I stroll through the calm heart of Ballard to my destination across the street from the clock tower on Ballard Ave: Miro Tea, decorated with plants, tea paraphernalia and locally made art. The farthest wall is covered with over 150 tins filled with teas and tisanes. The ambiance this spring day of the lingering quarantine is quiet conversation, with a few people occupying the available seating. It’s been many months since I’ve set foot in the teahouse, but very little has changed. I’m immediately greeted by Rita, manager and teatender. “Hey! Long time no see!” she exclaims. We chat for a bit, and then I find an empty spot to sit and I begin to write, suddenly feeling at home.
To enter a Seattle coffee house is to feel an immediate sense of urgency and chaos. Baristas are often flustered and overwhelmed, and patrons just want their drinks.
“When you’re drinking coffee, you’re on the go,” said Julee Rosanoff, founder of Perennial Tea Room in Pike Place. “It’s to get you out of the house or on the road.”
That’s rarely true at a tea house. When you walk into a teahouse, you feel a calm. The resonating disposition among tea shops is usually more tranquil.
Shops like Miro Tea and Friday Afternoon Tea become sanctuaries, places to relax, escape the world’s harshness, over tea. Friends chat and play games, sipping on Earl Greys; first dates happen over a cup of oolong. Others dwell on homework assignments while consuming slightly-less-caffeinated green teas.
The pandemic has paused all that. Shops were relegated to only to-go orders. But lately, with COVID restrictions loosening up, some purveyors have begun re-opening their havens.
If I could simply describe the tea scene in Seattle, I’d say “small but supportive.”
Echoed by tea shop owners, businesses consider themselves collaborative, not competitive. Can’t find the right Pu’er at Perennial Tea? Owner Dolan Honsa has no problem directing people over to Crimson Lotus for Pu’ers, Miro Tea for a good Japanese tea or Friday Afternoon Tea for a wide variety of blends.
“We pride ourselves in carrying good quality tea but we’re not going to have everything,” said Jeannie Liu, proprietor of Miro Tea.
Seattle teasters lost a home in 2016 when Teahouse Kuan Yin in Wallingford shuttered. A staple in the neighborhood and the “communitea” for 26 years, the Kuan Yin owners were not given the chance to renew their lease and had to move their operations online.
The closures of Kuan Yin Teahouse and other tea shops affects the community as a whole, closing off connections among vendors and potential tea lovers, reducing visibility of the community at large.
The second most popular drink in the world is prolific with longstanding roots and communal growth. Like coffee, tea has a rich history in Seattle. Market Spice in Pike Place Market opened over 100 years ago and was a tea and spice staple even before Starbucks and Peets steeped their way into the game. Small shops in the Chinatown-International District offer their own selections of tea, if only as a portion of their merchandise.
Starbucks initially sold tea in bulk, as well as coffee and spices, along with tea pots and coffee grinders. The focus shifted more to coffee in the early 1980s. By then, there still weren’t many noticeable tea shops in the city. Queen Mary Tea Room in Ravenna didn’t open until 1988. Kuan Yin Teahouse and Perennial Tea Room opened their doors in 1990, and not (t)oolong after, three more tea houses and shops opened in the city.
Now, there are 20 to 30 teahouses and shops in Seattle, among our 400 coffee shops. The Seattle communitea is relatively tight knit, with tea houses and other brick-and-mortars serving as a network of information and connections.
Tea had a modest boom here a decade ago, perhaps thanks to the annual tea festival held in the fall at the Seattle Center. After years of developing a strong community and national reputation with the help of the widely popular festival, the Seattle communitea still experiences loss and changes, and is still under the radar for many locals.
Tea doesn’t have an emblematic community. Local tea bloggers and social influencers may exist in the region, but enthusiasts don’t publicly declare their love for tea.
“Tea is just like an everyday activity,” said Jeannie Liu, owner of Miro Tea. “As a community, it’s kind of hard to identify.”
Much of tea drinking happens in solitude, which both makes Seattle prime homebody territory for it and creates an understated tea culture. Even when consuming in public, tea drinkers expect a different experience compared to coffee, wine or spirits because the delicacy of the product requires a slower, more relaxed process to make and appreciate the subtleties.
“There’s always this tense vibration from big time coffee drinkers,” Liu said. “Tea drinkers find themselves relaxed and willing to wait and chit chat.”
The city’s tea shops, such as Miro and Friday Afternoon, each offer a different niche. Miro Tea offers a relaxing coffeehouse modern atmosphere, while Queen Mary works to bring the elegance of afternoon tea, and Friday Afternoon Tea is filled with a fun, nerdy aesthetic.
For the typically-annual festival, the aroma of tea fills the 629,000 cubic feet of Seattle Center’s Exhibition Hall. The clatter of tasting cups, chatter and constantly pouring hot water reverberate non-stop. Thousands of people wander about the hall, wondering what their next tea find will be. By 4 p.m. on the Saturday of the event, I’m tea-drunk.
Founded by Perennial Tea Room’s Julee Rosanaff in 2008, the first Northwest Tea Fest had only 5 vendors. Now, it attracts around 50 tea vendors from around the region and over 3,000 tea lovers, making it one of the largest tea festivals in the country. During the two-day event, there are more than 50 workshops and lectures on everything tea from blending, tasting and food pairing. Tea masters from around the world talk about the history of tea, the science of tea and more. Proprietors sample their products, answering queries and offering education about their product.
The festival is on hold this year due to the pandemic, but the producers are hoping to bring the event back in 2022.
The educational adventures continue beyond the festival.
Liu and her team used to teach in-person workshops, with a different topic each time. Liu still hosts the occasional online workshop where curious tea enthusiasts can ask their general tea questions. Friday Elliott of Friday Afternoon Tea uses TikTok to talk about tea history and tea culture, welcoming questions and topic ideas.
It’s been my experience that the best people to approach with a tea question are those who work at tea shops.
Dedicated to the craft, teatenders are always working to expand their knowledge to help patrons find the right tea. Some shops offer teas of the day to sample, and others will custom brew something new for customers to try.
“All of us try really hard to educate our customers,” Liu said. “We understand, as a relatively small industry, in order to draw customers and keep them, education is always at the foundation of how we sell tea.”
Once you are — OK, fine, once I am geeking out over a cup of The Mechanic’s Blend, while watching the TV show “Firefly” that inspired Elliott to make this blend, or sharing space at the community table at Miro, the teaheads nearby are sharing a common interest with me along with the teatenders. Friendships can grow out of these interactions.
“We’ve seen people make friends at the tea shop and then carry those friendships outside like into the rest of the world,” Elliott said. “We’ve seen people make such amazing connections with each other just because they hang out at the same tea house.”
As for the future of Seattle’s communitea, it’s uncertain but positive. More youth are starting to drink tea. Much of the current clientele are in their 20s and 30s.
“I think tea is kind of growing in popularity and a lot of people are starting to branch out,” Honsa said.
Seattle has the introverted interest and the extroverted community that can now meet up and expand the scene, and be creative and innovative about doing that.
“I would like to see somebody who does a late-night tea scene,” Honsa said.
While there may not be an openly active collective of tea aficionados in Seattle, the love for its existing community is respectable and nurturing. Tea in Seattle continues to bud and stimulate new minds, while keeping the familiars by enticing with the unfamiliar.
Ace Azul is a passionate multimedia storyteller who is interested in profiles, community journalism and portraiture. A tea enthusiast, Ace is often at tea shops searching for his next batch of oolong.
“International Tea Day — every day” was the first article in this two-part series. It ran in last week’s issue, RC May 19, 2021.
Read more of the May 26 - June 1, 2021 issue.