Taste: Tea Time
The shelves of the small shop on Rittenhouse Square are dotted with neat, informative signs organizing the merchandise by variety and geography. Behind the register, owner Peggy Stephens stands like a sommelier, ready to share her knowledge of tannins and terroir, single-estate vintages and food pairings. What to serve with the brie and edam on your cheese tray? Stephens recommends a light, classic Darjeeling. She is selling tea.
After decades as the bailiwick of grandmothers and the British, tea is hot in Philly. In the same autumn month that Stephens opened Premium Steap on 18th Street, a second salon, Remedy Tea Bar, popped up on nearby Sansom Street. In King of Prussia, Teavana, a would-be Starbucks of tea, began serving the steeped drink to mall shoppers. And you won’t just find it in a teacup: Newtown-based Steaz soda is infused with green tea; Remedy’s cupcakes are topped with sweet chai tea frosting; and Susanna Foo’s duck is smoked over jasmine–scented tea.
Studies attesting to the health benefits of tea — from clearing up your complexion to preventing cancer — lie behind much of the recent attention. And the nationwide boom in coffeehouses, each with more elaborately flavored caffeinated concoctions, has increased consumer interest in all hot drinks. But health and habit aren’t all that’s driving the tea trend. Tea, like fine wine, has been embraced by foodies intrigued by the new vocabulary to be learned, the new palate to be cultivated, the new rituals to be perfected. Customers at Premium Steap may not yet know much about tea, but they call themselves gourmets and come in clutching bags from Di Bruno Bros., telling stories of raw-milk cheeses smuggled from France in their suitcases.
Stephens patiently walks the tea-bag types through the process of brewing a proper cuppa. A starter kit includes an infuser, the mesh basket superior to a bag because it allows the leaves to float while steeping, and a timer, for accurately measuring the proper steeping time, from two to 10 minutes depending on the type of tea. A glass, ceramic or cast iron teapot is the next step, followed by a thermometer to insure water is at the proper temperature. Beyond that, there’s an endless array of accessories, from teaspoons and saucers to air-tight, opaque tea containers.
Then, finally, there’s the tea itself. Premium Steap stocks more than 140 varieties of black, green, red, white and herbal teas. For the tea-ophyte, there are malty assams, a familiar variety that’s the basis of English Breakfast blends, at $9 for four ounces. But the tea-experienced covet Emperor’s Red from the Fujian Province of China, handpicked and cured in the spring, at more than $60 for eight ounces.