tea is too complicated or takes too long to prepare. With most mugs and pots coming with their own infusing basket or the disposable loose tea infusing bags like we use at the shop, we can quickly show customers it isn't such an ordeal.
What makes one tea better than another?
Hollie: A tea is made better by the quality of the leaves, the taste, the aroma, the texture and the after taste.
Guy: Tea, like wine, tastes different depending on where it is grown depending on the soil, climate and how the tea is cultivated. Certain regions have produced the best types of tea going back sometimes thousands of years. Limited growing seasons or production will make these teas more expensive. In general, loose teas have a better flavor and are of a higher quality than lower grade teas used in teabags. That said, we always tell customers whatever tea they enjoy is the best tea for them. Some customers prefer pure teas without any floral or fruit blends, others like the wide range of flavored teas that creatively used added ingredients blended with tea leaves. However; like with wine, there does seem to be a path that tea drinkers at the shop progess through from drinking black and green teas to more complex oolong and puerh teas.
What is your favorite type of tea and why?
Hollie: My favourite kind of tea depends on the season. I like Dragon Well in spring, Dongding Oolong in the summer, Pheonix Oolong in the autumn and Pu Erh in cold winter days.
Guy : Very hard to answer. Methee and I have a luxury in buying tea for the shop in that we get to taste and explore literally hundreds of teas a year as we constantly try and select the best teas for the shop. From month to month the favorite changes but a couple of teas that are always on the list are our organic Golden Yunnan black tea, organic Dragon Well green tea and our Cherry Blossom White Tea.
Tell us about the teacups and kettles you sell in your tea house.
Hollie: Our teawares are mainly from china, taiwan and japan. we use different size and different material of pot and cups for different types of teasdepending on the water temperatures that are needed to brew the teas. For example for green teas, we use a ceramic cha chong(a tea bowl with a lid and a sauce) because the material and the shape of the bowl allows the teas cool rapidly so it won't bring out the bitterness of the teas. When the visual effect is important we will use a glass so you can see the shape and the color of the teas. Oolong will is served with a "kung fung" style tea set containing a Yixing clay teapot, an aroma cup, a drinking cup, an ocean of tea, a tea pool and a dreg spoon. It is quite elaborate and lots of fun to prepare. It's best to always have the hot water accessible or ready on the table because running back and forth to the kitchen is not relaxing.