Rooms with a brew: The tea house revival

A new breed of independent tea room is redefining how we enjoy our daily brew, writes Vanessa Yung

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 August, 2013, 11:20pm

TEAKHA OWNER Nana Chan's fondest tea memory was going to stay at a tea plantation in Darjeeling, India. She was able to visit the tea factories, and stay at one of the tea estate's five bungalows, where the owner cooked for everybody and brought them tea every morning to drink in bed.

Born into a Taiwanese family that made it a tradition to gather every day to enjoy afternoon tea, Chan has been enjoying the drink since she was four. Her dream since she was 10, the year her family relocated to Hong Kong, has been to open her own tea room.

Just over a year ago, her dream came true. The cosy Teakha, tucked in a quiet corner on Tai Ping Shan Road in Sheung Wan, represents the Buddhist Chan's passion and ideal way of life. She is constantly striving to perfect her craft and knowledge, and whenever she travels, she tries to include a little tea discovery in her itinerary.

"My motto is to share the little surprises in life. I want to share something I'm very passionate about, and remind people to pay attention to all the little details in life that they neglect," she says.

"It's not something that I can put into words - you have to feel it yourself. But in general, it's a slow-paced lifestyle involving handicrafts and more organic stuff.

"Tea is not the focus, but a window to all that," says Chan, who keeps the menu - handwritten on a blackboard - limited to about 10 teas, which is sufficient to offer a taste of the world without hopping on a plane.

Chan only sells what she likes, and her tastes include gingery masala chai made with Assam tea from India, hojicha au lait (made with tea from Kyoto's Ippodo Tea), Hong Kong-style milk tea, and Thai iced tea (a blend of Ceylon, orange blossom water and tamarind). Chan says it's more important that the menu pleases her than her customers.

Chan feels location is crucial to give the right experience to guests, and she chose to open in the PoHo (around Po Hing Fong) area because "having a community and outdoor space is very important", she says.

"I'm always thinking of opening a new shop, but it's hard to find a nice spot. There is no way I would open one in a shopping mall."

The neighbourhood also led Ini Tsai, a Taiwanese who helps run the family business of tea trading, to open Harbour Pearl just a stone's throw away on Sai Street, six months ago.

With songs such as Moon River playing in the background, the interior is reminiscent of Hong Kong's colonial past, and features paintings and furniture that give a nostalgic ambience. The loft space upstairs is reserved for social events, and there are two tables and rattan chairs outdoors, facing the street.

Harbour Pearl specialises in Taiwanese organic tea, including green, oolong and ruby black tea, a rare Taiwanese hybrid known for its malty aroma with a hint of mint and cinnamon. Other options include Ceylon Uva Shawlands black tea and Xinjiang wild chrysanthemum.

For food, Tsai has given culinary art graduate Panther Matt Kwok the freedom he needs to come up with food that he thinks go best with the teas. "When I'm coming up with the dishes, I think about how they can enhance the teas, just like pairing wine with food," Kwok says. "My desserts, for instance, have less sugar so that the aroma of the tea will not be overwhelmed by their sweetness. The tea is always the star."

If you are in need of some serious pampering, complete with a three-tier tea set, head to Tea Saloon by AnotherFineDay, which opened in Mid-Levels in April.

Although the owners recognise the calming and soothing properties of tea on its own, creating a cheerful ambience which enhances that for customers is their ultimate goal.

They import blends from their favourite British brand Fortnum & Mason, and have come up with nine original blends - each corresponding to one of the nine personality types - so that everyone can have their own cup of tea, says Karen Lai, one of three partners.

"For the reformer [personality type], for instance, we suggest they go for our rooibos and vanilla infusion to loosen up, while the royalist who yearns for guidance and support can kick start a day with our AFD breakfast tea."

They source their tea from around the world, including Taiwan, South Africa and Europe. Other selections include Madame Grey, a floral blend which contains blue cornflower and rose to balance the sometimes too-powerful bergamot, as well as a rose oolong sourced from a tea plantation in Alishan, Taiwan.

Tea Saloon co-owner Catherine Wong says many people are only familiar with Earl Grey and English Breakfast tea. "Many still think tea comes from a tea bag, which uses low-quality tea. That can't be compared to the aroma and taste of whole tea leaves," she says.

Chan also thinks the tea culture in Hong Kong is immature. Guests have asked for coffee in Teakha, and left after finding out it is not served there. In an attempt to educate more people, Chan has been holding tea classes at her new social space Plantation. Classes are taught by herself and fellow tea-lovers Vivian Mak of MingCha, and Ippodo Tea expert Kenichi Kano.

Cindy Ng of Teavers in Sai Wan Ho, and Cheung Sin-mei of Sinmei Tea in Sheung Wan, use other means. Ng tries to promote tea by modernising the craft. "Some find the wide range of teas intimidating, so we've come up with a colour visualisation system. We assign each tea one of six different colours - oolong has a yellow logo, green tea has a green one, and so on," says Ng.

Teavers, which stands for tea lovers, opened in October. It takes pride in the unique, "contemporary" way to make tea. Stronger teas such as oolong and pu'er, which need to be brewed at a higher temperature, are made using a coffee syphon, while white tea is made with a special boiler on a tea drip rack, so as not to kill the freshness.

Ng suggests beginners start with floral teas such as rose or osmanthus, because they're light and have no caffeine, before moving on to try white tea, green tea and oolong. Black tea and pu'er should come last as they take time to learn and appreciate.

Nestled in a commercial building, Sinmei Tea may not be the neatest place, but the friendly staff make it a no-frills place to hang out.

Although green tea is the most popular in Sinmei, what the owner wants to promote is Chinese tea and the culture behind it. That's why she insists on serving her Chinese teas such as Da Hong Pao in the style of a tea ceremony, where the guest pours water into a lidded cup and drains the tea.

"People here are so used to the work-life routine. Everybody is so restless, they can't wait patiently for the water to boil," says Cheung.

"I want them to take their time here. We offer a place where everyone can pull back."