Guide: Afternoon tea

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

The table at Cambridge Tea House is set just so. Cups and saucers adorned with delicate red patterns. A teapot wrapped in a matching tea cozy. A tiny plate with fresh scones and dabs of strawberry jam and clotted cream. The patterned valances shut out the noise of the traffic zooming down Fifth Avenue. Wrap your hands around the warmed teacup, and the calming sense of the moment is complete. "Coffee to me, I think of caffeine and motivating you and making you jumpy. It's the rush of it," says Cambridge Tea House owner Mary Boesch. "Tea, on the other hand, is more relaxing. At tea, people feel special, unhurried and unrushed."

A slowed-down sense of enjoyment is the exact feeling Boesch tries to create at her Marble Cliff tea cafe. And she's not alone. Tea rooms and restaurants throughout the city (not to mention the addition of Starbuck's Teavana stores) are helping diners trade their grab-and-go mentality for a stop-and-savor pace.

It's a trend Shawn Schulte, Stauf's longtime tea blender, is seeing at their shops. Sure, customers are into the health benefits traditionally associated with tea, but more people are embracing the communal experience of it, too. "People are becoming passionate about tea," Schulte says. "And there's a broader social spectrum of people interested in it."

Ten years ago, he notes, there were no dedicated tea shops in Columbus, and now the city is dotted with them. The growth stems from each shop's mission to educate tea drinkers about the different types of tea, proper serving methods and health benefits.

One way tea fanatics are living out this newfound passion is through afternoon tea, offered regularly at spots like Cambridge Tea House. Here, loose-leaf Harney & Sons teas are steeped in a warmed pot at precise temperatures and times, depending on the style. For example, most black teas should steep for four to five minutes in 205-degree water, just below the boiling point. More delicate green and white teas should brew at lower temperatures, between 175 to 180 degrees. If the water's too hot, the leaves release bitter tannins.

Boesch's Cranberry Autumn black tea is especially popular, she adds. The spicy blend is flavored with orange rind and dried cranberries. She serves a three-tiered tray of delicacies with her tea and explains you're meant to eat from the bottom up. The tiers move the diner from sweet to savory and back to sweet, starting with scones, jam and clotted cream. The second tier features savories like cucumber sandwiches and chicken salad; the final tier returns to sweet with chocolate-dipped strawberries or other seasonal treats.

At Mozart's Cafe, owner Anand Saha also creates a calm respite for afternoon tea. "Afternoon tea is a time to get away from the normal busyness of your life," he adds. Mozart's tea service (available daily by reservation) combines scones, sandwiches and petit fours with 15 varieties of black, herbal and decaffeinated teas. Saha serves English Tea Store loose-leaf teas, and popular choices include earl grey, an herbal peppermint tea and caffeine-free raspberry blend.

While Mozart's and Cambridge lean toward a European-style tea service, ZenCha Tea Salon owners I-Cheng Huang and Jean Wu share an international smorgasbord of tea flavors with customers. Huang grew up surrounded by tea in Taiwan. After attending college and working in the U.S., he found himself in Columbus, where he recognized a lack of teahouses. So in 2003, he opened the first ZenCha in the Short North, choosing the neighborhood for its proximity to an international audience at Ohio State.

Now with three locations, ZenCha serves close to 100 types of tea curated from nine countries. Huang has traveled the world to visit tea gardens and hand-select tea offerings, and their tea service-from the way tea is prepared to the kettle in which it's served-reflects the cultural traditions of each style of tea. For instance, many Asian teas are served in smaller cups so the drinker has to regularly replenish the cup. This ensures a continually fresh cup of tea.

The process is more time-consuming: Customers are given a pot of hot water to steep the loose leaves themselves. This deliberate practice reflects the way many Asian cultures value tea as time to exit the flow of everyday life, relax with family and friends and even show respect by serving one another. Huang suggests starting with a cup of Jasmine Pearl tea. When steeped, the delicate hand-rolled leaves unfurl to release sweet, floral notes.

Moving to Western and Middle Eastern styles on the ZenCha menu, these teas also focus on collective relaxation but are served finished in the pot. These teas-like the fruity and herbal South African rooibos red tea-are more robust than Asian white or green teas and usually are served with milk and sugar.

At ZenCha, even the cups and teapots change with the culture: curvy, metallic cups for Middle Eastern teas, modern glass for British styles and porcelain for Indian teas. "When we present tea to you, we think how that would reflect the origin of the country," Huang says. "Therefore, you can go with four people and have four different types of teaware on the table in front of you."