Young Entrepreneurs Update Teatime With Ingredients Like Guayusa
Gunpowder, a Venice, Calif., tea shop, has sommeliers who demystify the specialty brews
By Alina Dizik in the Wall Street Journal
Young entrepreneurs are trying to update teatime, turning the refined afternoon pick-me-up into a guy-friendly dose of caffeine.
A new crop of specialty tea shops are concocting brews made from obscure tea leaves and nontraditional ingredients like cacao bean shells, to create beverages that sellers say are lighter, more thirst-quenching and healthier than the morning jolt of java.
The new cafes typically serve latte-style tea drinks and feature espresso counters recognizable to all who have been inside a Starbucks. But the tea atmosphere is different: Tea shops tend to run at a slightly more leisurely pace, and in some cases have an intentionally masculine vibe.
Many employ chatty “sommeliers” to discuss the fair trade credentials and antioxidant counts of obscure tea varieties. See-through glass kettles and hourglass timers, for precision steeping, signal that something different is brewing.
Growth in specialty tea, sold either in loose leaf form or in premium-priced sachets, has outpaced regular tea for several years and now totals $1.9 billion, up more than 20% from $1.57 three years ago, according to the Tea Association of the USA, an industry group.
A tea shop called Gunpowder opened last year in Venice, Calif., using a traditional espresso machine to infuse its caffeinated “gunshot blend” tea drinks. Its signature tea is an infusion made from a custom blend of leaves from the Amazonian guayusa (gwhy-OO-sa) shrub, along with dandelion root, chicory and shells of cacao beans. Tea purists would actually call it a tisane, not a tea, because it isn’t made from leaves of Camellia sinensis, the traditional tea plant.
Guayusa, with the color and consistency of coffee, is often served with milk as a latte, either hot or cold, says Michael Franzini, the café’s founder and chief executive. He chose a masculine name and logo to appeal to men, but women make up more than half of his customer base, he says.
Gunpowder also serves “super-herb smoothies,” with ingredients including sea buckthorn, lemon balm and valerian root, which appeal to the kind of health-conscious consumers who tend to seek out specialty teas, Mr. Franzini adds. The shop also sells refrigerated bottled Guayusa tea, which is meant to be consumed cold.
In Minneapolis, David Duckler’s Verdant Tea creates a tasting experience similar to what you might find at a winery or European espresso bar. Customers are invited to stand at a bar and sip tea, perhaps discussing specific tea notes and origins. At a recent tasting, a handful of customers tried Sheng Pu’erh, an aged tea with hints of pine and sandalwood.
“Tea is still mysterious to people,” said Mr. Duckler, who opened the shop in 2013 and moved to a storefront location this year. “It requires a lot more storytelling.”
Mr. Duckler focuses on serving hard-to-find teas, many imported from farmers he has met on travels to China. He uses the Chinese gongfu preparation method, steeping with more tea leaves and less water than most U.S. tea drinkers would use. A single batch is steeped and resteeped from 10 to 20 times, so drinkers can taste the differing flavors with each infusion.
Verdant Tea’s customers are a young crowd and already interested in brewing their own beer and kombucha, Mr. Duckler says. The interior décor is gender-neutral to avoid conjuring up a tea-and-scones environment. “Men who are into craft beer and wine, or even cigars, find parallels with fine tea when they come talk to us,” he says.
A critical issue for tea shops is speed. It typically takes longer to brew a specialty tea drink than to whip up a cappuccino, and many consumers aren’t used to waiting even a few minutes, says Graham Fortgang who opened the Brooklyn, N.Y., tea shop Matchabar in 2014, serving frothy, green Japanese matcha tea. When prepared and served in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, matcha requires frothing by hand with a bamboo whisk for as long as five minutes. Mr. Fortgang uses an electric mixer often used for milkshakes to create a matcha drink in less than a minute and serves it, hot or iced, in to-go cups. “We needed to think about how to get the customer in and out in five minutes,” Mr. Fortgang says.
Customers order at a long espresso bar and are invited to read about matcha’s history and antioxidant and caffeine content while they wait. Baristas have just a few minutes to dissolve the imported, fine-powder green tea in hot or cold water.
Many people order a matcha latte, Mr. Fortgang says, or the iced Fuji apple ginger matcha, made with apple juice, ginger and a matcha shot. The place also serves espresso drinks from a traditional espresso machine, for the 10% of customers Mr. Fortgang says are curious but can’t give up their morning coffee.
Gunpowder’s Mr. Franzini says he has found that serving just one variety of tea makes for a less-intimidating ordering experience. He originally opened what he calls a tea “lab” devoted to more than 20 kinds of tea; he says he found customers wanted fewer choices. Besides guayusa, Gunpowder offers a red Rooibos tea and a tea made from whole hibiscus flowers. Offer too many options, and “the experience [becomes] daunting and unpleasant,” Mr. Franzini says.
Many customers want to shop for specialty tea accessories. Davids Tea Inc., based in Montreal, earlier this year introduced a shake-n-sip matcha travel shaker for dissolving powdered tea slowly without stirring. It sold out within weeks, says Kim Wiseman, head of customer engagement at the retailer. Last year, Davids introduced a mug for brewing tea leaves on the go, with a compartment for carrying extra tea for brewing later. “People are looking for an alternative to carrying coffee,” Ms. Wiseman says.
When Joshua Mikael, a 36-year-old tech entrepreneur, walked into Gunpowder for the first time, he’d never heard of, nor tasted, guayusa tea, which is brewed using leaves of an Amazonian shrub and boasts a high caffeine content. On his first visit, he learned about the tea from the shop’s “guyaistas,” who pull shots of the beverage while talking about it with first-time customers.
“All the people that work there get the spiel down really well,” says Mr. Mikael, who drinks the bottled guayusa flavored with either mint or hibiscus. Some days, Mr. Mikael works from Gunpowder’s lounge area, which is filled with cushioned armchairs and ergonomic desk chairs around a reclaimed wood table.
Even Starbucks has gotten into specialty teas. Most Americans still aren’t drinking “superpremium” teas, which are typically sold in loose leaves and not tea bags, says Annie Young-Scrivner, president of Teavana, which Starbucks Corp. acquired in 2012 and now has more than 350 retail stores, plus six free-standing tea bars opened in 2013. Rather than compete with the morning coffee rush, Teavana focuses on late-afternoons and evenings when customers are looking for a place to relax.
The stores have brighter lighting than Starbucks coffee shops and serve some food items on regular plates, Ms. Young-Scrivner says. They serve about 100 different types of tea, including blends with flavors like candied pineapple, orange blossom and apples, for flavors that are less bitter and more appealing to people accustomed to drinking sweetened tea.
Among the hard-to-find varieties at Teavana are black dragon pearl, with hand-rolled tea leaves that unfurl in hot water, and monkey picked oolong tea, featuring young leaves that, according to legend, were harvested from treetops by primates. “People are really starting to develop a palate,” Ms. Young-Scrivner said. “If you are drinking black tea, it doesn’t have to be English breakfast.”
And just what is “teatime”? Here’s a wiki link on the subject: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tea_%28meal%29And just what is guayusa? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ilex_guayusa