Providence’s Budding Tea Culture

Tea houses across the city steep perfection with curated ceremonies, authentic flavors, and cozy ambiance

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The thought of tea often conjures the act of tossing a simple bag of leaves (where from – who knows?) into a mug and steeping in boiling water for a minute or two. Look past the steaming cup and you’ll find a vast world of flavors, agricultural practices, and rituals unique to the meditative quality of brewing and drinking tea.

Water temperatures and steep times are only the beginning of these nuances. Global farming traditions come with their own intricacies, including flushes (when tea leaves are plucked from a plant) and different levels of heat in roasting, that affect the tea we drink at home or at a cafe. From specialty boba to tea ceremonies, Providence’s brick-and-mortar teahouses are asking customers to slow down and enjoy the art of tea.

TEA CULTURE

Having grown up in Anhui, China, which is famous for its green teas, Michelle Cheng of Ceremony was raised around tea culture. From her grandparents, she learned that the best teas are purchased directly from farmers. Before opening the College Hill cafe, she started out selling premium loose-leaf teas through Leafy Green Tea, sourcing directly from small farms in China, Taiwan, and Japan. While hosting tea ceremony classes in local cafes on weekends, customers kept approaching her for tips on how to recreate the experience in their own homes. They wanted to know about the teaware, table cloths, and even the music that she played.

“That led me to realize that we were more than a tea company,” Cheng shares. “We were organically developing into a lifestyle brand, which is why we’re called Ceremony, because we sell more than just tea. Our brand and our cafe is a representation of a way of life.”

Towards the end of 2019, Cheng opened Ceremony on Thayer Street, its first location. While the new Ceremony on Brook Street still offers drinks one might see at any cafe – like espresso, chai lattes, and matcha – it stands apart in that it also houses a space dedicated to private tea sessions, something the old location didn’t have.

“I really wanted to elevate the tea ceremony experience,” Cheng says. Though the old location introduced ceremonial aspects, at the new tea room, specialists provide a curated experience at every step of the journey, from helping with tea selection to expertly brewing the teas for the perfect first, second, and third sip, and so on. Accompanied by handmade incense imported from Japan and custom lighting, the session aims to be truly immersive.

Specifically, her team works to introduce and promote a slower and more intentional tea experience through the Gong Fu brewing ceremony. As Cheng shares, Gong Fu in Chinese culture refers to something that requires time, effort, and energy to execute. Particularly, Gong Fu Cha is a widely practiced tea brewing technique in China that comes with many careful steps taken to coax flavor and body from tea leaves. First, the tea is brewed in a Gai Wan, a vessel consisting of a base, a bowl, and a lid. It’s then poured through a strainer into a Gong Dao Bei, a small, clear pitcher used to serve the tea to guests. In total, the tea is brewed six times, which transforms its taste and appearance.

Going on this journey with tea is crucial to understanding the many nuances of any given tea in Ceremony’s selection. Throughout the session, Ceremony’s tea experts adjust water temperatures, steeping times, and amount of teas accordingly as the steeping cycles continue.

When sourcing for Ceremony’s roster of teas, Cheng says it took three years to find, visit, and familiarize herself with the small family farmers that she works with today. This level of care is also taken with Ceremony’s latest products as they expand their market offerings to include specialty snacks, ingredients, and sauces. When a customer drove in from out of state to purchase a wood-fired soy sauce imported from Taiwan to gift to her grandmother, Cheng was touched. “She sent pictures of her grandma making braised chicken with it. It reminded me of my grandma,” Cheng says. “Bringing joy and a sense of comfort to others is the fuel that keeps me going.”

RETURN TO THE ROOTS

Just across the river in Downtown is Charuma, a relatively new addition to the city’s specialty tea scene. Owners Tom Chang and Jenny Lu, along with business partner Tony Chen, opened shop in July 2021, offering a menu of single-origin teas, milk tea options with homemade tapioca pearls, and Taiwanese street snacks. As students in Providence – Chang at Johnson & Wales and Lu at RISD – they tried all the bubble (or boba) tea that the city had to offer. Still, they were left in want of flavors that reminded them of the boba and street foods they would have in Taiwan. “It’s very classic at a Taiwanese night market to hold bubble tea in one hand and a fried chicken cutlet in the other hand,” Lu says.

When they set out to open Charuma, Chang, Chen, and Lu made it a point to carefully source their teas. Chang spent a year in Taiwan researching teas at his friend’s family-owned tea farm. From there, he picked six different teas that can now be found on Charuma’s menu: black tea, jasmine green tea, light oolong tea, smoky oolong tea, pu-erh tea, and formosa beauty tea.

While in Taiwan, Chang learned about the process of tea production, from harvesting to roasting. At harvest, farmers pick tea leaves based on the flavor they want to achieve since the completeness of a leaf will affect the caffeine level and taste. Next, the leaves are set on bamboo trays to wither under the sun and ferment before undergoing fixation and drying, two processes that stop the fermentation. One of the last steps, roasting, is different for varying types of teas and affects taste based on how much heat exposure occurs. Chang made it a point to learn about the intricacies of the production process. “Ultimately, I want to know what I’m getting and what I’m saying to my customers,” Chang shares.

As for their bubble tea, Charuma only uses real milk (as opposed to dairy powders). “They’re very picky about bubble tea in Taiwan,” Lu says. “There’s a boba place on almost every corner, so it can be very competitive. You have to be really, really good to survive in Taiwan.” For Lu, in-house bubbles made from tapioca flour imported from Taiwan were non-negotiable from the start. Customers also get to choose their own sugar levels. “I don’t want our customers to just drink something sweet that covers the taste of tea,” Chang shares. “The quality and the taste of the tea is really important to us, along with consistency.”

Chang and Lu also place a heavy focus on natural flavors. Charuma’s “teatails” – their fun mash-up of “tea” and “cocktails” – introduce various fruit flavors and floral syrups to the classic milk tea offerings. Together with savory food items like French fries, sweet potato fries, popcorn chicken, and chicken cutlets, Charuma aims to bring customers an authentic Taiwanese bubble tea and street snack experience. “After years of being here, I still couldn’t find a chicken cutlet that reminded me of the Taiwanese one,” Lu laments. That’s why she and Chang import seasonings from Taiwan to use in Charuma’s snack menu. From seaweed salt and pepper to plum, the spices complement the teas in a dance of flavor.

LIVE IN THE MOMENT

On the West Side of Providence is Schasteâ, which originally opened in Pawtuxet Village in 2012 and expanded into Providence in 2017. Since the pandemic, the Pawtuxet location has closed but the Broadway location remains a staple in the city offering a space to slow down with some tea and crepes. As one of the first teahouses in the Providence area to challenge customers to sit down and enjoy the ritual of drinking tea, Schasteâ offers unique blends such as Lychee Peach, White Coconut Créme, and White Guava Ginger, among others. They’re also a purveyor of tea-ware and loose-leaf tea by the ounce, empowering customers to take their tea journey home.

After all, this journey, for Schasteâ owner Tony Lopez, started at home, where he and his wife made a ritual out of slowing down their days in order to make a cup of tea and enjoy it with candles, music, and a warm ambiance. Whenever they sought out a place like this in Providence, they came up empty, which was when the idea of opening up their own spot surfaced in their minds. In a world that moves so fast, Lopez wanted a space that would welcome mindfulness. “We’re an escape in the neighborhood, if you will,” he offers. “Everybody’s always thinking about the next moment. We like to remind customers that good things take time. So they have to sit and wait three minutes for their tea to steep.”

In the time that the tea is steeping, Lopez hopes that Schasteâ’s customers are able to unwind a bit and let their minds wander. “We’ve seen customers meet, date, and get married. We’ve seen people start books, finish books, or start businesses,” Lopez says. It’s important to him that customers have a place to retreat to where a moment can linger.

At Schasteâ, the mission is to be as approachable and accessible as possible. While the teahouse certainly has its fair share of specialty teas sourced carefully from purveyors around the globe, Lopez is careful not to overcomplicate things for customers. “A lot of times people just get overwhelmed and say ‘give me whatever,’” he says. “So we try to strike a balance by just starting off with giving them enough knowledge to make it interesting.” At the end of the day, it’s about giving guests the chance to take those three minutes to be mindful when the rest of the world may be spinning at hyper speed. 

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  • JJFerreira

    I have not yet sampled the teas of these new shops, but I will state here and now that I was an enthusiastic regular patron of Tealuxe on Thayer for all of the years it was located there. Their tea selections were extensive and flavourful and, on a more personal note, it's where my husband and I had our very first date. I was devastated when they sold out to a vulture equity firm, which promptly closed all three of their locations (including 0 Brattle Street in Harvard Square and Newberry Street in Boston). It was a sad end to a very lovely local tea café mini-chain...

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