Tea Houses in Connecticut
The “beauty and harmony of the art of making, pouring and tasting tea” at The Green Teahouse.
For a small state, Connecticut is big in tea. It’s grown some of the most recognized names in the industry. Bigelow—born in 1945, when Ruth Campbell Bigelow combined orange peel, spices and tea in her kitchen to create Constant Comment—is still headquartered in Fairfield. Harney & Sons was started in Salisbury. (The Harneys still live here, but moved the business across the state line.) In Westport, Tea Importers Inc. has been selling tea to major and specialty packagers around the world since 1958. Today, the tea industry is growing. Total sales have increased 16 percent over the last five years, according to the Tea Association of the USA. Exhibit A: Starbucks purchased the Teavana chain of mall-based tea stores in October.
In Connecticut, more and more people —drawn by flavors and health benefits — are seeking out high-quality loose-leaf, often organic or sustainable teas. To experience the tea evolution for yourself, try one of Connecticut’s small tea shops for tastes, talks, tea ceremonies and afternoon tea. But first, a clarification: Tea (black, green, oolong and white) is the term used for beverages brewed from the leaves of Camellia sinensis. Herbs and herbal blends are “tisanes.” Yet today, the word “tea” encompasses all. Ever heard of rooibis?
The Green Teahouse
West Hartford, 860/232-6666
University of New Haven graduate Ting Chaponis was raised in China, drinking premium loose tea — her family owns tea shops there. In 2009, she opened The Green Teahouse to share her passion. Loosely designed on a Chinese teahouse, with handcrafted wood shelves, ceramics and scrolls, the tasting room offers 100 premium loose-leaf teas.
Chinese tea ceremonies here (for groups of four, reservations required) are interactive educational experiences that reveal “the beauty and harmony of the art of making, pouring and tasting tea,” says Laura Neves, store manager. “The Chinese realize that tea utilizes all five senses. The sound of tea being poured into cups, the warmth of the cup, the smell of the tea, the flavor . . . It’s not just a beverage to gulp.”
A second Green Teahouse just opened in New Haven, with more seating and a focus on food — including dishes that use tea as an ingredient.
Savvy Tea Gourmet
Tea is an art to Phil Parda, co-owner of Savvy Tea Gourmet, and he’s devoted to teaching people about it. On Saturday afternoons at the Madison shop, he gives tasting classes on “The Famous Teas of China,” “Natural Remedies” and “The Opium Wars and Tea Production in Sri Lanka,” among other topics. Since the 1970s Parda’s made hundreds of trips to China, visiting tea shops, gardens and factories, and carrying home by hand “tea treasures” so special he was unwilling to trust them to luggage.
Tea is “an invaluable cultural custom in Asia,” he says. “When people come together, tea comes out. It’s not even a question. It just appears and creates a connection. It’s an instant conduit for conversation. The components in tea are conducive to this. Tea has cognitive benefits.” Customers can book tea tastings or British afternoon tea with finger sandwiches.
Mrs. Bridges’ Pantry
A traditional cozy British teahouse, Mrs. Bridges’ Pantry specializes in afternoon tea. That is the proper term for the genteel 4 p.m. ritual. (Americans take note: “high tea,” is different, it’s the working class’s 6 p.m. evening supper. As in “I’m ’aving me tea.”) Mrs. Bridges carries over 300 teas — bags, sachets and loose-leaf varieties. Unlike bags, sachets are filled with “what is essentially loose tea,” says co-owner Pamela Spaeth. Yorkshire Gold is an “ethical brew” supplied to the Prince of Wales at his London residence. It’s a blend of teas from India, Kenya and Rwanda, strong and brisk, with a note of malt. Harney & Sons teas are served too. Afternoon tea features scones made especially for Mrs. Bridges’ Pantry in the British style, small, round and not too sweet. And if it’s high tea you want, no worries, mate, you can take home a pork pie.
Arogya’s niche is holistic healing (they also offer acupuncture and massage). The shelves of this 16-year-old shop are filled with teas and herbal blends packaged in clear bottles that reflect their tonic intent. Customers ask for teas to help them sleep or renew energy. The popular turmeric-ginger tisane has anti-inflammatory properties, with the “hui gan” quality valued by the Chinese. “When you drink it, the flavor isn’t sweet, but there’s an aftereffect of sweetness,” says owner Wei Huang Bertram. For the true connoisseur, Arogya specializes in vintage pu'er teas, fermented teas from China that have earthy, rich flavors and health benefits. Arogya offers tastings for groups. Their teas are also served at Sugar & Olives in Norwalk.
Bean & Leaf
New London, 860/701-0000
Bean & Leaf takes an environmental approach, carrying loose, organic and fair-trade teas. Loose tea is “a higher grade” than bags, explains Melissa Cokas, an owner of the seven-year-old family business. When tea is bagged, “it’s put on screened trays, and the little bits that fall through the screen go into the bags,” she says. Bean & Leaf employs reusable filters for those enjoying a cup at the café, and unbleached paper bags for take-out. They sell tea by the ounce for home use.
Many customers are interested in holistic health. In blustery weather, Unity tea, a caffeine-free, herbal blend flavored with ginger, lemongrass, licorice, peppermint and black pepper with “immunity-enhancing” properties, is a popular choice. So is Apricot Escape (brewed from South African red bush), mixed with fruit and flowers.
The Drawing Room
Cos Cob, 203/661-3737
“Tea is truly one of life’s simple pleasures,” says Kenleigh Larock. “It’s that moment to be quiet and thoughtful and enjoy the tea in its own right.” The Drawing Room sells loose organic teas, and owners Kenleigh and husband Mike Larock, who learned about tea during their travels in Europe, extoll the virtues of tea as a cooking ingredient. Kenleigh makes short ribs with lapsang souchong, a smoked China black tea. “It has an amazing bouquet,” she says, “You’d think you smoked your ribs for hours.” Black lavender tea “is beautiful in crème brûlée.” She also uses The Drawing Room’s ginger-lemongrass tea to make syrup for mojitos. Afternoon tea is offered Monday through Saturday.