Craft tea seeps into the mainstream

DREW WOOD | Updated 11/25/2013

The craft coffee and craft beer scenes have been brewing for some time in the Twin Cities. Now it’s tea’s turn.

You could be in any of the many independent coffee shops that have invaded the Twin Cities. Behind the counter, workers expound the virtues of painstakingly curated ingredients. At tables, customers talk over steaming cups or read newspapers. The ever-present clickety-clack of keyboards fills the rare quiet moments.

But at Verdant Tea, there’s one major difference. This south Minneapolis cafe serves tea. And it’s done a bit differently.

Customers can order wine-style flights. They’re served house-made kombucha — the trendy soda-like fermented tea — poured from a beer tap tower. Also available: something called a tea shot.

Owners David and Lily Duckler say they’ve set out to give tea a modern update. Both 26, the Ducklers are roughly 1/4000th the age of the beverage they’re attempting to elevate in their craft-style shop, which sells only direct-from-the-farmer Chinese teas.

Just like the burgeoning local craft coffee and craft beer scenes, tea is undergoing an artisanal shift.

“The flavors and aftertaste and texture stand up to the complexity of coffee or beer,” David Duckler said.

Duckler isn’t the only one who thinks it’s tea’s time to shine.

Last year, Starbucks founder Howard Schultz made a $620 million hunch that by purchasing and expanding specialty tea chain Teavana, he can do to tea what he did to coffee: Convince Americans that they can’t live without it.

“I don’t think coffee would’ve happened the way it did without Starbucks,” said Duckler, as he steeped Laoshan green tea in what looked like a chemistry beaker. “Its [coffee] was perceived as fancy and as better than [other stuff]. And it introduced the idea of a $5 cup of coffee.”

Instead of seeing Teavana as a competitor, Duckler considers the chain (which has eight Twin Cities locations) as something to capitalize on. That’s because even at its most commercial, tea is not nearly as popular in the United States as coffee and beer were before their craft booms.

Blame it on Boston

Verdant isn’t the first shop to push a grander plan for tea. Local spots like TeaSource, Steepery Tea Bar, Tea Garden and La Société du Thé have tenures dating to the mid-1990s. But it’s been a long fight to get tea into the American mainstream.

Bill Waddington, the founder of TeaSource, blames it on the original tea party.

“The United States is a coffee-drinking nation, and it is because of the Revolutionary War,” he said, while sitting in his office in TeaSource’s St. Anthony location. Tacked to the walls behind piles of tea samples are maps of China, Japan, Sri Lanka and other places where he buys tea. “We boycotted tea for two generations.”

That’s why Starbucks’ attempt to make tea a drink of choice is important, even for the smaller tea shops.

“We love Teavana because they pay huge amounts of money for mall real estate to have people who don’t care at all about tea get vaguely interested,” said Duckler, who fell in love with tea during college when he traveled to China on a Fulbright Critical Language Enhancement fellowship.

Mark Parker wasn’t a tea drinker before he wandered into Verdant. Parker, a barista at the craft coffee shop Quixotic in St. Paul, has no intention of giving up coffee. But he now sees tea as a high-quality alternative.

“I think it complements coffee drinkers really well,” Parker said. “It’s a little easier on your stomach. I still drink coffee every day, but I can drink tea throughout the afternoon and still sleep at night — and my stomach doesn’t get upset.”