Drink

Tea Rituals: The Sommelier-Driven Tea Experience

Bryan Lavery
Written by Bryan Lavery

London may be part of the explosion of indie cafés serving small-batch coffee roasts, which are part grab-and-go café and part bakery, but we’re a community of dedicated tea enthusiasts too. And now, with the rise of the wellness tea market, we are seeing several innovative tea-inspired concepts. These indie hot spots are about tea craft and accessibility and offer us a well-curated selection of ethically-sourced single-origin teas, blends, tisanes and infusions.

The upswing in the popularity of tea translates to enhanced flavour profiles, and blends that add fruits, flowers and spices for a richer experience. Pairings of tea with herbs, spices and fruits for beverages, tea-infused jams, condiments, and desserts, cocktails, cold brews and ferments are all on-trend.

The Tea Haus

In traditional tea growing countries like China, Japan, India and Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) the term tea specifically refers to beverages made from steeping the leaves of cultivars that have been developed for thousands of years.

White, black, blue, yellow and green teas all originate from one of two tea plant varieties: the Camellia sinensis — a small-leaf tea plant that flourishes in cool, mountain regions of central China and Japan — and the Camellia assamica — a broad-leaf variety of sinensis, growing optimally in the moist, tropical climates of China and North-east India. Like wines, teas are a reflection of their terroir. Processing after harvesting determines the type of tea produced. Tea leaves can be roasted, steamed and semi- or fully- fermented.

The purpose of blending tea is to create a well-balanced flavour using different origins and characters. Tea cultivars have been developed for thousands of years, whereas the international commercial tea industry has only existed for a little over a century and a half. Tisanes, infusions and herbal blends are prepared like tea, but are made with herbs, flowers, roots, bark, fruit, seeds and spices.

A guided tasting of four oolong teas at The Tea Lounge

We love The Tea Haus, located on the second floor of Covent Garden Market. The hospitable proprietors have created a little oasis, which is the perfect place to unwind and escape the hustle and bustle. This premium loose-leaf teashop features black, green, white, herbal chai, Fairtrade, oolong, organic and fruit teas. The attractive kiosk boasts a solid inventory of teaware, pots and accessories.

Long-time local tea purveyors, Gary and Martha McAlister of Everything Tea, located at the Farmers’ & Artisans’ Market at Western Fair on Saturdays, have transferred their boutique shop to their son Hadleigh. Called The Canadian Magpie Merchant, it specializes in organic and fair trade tea and accessories.

The Tea Lounge

Certified tea sommelier and nutritionist Michelle Pierce Hamilton and her business partner Yixing Tang opened The Tea Lounge in a small and charming house on Piccadilly Street east of Richmond Row last fall.

Millwork shelving showcases an interesting selection of unique and traditional teaware. The focal point is a 10-foot “Wall of Tea,” featuring over 100 hand-selected teas from around the world.

Business partners Yixing Tang and Michelle Pierce Hamilton. Photo: Spencer Drake

The café has many seating options, including a rustic conference table with over-sized hand-carved dining chairs for groups and classes. A long crimson sofa accents the Indo-Asian decorative features of the eclectic central lounge. There is additional seating on the front porch in the warm weather.

Tang and Pierce Hamilton offer a premium tea service experience, serving ethically-sourced single-origin teas and tisanes from around the world, as well as retailing striking teaware. The pair offers traditional Chinese, Japanese and English teas, each with its own teaware and serving style. Chinese “grandpa style” is another option on offer. Or you can simply get a quick cup to go. Guests can sip meticulously-sourced teas while experiencing their choice of traditional or contemporary style tea service in the laid-back lounge.

Whether you’re in the mood for a tasty treat, wholesome ingredients, or have food sensitivities, delicious baked good and healthful snacks from Petit Paris Crêperie & Pâtisserie, Boombox Bakeshop and Bliss Specialty Foods add to the tea experience. A menu of light and nourishing food offers a daily wholesome made-from-scratch soup prepared by the culinary team at The Spruce on Wellington just around the corner. Other items include organic Mason jar layered-salads with names like Plant Protein, Fruitoxidant, Kitchen Sink, Greek Out and Sexy Mexi.

There is an “All ’Bout Cheese Board” featuring a selection of local Ontario artisanal cheeses like Gunn’s Hill Cheese, served with condiments, nuts and other accompaniments that they switch up, to keep things interesting. For the plant-based crowd, the “Nuts for Cheese Board” features a selection of ­artisanal, handcrafted, and vegan cheeses made from cultured organic cashews.

What makes great tea? Pierce Hamilton believes, “It starts with excellent quality leaf, with permission to naturally unfurl and fully reveal its flavours and aromas. Not crushed or crammed into a little bag or a ball.” The tea lounge owners create blends that don’t diminish tea’s nutrients, antioxidants and essential oils. They do the legwork, sourcing and selecting teas and tisanes from around the globe. An informative and exciting schedule of classes and events is also part of The Tea Lounge experience. www.tealoungelondon.com

Wisdom Teaware

Wisdom: Café,Teashop and Japanese Crêperie

Wisdom Teashop, founded by David and Vicky Chandler nine years ago, sold tea and tea accessories in London’s Old East Village. In 2016, their son Aaron took over and rebranded as Wisdom: Cafe, Teashop and Japanese Crêperie. A strong background grounding his knowledge of tea, Aaron has a foothold in the blossoming “tea wellness” market. Yet the business remains one of London’s best keep secrets. The small but sophisticated café is housed in a long narrow shop with a clean modernist sensibility and aesthetic.

Aaron Chandler lived in Japan for three years and was impressed by how small cafés and restaurants there flourish through their ability to focus on each individual customer’s enjoyment. He liked that they did only a few things, but that they were done exceptionally well. He wanted to bring this experience and ambience to London.

Matcha Ice Cream, Chocolate & Strawberry Crêpes

As well as 145 teas and a large selection of teapots and accessories, the café features sweet and savoury Japanese crêpes, gelato, tea drinks and Propeller coffee (brewed on a state-of-the-art Nuova Simonelli coffee maker). Chandler prepares tea-based gelatos in small batches, such as matcha ( a finely-ground powder of specially grown green tea) and white chocolate, cookies and cream with Earl Grey, and more traditional flavours like vanilla bean and triple chocolate. Everything is made by hand in the café to ensure freshness and quality.

Chandler prepares the crêpes to order in the small open kitchen at the back of the café. Compared to their French brethren, these Japanese-inspired, thin, savoury crêpes are less sweet and are served in a cone shape for easy eating. Try the crispy Applewood smoked ham crêpe with melted cheddar, or the smoked salmon, dill and goat cheese — they are both excellent. We have also sampled his outstanding matcha ice cream crêpe with fresh strawberries and chocolate syrup.

The menu is continually expanding to accommodate customer sensitivities, and now includes a gluten-free crêpe and a dairy-free vegan gelato.

www.wisdomcafe.ca

Stratford

Distinctly Tea

Stratford offers several terrific ways to learn about and savour superior tea. Meet certified tea sommelier Karen Hartwick at Tea Leaves Tea Tasting Bar to experience the simplicity and intimacy of brewing, presenting, pairing and savouring tea. Tea Leaves is open Wednesday to Saturday, or by appointment.

Distinctly Tea is nestled on York Street beside the river. Certified tea sommelier Dianne Krampien offers a broad selection of teas and tea brewing accessories. For the tea connoisseur, she offers sencha, tikuanyin, and many other Chinese teas of excellent grade.

High Tea at Revival House

For over a century now, iconic hotels like the Toronto’s Royal York have honoured the ritual of afternoon tea, a remnant of India’s colonial British rule. Now, there is a renaissance and renewed interest by restaurateurs in the custom. Reserve your space at Revival House for High Tea and enjoy a special selection of Sloane tea and a custom menu of sandwiches, scones, petits fours and chocolates. Visit The Restaurant at The Bruce Hotel for its monthly afternoon tea, a relaxing way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Choose from twenty carefully curated teas — all of which are complements to the traditional (with a twist) nibbles.

About the author

Bryan Lavery

Bryan Lavery

Eatdrink Food Editor and Writer at Large Bryan Lavery brings years of experience in the restaurant and hospitality industry, as a chef, restaurant owner and consultant. Always on the lookout for the stories that Eatdrink should be telling, he helps shape the magazine both under his byline and behind the scenes.