Enjoying a cup of tea is almost synonymous with the act of slowing down. Unlike the fast jolt and pick-me-up associated with its caffeinated cousin coffee, tea seems to force its drinkers to pause. Whether it’s waiting for the leaves to steep or as part of a cultural ritual such as a tea ceremony, tea provides an opportunity to stop and savor a moment.
Slowing down and savoring moments is precisely what Andrea Tyler loves about tea and why she opened her tiny tea shop, Tea Here Now, on Webster Street in Oakland just over a year ago. After some health problems forced Andrea to slow down and take time off after 10 years of working as a fundraiser in the non-profit sector, she found herself pausing long enough to realize a lifelong dream of opening a tea shop.
Andrea first fell in love with tea, she says, as a teenager. Her family was visiting England where she discovered the ritual of afternoon tea when visiting a countryside cottage that held an afternoon tea service. She loved the idea of it and soon discovered that tea cut across class in Britain. Despite stereotypes about tea being for the upper class, it was for everyone. Her fascination with tea and culture and the rituals around it was sparked. Later, as a pre-law major in college, she wrote her senior thesis on how the tea ceremonies in three different cultures—England, Japan and America—reflected their political cultures.
The opportunity to finally open her own shop was somewhat serendipitous. Tea Here Now is housed in a tiny 200-sq. foot retail space that was formerly a Chinese noodle shop. Andrea had been trying to figure out how to bring her tea shop dream to fruition when she happened to stop into the noodle shop one day and saw that the space was for lease.
“I came to get noodles at the current space and saw it was for lease. I was thinking about the tea bike idea. I thought I could go to business school or I could try it. I called the leasing number and went down the rabbit hold of turning this space into a tea shop,” she said.
After all, just starting the shop would be far less expensive that getting a business degree, she thought. Just jumping in was a little “precipitous,” Andrea said, in part because most of what she needed to do to refurb the space was not in her area of expertise. Nevertheless, she was determined to figure out how to make the space work, even if she had to do it herself—which she did.
Despite such a small space, it was out of date for the kind of permit Andrea would need to open the tea shop. She and her husband built out most of the space themselves to keep costs down. Andrea even apprenticed with an electrician so she could figure out how to wire the shop to meet code. To update the building’s 1930’s plumbing, she held a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds and was “blessed with a lot of generous shows of support,” she said.
“The Bay Area has strict permitting requirements,” she said. “We did it all first hand—it was a good first lesson.”
Tea Here Now features 25 varieties of tea sourced from 10 small-scale tea purveyors from throughout the globe. Although Andrea does not blend the tea herself, she took care to make sure she was sourcing her products in a thoughtful way. The blends featured at the shop are fair trade and organic. When she began looking for tea to source, she became very serious about learning about the process of how different blends were made and where they came from, she said.
“I want to know everything about it.”
That’s because every blend has a story to tell, Andrea says. The family that she sources her green tea from has gained status as a World Heritage purveyor from UNESCO. She also works with a tea cooperative in Kenya that is over 100 years old. Other sources include a woman’s collective in Nepal, purveyors in India and Ceylon, and family businesses from Japan, China and Taiwan. Many of her herbal blends are made in Portland, Oregon.
Andrea says there is also a fair amount of interest in the medicinal benefits of tea. She has numerous customers that come into the shop looking for something that’s good for what ails them.
“People will come in and list their complaints, and you give them what might satisfy them, which is a lot of fun. We’re not doctors but there’s a lot of power in that cup of tea. It’s soothing,” she said.
It all goes back to slowing down. According to Andrea, tea reacts very differently than coffee in the body. Tea, she says, slows down delivery. Although she admits the health benefits of tea are not her area of expertise, she is interested in learning more. And, Andrea says, despite all the attention coffee has gotten over the past decade or so, tea actually covers a wide spectrum of tastes and flavors.
“Tea all comes from one plant,” she said. “It’s the way its processed where there’s incredible variation. When prepared right, there’s an incredible spectrum I would argue is much wider even than coffee.”
Andrea is also is working with an herbalist to learn more and has been holding tea blending classes at the shop and doing workshops in conjunction with other businesses in the area, such as a recent tea blending workshop held at Spice Monkey, a restaurant that is also on Webster Street. Collaboration with others is a key part of her business, she says, because tea on its own is not enough.
“Tea is not enough. People want something with their tea. I try to find complementary products and serve them.”
Finding other people who share a sense of enthusiasm for what they’re doing and making is key to finding collective opportunities, Andrea says. She partners with a number of local small bake shops in the area—mostly women-owned—and sponsors regular pop-ups at the tea shop. Frequent partners include Angel Cakes, Indie Cakes & Pastries, and Fat Bottom Bakery.
One of Andrea’s goals is also to make tea more accessible. The American tea scene, she says, is predominantly white and male. There are also a lot of stereotypes that tend to go with tea-drinking, she says. Grandmas. Raised pinkies. English afternoons with doilies and tea sandwiches. Asian tea dens with dark furniture and ritualized ceremonies. Hippy dippy herbals that don’t taste good but are “good for you.”
Andrea believes these stereotypes are off-putting for many people. She likens the traditional tea world to the wine world in which people are often made to feel like they know nothing. But also much like the wine world, which is being challenged by small (sometimes irreverent) producers who want to make wine more approachable, she believes tea is beginning to have some fresh life breathed into it, thanks to blenders like T-We in San Francisco, which takes a “risqué” approach to naming its tea blends, Andrea says.
“It can be made to be elitist if you want it to be, but it doesn’t have to be,” she says.
Tea Here Now
Photos courtesy of Andrea Tyler, Tea Here Now