Not just for tea time anymore

Not just for tea time anymoreIn Los Angeles, The Green Tea De Lite elicits raves at the celebrity-studded sushi joint Koi, made from soju infused with green tea and a splash of Midori.

It's not just trend-setting West Coast or Asian-themed restaurants, either: tea drinks are popping up across the country. Bartender Scott Wilson makes an herbal Martini of green tea and rosewater at one of Atlanta's favorite neighborhood joints, Inman Park Patio.


While there's no sign that tea bars will approach the power of Starbucks, there are a host of creative mixologists and baristas who are turning to green, black and scented teas to make their mark.

Instead of just being served in tearooms and hotel lobbies, tea has found its way to the the bar. While a 4 p.m. pot of Darjeeling will always be a classic afternoon treat, restaurants and bars are turning to tea's distinctive flavors to keep customers happy with creative cocktails.


"The British just adore their Earl Grey tea," says Audrey Saunders, beverage director of New York City's swanky Carlyle Hotel. Apparently it's quite popular with New Yorkers, too, as the hotel's elegant Bemelmans Bar packs a crowd seeking Saunders's delectable Earl Grey MarTEAni.

After visiting the Ritz in London, Saunders wanted to create a cocktail that would pay homage to the United Kingdom. Considering the UK's affinity for gin sipping, she got to work on mastering the perfect drink.

"Tanqueray is a big, bold, 'London Dry' style of gin, with lots of botanicals prevalent. Earl Grey is a full-bodied black tea with a distinct Bergamot flavor. I thought the two would definitely complement each other," says Saunders.

And they do. Drinking tea with lemon is customary, and in Saunders's cocktail, lemon helps to amalgamate the flavors and "tame them just a bit."

For Jonathan Spiel, co-owner of Tea Lounge in Brooklyn, NY, cocktails are a unique way to showcase the quality imported teas they carry. Spiel and partner Greg Wolf opened the second outpost of the comfy Park Slope cafe last summer and the much larger space (about triple the size of the original) features a full bar, shaking up the notion that teas are just an afternoon indulgence.

"Our cocktails incorporate our teas, coffees, ices and granitas. No one else is making a Mojito like we do," he says.

Tea is versatile and is used in drinks year-round. Just in time for summer, tea lounges version of the Moroccan Mojito uses fresh mint leaves, lemon ice, whole leaf Moroccan mint tea and rum. A warming Shai Corenti, a drink popular in Ethiopia for its healing qualities, is a good wintertime choice at the Tea Lounge's bar. Black Assam tea combined with sugar and Sambuca makes for an energizing toddy.

"Tea is a wonderful medium to work with," notes Saunders. "It's a giver of flavors. The larger producers are consistent in their flavors year-round unlike seasonal fruit."


Added spirits might give tea a more accessible boost, but even without spiked versions, customers are becoming more and more tea savvy.

And the market is growing. The Las Vegas Hilton recently hosted the Take Me 2 Tea Expo, a thriving marketplace. In 2004, sales of tea are expected to rise to $6 billion. What's the allure?

Some entrepreneurs are at the tea vanguard. Atlanta-based Tevana operates tea bars in seven states, there are three Teaism shops in Washington, DC, while New England-based Tealuxe now operates three units. And the bubble tea craze among Asians has expanded in cities where significant Chinese populations have given mixed tea sales a boost.


Some hotels have smartly merged tea with food and beverage alcohol. At the Bar at the Peninsula Chicago, the "Gentlemen's Retreat" in late afternoons offers appetizers, teas, coffees, bourbon and cigars.

"Years ago, we only saw people ordering Earl Grey and English Breakfast," says Selva Ligurotis, Palm Court manager at the Drake Hotel, Chicago, where afternoon tea is a fabled tradition amid soothing harp music and a stunning limestone fountain. "We now serve loose leaf 'Well Being Teas,' and these newer flavors include peach, citrus, and elderberry with an herbal fruit finish. People are interested in the antioxidant effects that are promoted by such teas as green tea."

Stephen Stroman, manager of the Lobby Lounge at the Charleston Place Hotel in Charleston, SC, where afternoon tea is de rigeur, notices that China Rose Petal is a popular scented tea, while tea purists usually opt for high quality Darjeeling, Keemun and green teas.

"White Tea is the newest craze in tea," he says. "We carry it but it is really just a fancy and ultra expensive green tea."


You won't find any coffee on the menu at San Francisco's Samovar Tea Lounge. Jesse Jacobs is a tea purist and at the new Castro/Mission hotspot, he's happy when he sees "young, hip, urban people drinking tea. We're not cobweb-filled. There are no waiters coming to bother you like an old teahouse of ancient China." Puer, a very robust vintage Chinese tea with a coffee-like consistency, seems to be a hit for the casual crowd that gathers there.

Tea Chai Te, the Zen-like tea bar on Portland, Oregon's trendy 23rd Avenue is the brainchild of Matt Thomas and Dominic Valdes, who set the place apart with a slew of chai concoctions, like a new Mate Chai Latte with Argentinian roasted mate, cinnamon, cardamom, vanilla, ginger, nutmeg, clove and black pepper and a fiery northern Indian Kashmiri Chai with peppermint and tellicherry pepper.

"Customers come because they are turned off by the overly-sweet boxed chai they find at grocery stores and coffeehouses," says Thomas. "We prepare it using a more traditional method, which allows them to tailor their orders to their preferred levels of sweetness."

Suppliers are happily creating new products. Oregon Chai now offers 13 tea latte concentrates, four tea latte mixes and five iced tea concentrates. Tazo, which popularized the chai with its ubiquitous Starbucks affiliation, has now launched its new Tazo Tea Lattes in Vanilla, made with Madagascar bourbon vanilla and black tea from Kenya and India, as well as a slightly sweetened Matcha green tea.

"People no longer want commodity tea. They want quality, wonderful flavors and organic or natural ingredients," says Steven Smith, founder of Portland, OR-based Tazo. "The new tea latte flavors provide that experience."

Allowing people to discover the nuances of tea is another trend, thanks to the surge of helpful tea know-it-alls posted at restaurants.


At Samovar, curious tea aficionados can sit down at the tea bar and go through a guided tasting with one of the sharp "teatenders", while at Charleston Place each guest is given a tableside presentation of the loose teas so they can see, touch and smell them firsthand.

Christopher Day, tea sommelier at New York's contemporary seafood restaurant RM, loves Chinese Oolongs and their earthy flavors of lilac, honeysuckle and gardenia. When pairing the ideal tea with a customer's dessert, Day might suggest one of the menu's purist options, or something a little more exotic from one of his importers. What's most important is that he's noticing myriad types of people more receptive to tea.

"The tea industry today is where wine was in the 70's. We now have some of the best teas in the country and there's an openness and willingness to try new things," he says.