Ancient tradition, modern application
Tea can come with crumpets, spring rolls or educational classes at Tea Time
Tea has always played second fiddle to coffee in the United States, but that will change if Thao Nguyen has any say. She exudes passion and her knowledge of tea is near encyclopedic. She is on a mission as well, to educate and inspire new zealots to the pleasures and health qualities of one of the oldest beverages on the planet.
Nguyen and her husband, Tim Pham, own Tea Time on Ramona Street in downtown Palo Alto. Their story is intriguing but not all that unusual in our global economy. Nguyen emigrated from Vietnam to Denmark after the war and earned a master's in marketing. Pham became a food technologist after his family moved to the Netherlands.
The couple's parents had been business partners in Vietnam and visited each other in Europe. Nguyen and Pham became romantic. After marrying, they spent time in Holland and five years in Ho Chi Minh City working for Dutch Lady Dairy products. Then, back to Holland where Nguyen worked for a confectionary company and dreamed of having her own business.
"It was too cold for us in Holland and Denmark and there was a lack of diversity. We never quite felt at home," Nguyen said. In 2006, they sold everything and moved themselves and their two young sons to the Bay Area where another branch of the family was in the restaurant business.
"I wanted to do something I really liked and envisioned a European cafe," Nguyen said, "so I drew up a business plan and started looking at retail operations in the area."
It was by happy accident she found Tea Time and thought, "Why not?" Taking over from a previous owner in early 2006, she changed nothing but her business plan and spent months understanding the business.
Then, she closed for 10 days and had the space cosmetically updated by knocking out a wall, painting, and installing new flooring, lighting, bamboo-styled tables and chairs, Italian marble counter tops, and solid oak shelves that display her retail offering of contemporary and antique tea pots, and accessories. The result is a well-designed fusion, at once stylish and traditional.
Tea Time sells 130 kinds of tea: black, green, herbals, oolong, scented, blended and white. Tea has its own vocabulary, ways for grading the product and processing methods. As with wine grapes, terroir is an extremely important factor in the quality and taste of the product. The sum total of soil, altitude, rain and sun, it is the expression of the soil.
Besides a wide range of tea available in the lounge, Tea Time offers scones, crumpets and tea sandwiches. Recently, I tried the Oriental Beauty tea service. A three-tiered caddy was brought to my table with a half-dozen tiny sandwiches, an oven-grilled spring roll and two petits fours. I found the pot of oolong perfectly steeped, fragrant, sweet and grassy on the tongue. It piqued my curiosity about the vast — and unknown to me — world of tea.
Tea Time also offers classes to help people learn about tea; both introductory and intermediate sessions will commence in July. It's not unlike learning about wine. Tea, though, tends to be manipulated less. Contemporary high-tech winemaking sometimes involves reverse osmosis machines, designer yeasts, machine harvesting and a mad rush to market.
Tea is still the hand-made product of tea masters who learned from their fathers and fathers' fathers. Techniques and processing methods vary by culture for black, green, white and oolong teas. Black teas are fermented, while green tea is non-fermented. Oolong is semi-fermented, while white tea undergoes almost no transformation after harvesting.
Nguyen knows the geography of the tea business as if she invented it. "It reflects my personality, part of my native culture and tradition. I have been a tea drinker my entire life. Tea is for lingering; it keeps me grounded."
Many claims have been made about the healthful properties of tea. It is said to be high in antioxidants that could reduce the risk of various diseases.
Nguyen says she has spent much time looking into what is science and what is speculation. "I am careful with specifics about tea claims," she said. "My research is ongoing."
Tea consumption is boiling in the United States. According to the Tea Association of the USA, sales were $6.85 billion in 2007, nearly quadrupling since 1990. Next to water, it is the most consumed beverage on earth. The increase in consumption can be attributed to the popularity of convenient ready-to-drink containers and the increasing health consciousness of consumers. With Nguyen's inspiration, tea might locally give water a run for its money.
542 Ramona St.
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Sat 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Sun. 9 a.m.-6 p.m.