Tea isn’t always approached as scientifically as coffee in the USA. Maybe it’s too European, or too zen, or too geriatric for most coffee-drinkers. But when I started weening myself off of coffee, that black tar bringer-of-war, a couple years ago, tea was my methadone. And for every seriously cool coffee shop I encounter, I look for a seriously cool tea shop in my peripheral. I rarely find one. Until recently.
It’s a Monday afternoon, a perfectly warm and deliciously breezy Monday afternoon. I’m driving along East Austin’s Airport Blvd, which is a boulevard in every sense of the word: littered with fast food restaurants and dollar stores, congested with traffic most hours of the day, and measured out in increments where frequent stoplights act as markers. One wouldn’t suspect an oasis in the chaos in this part of town. One would think that the most popular tea shop in Austin, Zhi Tea, would find its home in a yuppier section of Austin, maybe next to a yoga studio and a frozen yogurt spot.
The hectic atmosphere of Airport Boulevard dissipates behind the turn onto Bolm Road. Like so much of East Austin, the landscape again becomes a quasi-harmonious mix of urban decay and encroaching nature. Zhi Tea is on the left as we approach, located in a sprawling single floor unit that feels much more like a Brooklyn loft than it does a tea gallery in East Austin. Ben Britz and I enter the shop and, just like entering a spa, our minds are set at ease with the new meditative environment.
Jeffrey Lorien, who uses the moniker Dr. Oolong at online forums and the website, offered us a pot of his Ginseng Oolong. Oolong, Dr. Oolong tells us, is a style of tea whose level of oxidization is somewhere between that of green and black teas. They’re all the same plant – green tea is the least oxidized, and black tea, the kind you get in England and mainland Europe, is much more oxidized, accounting for the wide variety of flavors. Oolong is interesting because while it does contain a modest amount of caffeine, it also contains compounds like theanine, a relative of caffeine that has calming properties. It is this reason, and also because of the buttery smoothness characteristic of oolong teas, that explains oolong’s growing popularity.
Jeff is from Seattle and found himself working within the Seattle coffee shop scene before there was a real coffee shop scene in other cities. He watched grunge come, and he watched grunge go. And by the same token, he watched Seattle come, and he watched Seattle go. Eager for inspiration and thirsty for any kind of change at all, Jeff planted himself in New York City’s Upper West Side for a year, pondering where to go and what to do next. And eventually this train of through evolved into an idea that evolved into Austin’s favorite tea shop.
Austin is a place that is still in its cool stage, according to Jeff. Like Seattle in the ’90′s, like Brooklyn before all the rich people, Austin, to him, seems to have a certain energy and edge. It was the perfect location.
Although there are certain challenges marketing tea to a decidedly coffee culture, the care and attention to detail that Jeff made into a habit, coupled with the high quality organic teas, made his little shop into a success. Good tea speaks for itself, both in taste and in tea drinkers’ improved health, so a spokesperson with the obvious passion (dare we say obsession?) that Jeff has is all that was needed to carve Zhi Tea a permanent niche in Austin’s East Side. Now, Zhi Tea provides wholesale tea for a number of Austin’s restaurants and even coffee shops. And since it’s so delicious and organic, no one seems to mind the invasion of tea ’round these parts.
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