A spicy yet soothing aroma of freshly-brewed tea fills the air in Josh Chamberlain’s spacious tea house, J-Tea. Surrounding the tea bar and stools in the center of the shop, shelves hold teapots decorated with floral patterns and teas with names such as Hairy Monkey White Tea and Second Flush Oolong. There are stacks of tiny foil packages colored with turquoise, gold, and lavender, each containing a hard, compressed block of loose tea leaves.
Here, you will not find the premeasured tea bags packaged into oversized boxes that are popular in grocery stores. Chamberlain’s shop offers teas with minimal packaging, so what you’re getting is – well, tea.
Other tea shops often carry an assortment of teas from just about every area in the world that produces tea. J-Tea carries a more specialized selection, selling only teas from Taiwan and China. Chamberlain is so particular about his teas that he travels all the way to Taiwan twice a year to pick out the finest tea leaves himself.
Heading straight to the source rather than ordering through a middleman eliminates Chamberlain’s risk of getting stuck with teas of subpar quality.
Tea, like wine, is an agricultural product that varies widely in taste, appearance, scent, and overall quality from farm to farm and season to season.
“Those really regional, seasonal differences in tea that get expressed in the flavor, the body, the aroma—these are things that I’m trying to capture when I select the teas,” Chamberlain says.
When he visits the small-production farms in the high mountains of Taiwan, Chamberlain looks for the proper conditions that will fulfill his personal standards of quality. Teas of high quality boast delectable natural flavors and pleasant aromas.
And, as with wine, when a particular farm and season has produced an optimal crop, Chamberlain will buy as much as he can sell.
Taiwan’s cool, humid mountains are covered with flourishing greenery and offer prime conditions for growing lush tea.
To ensure that the tea he is purchasing is of high quality, Chamberlain chooses to buy only pure, unflavored tea leaves. He avoids flavored teas, which are the dominant teas on the market in the U.S., because flavors are often used to mask poor quality, according to Chamberlain.
“People are often surprised that tea can taste as good as it does just on its own,” he says.
J-Tea benefits from the variety and frequently-changing qualities that come from small farms, while large-scale tea businesses usually look for just the opposite. They don’t want any variation in their teas, according to Chamberlain.
“They add the tea together in a formula that consistently produces the same taste,” he says. This, however, won’t guarantee that the color will remain consistent. To ensure that their product always looks the same every time a customer brews a cup, big companies add dyes.
Chamberlain concentrates on filling the majority of his store with genuine tea.
Camellia Sinensis is the actual tea plant, which is used to make green, white, and black teas. Herbal teas do not fall under this category, as they are derived from other plants, such as rose, mint, or chamomile flower.
Rather than focusing on the conventional top sellers, such as Earl Greys and herbals, Chamberlain instead seeks out rare teas.
Another feature that sets these teas apart from others is that J-Tea only sells whole leaf tea, rather than the dust and crumbs that are often used to fill tea bags.
Chamberlain’s vast knowledge of the types of teas and the processes needed to properly brew them also benefits his customers, especially those who purchase brewed cups from the tea bar.
“He knows so much about tea, so it enhances the experience of drinking it. Period,” says customer Frank Hale, a self-proclaimed tea lover.
Chamberlain developed his knowledge while he was studying abroad in Taiwan. His years overseas taught him the benefits of drinking tea, such as increased awareness and a calmer state of mind.
“I was crazy about tea,” he says. He would drink it in the morning, afternoon, and evening. After returning to the U.S. in 2005 with an MBA and an in-depth understanding of the beverage, Chamberlain decided to open his tea shop.
Chamberlain has honed and perfected his skill for getting the tea-brewing process right, evident in every cup of tea served. He pairs pots with equipment and particular teas in order to deliver an incomparable drink to his customers every time.
For example, Chamberlain knows that a heavier, more full-bodied tea, such as a ‘High Mountain Roasted Oolong,’ is best prepared using a dark, iron-rich clay pot. The dark clay absorbs tea flavors while simultaneously enhancing them.
For a lighter tea, such as a ‘Green Oolong,’ Chamberlain recognizes that porcelain is the best type of pot to brew the tea in. Porcelain lets the heat dissipate rather than holding it in, and it won’t absorb the tea’s flavors–perfect for switching between teas in the same pot.
Chamberlain is also a useful resource for his customers when they are unsure about which teas to buy. When customers ask for Chamberlain’s input, he replies by asking them what kind of beer they like, or what type of wine they prefer. Based on their preferences for other beverages, Chamberlain can better recommend a tea that will suit their tastes.
For instance, someone who likes malt whiskey may enjoy a tea with rich flavors, such as a roasted Oolong. If someone likes IPA beer, Chamberlain recommends teas with bitter flavors and a sweet aftertaste.
But what you get at J-Tea doesn’t end with quality. This tea house offers a unique business with a cultural touch.
Outside of the tea house is a modern metal structure that seems to make an artistic statement rather than serve a solid functional purpose. A short set of stairs leads customers from the street to a wooden entrance that resembles a box. The entire front of the shop is made of tall, glass windows, allowing natural light to gently flow in.
First-time customer Neil VanSteenbergen says, “There’s a comfort and warmth here. I’m going to come back and bring my sweetheart.”
Hale agrees. He keeps coming back to J-Tea because of the calm, soothing environment and the unique selection of teas that he can’t find elsewhere. Also, the cultural and spiritual experience of watching Chamberlain handmake the cups of tea right in front of his eyes is something he can’t get anywhere else.
Drawn to the time-honored tea-brewing process at J-Tea, Hale says, “After the first time I drank here, I stopped drinking store-bought teas.”
Chamberlain hopes the new shop will provide an ideal setting to expose customers to the health benefits and life-enhancing qualities of tea along with the culture behind drinking it. Here, he will work to conquer one of his biggest challenges: showing people what ‘quality’ tea really means and the traditions behind the cultures that enjoy it.