Is It Tea's Time?

Seattle tea shops are trying to shed tea's fusty image. But is there just something anti-trendy about tea?

As I explore tea shops around town, the first thing I am asked to do is to poke my nose into a canister of tea leaves. "I want to make sure you like the smell of it," says Andrea Arnold at Remedy Tea House on Capitol Hill. From Ballard's Floating Leaves to Tea Cup in Queen Anne, visits begin by sampling the scent of tea and explaining what sort of tea I'm looking for. There's almost too much to choose from. Like by-the-bottle lists at a wine bar, the selections at Seattle's teahouses can number in the hundreds, many with Chinese, Indian, or Japanese names. They can be categorized as black, green, or white teas; herbal tisanes; the barnlike fermented pu-erh (one variety is named "camel's breath"); and flavored teas like the ever-popular Earl Grey. Tea purveyors have been trying to update tea's fusty image for decades. We keep hearing that tea is the next big thing, but it seems it's always the next big thing. Has tea's time come, or is it simply a (possibly) healthier beverage for those who want an alternative to coffee? Are these new tea shops any match for the worldwide cachet of coffee shops, be they neighborhood cafes or Starbucks and its many corporate imitators? Remedy, with its sleek white-and-green interior and laboratory-cool wall of 150 canisters of organic tea (requiring a placemat-sized menu to decipher the offerings), doesn't just make tea hip. You also get the idea that tea is a science. Take the focus on steeping time. At four of the five teahouses I visited, my cup came with a timer. The style of the timer bespoke the attitude and mood of the place, from wooden hourglasses at Tea Cup and Floating Leaves to Remedy's high-tech plastic timer, which flashed red at three minutes. Tea is ceremonial and slow. Teahouses are more humble than their neighboring coffee shops. In the same way that a shot of coffee gets you going, and coffeehouses often seem to be places where people conduct business, these less-amped teahouses provide a space to connect with neighbors and appreciate the fact that certain pleasures take time. The Tea Cup, for example, is filled with a quiet crowd, one that seems familiar and neighborly, and whose laptop quotient is low. People here inquire, in a way you would ask someone at a bar, what you are drinking. One woman describes to her neighbor how she has mixed rooibos and a bit of green tea to create a certain sweetness, with just a little caffeine. These people are serious about their tea, and they know what they want in a cup. It can be daunting to tackle tea connoisseurship, both in terms of learning what's out there as well as discovering your own tastes. "Some people are intimidated by tea. They think you have to know a lot to drink it, but that's not true. We want to make tea fans of people," says Arnold at Remedy, placing a steaming cup in front of me. "Hey, try it; it's good."

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