I’ve been keeping track of tea rooms for a very long time. Not just which ones open, close, or move to a new location, but also what they offer their customers.
At one time there were essentially three types of tea rooms, at least here in the USA:
- Asian dumpling parlours, located in a city’s Chinatown and requiring an adventurous soul because they rarely had English-language menus;
- lavish, upscale hotels with a largely European clientele where everyone spoke in whispers;
- and the frilly Victorian tea parlour that was a destination for “ladies day out” and more about petits fours and lace tablecloths than about tea – and which no self-respecting male would enter.
To buy loose leaf tea, you entered a dusty, musty little shop next door to the dumpling parlours, crammed floor to ceiling with colourful boxes of indeterminate contents, where in addition to teas and Oriental herbs you could also buy cotton shoes, shark’s teeth, and those maddening little finger traps. There were also a few coffee or herb shops that carried standard, nondescript varieties of loose-leaf tea of indeterminate age and origin.
Towards the turn of the millennium a new kind of tea room emerged to accommodate a new kind of American tea drinker. Contemporary and casual in style, comfortable for both men and women, accessible to everyone, these tea rooms were about the tea. Even more, they were about learning about tea, and sharing that knowledge.
These “new style” tea rooms (as I originally called them) raised the bar for all other styles of tea room. They were responding to – and at the same time creating a demand for – educated tea drinkers as well as knowledgeable tea room owners. Dry leaf shops similarly evolved as consumers searched for a wider variety of tea to take home, where they could practice the steeping techniques they observed in the tea rooms. Both tea rooms and shops offered increasingly wider, and more exotic, varieties of tea.
What brought about this evolution in tea? Well, it happened right around the time when American men caught up with the rest of the world and realized that tea is not just some sissy coffee substitute but a unique world of unlimited tastes and aromas, science and art, sociability and solitary meditation.
Cause and effect – or effect and cause?
I’ll let you decide.
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