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Tea Party

Yelena Shuster

The artisanal revolution is coming—for your teapot. German-born Canadian native Jens de Gruyter wants to change the way you sip tea. Paper and Tea, his airy Berlin tea shop featuring over 80 loose-leaf varieties from all over the world, has been convincing thousands to spit out their coffee since opening in the winter of 2012.

Where and how do you source your teas? We source most of our teas directly at the tea gardens, where tea is cultivated like vineyards for wine. This runs from small family-owned farms to larger managed estates to collectives of small-scale farmers who process their tea in co-operatives. The fundamental premise of our product philosophy is that tea is orthodox and whole-leaf, meaning hand-picked and manually processed using traditional methods. We have teas from China, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Kenya.

How are they handcrafted? The process involved in producing a certain type of tea can vary considerably from one type to another. With oolongs for example, the most arduous part of the process is the rolling of the leaves and the subsequent baking. With Korean teas, you also have the rolling and then steaming and baking the tea up to nine times. For example, with real, naturally scented jasmine, the tea is spread out, covered with a fine netting on top of which you place fresh jasmine flowers. The jasmine opens up and the tea takes on it’s fragrance and aroma. This is a step that gets repeated as much as six times over six nights. A tea can take up to two weeks to produce from the time it is harvested to the time it is ready for drinking.

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Jens de Gruyter picking tea leaves in Nantou Province, Taiwan

When did you start being a tea aficionado? I’ve been a tea drinker all my life. My uncle was a tea trader for German luxury hotels and restaurants. After we moved to Canada from Cologne, Germany when I was 9, he used to to send me care packages of fine tea with instructions of how to brew it and what to look for in drinking it. This early formative guidance certainly instilled my love for fine tea.

Do you consider yourself a tea snob? I’m definitely not a tea snob if you mean judging other people’s drinking habits. I do enjoy a good cup of coffee over a bad cup of tea. My first time enjoying high-end Japanese teas, it was like WOW, truly a revelation. I was amazed by the intense aromas; the fact that I could brew these teas three, four, five times. I also felt vitalized, mentally alert, and focused, and you could almost taste the vitamins and minerals in the brothy green Japanese teas which felt like drinking a meal. From that point on, fine tea became my life elixir.

What does tea add to your life? First of all, drinking fine tea is comparable to enjoying fine wine: the spectrum of tastes and aromas is just amazing. I think the act of making and drinking tea is a ritual which promotes mindfulness and anchors you. And because of the active ingredients, you just feel vitalized and good after getting your fix! I basically run on tea. It gives me so much energy. I have a type of tea for every time of day, mood, or occasion. For instance, I start each and every day drinking Japanese green tea, then I have a strong black tea later in the morning. When I have the post-lunch lull, I move to a high-caffeine white tea. In the afternoons, I take a floral oolong or young darjeeling. In the evenings after a good meal, a Pu’erh; or if I just need to go to bed, a calming tisane, like Verbena.

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Why did you decide to open a up a tea store? The more I studied tea and traveled to its origin countries (China, Japan, Taiwan and Korea), the more I realized that tea has largely been stuck in a colonial, industrial, mass-production rut in the Western world. Real tea was something completely different than what was being sold in our supermarkets in pretty packages. And so I wanted to do something authentic, uncompromising, and worthwhile.

What is the difference between your artisanal teas and the boxed versions in grocery stores? Aside from the amazing range of tastes and aromas found in high-grade orthodox teas, the main differences to mass-market tea is that you can brew ours multiple times (3 to 5, some even 8 times) and the active ingredients (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, amino-acids) contained in high-grade tea are much more prominent.

What is the tea culture in Berlin like? I’ve been there for 9 years. At a general public level, it’s much like everywhere else in the West: people drink it at various levels of mediocre quality, usually adulterated with all sorts of funny aromas, and really don’t know much about it. That said, there are definitely signs of change, certain people are becoming curious, asking questions, differentiating.

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What is the story behind the name, P & T? Our name stands for Paper & Tea, which is an allegory of two of mankind’s most important product inventions, paper and tea. Both originated in China thousands of years ago and played a pivotal role in mankind’s cultural evolution as agents of communication and creativity. P & T is all about the tea, but paper is an extension of the experience. We have a lot of stock in fine paper, using it in all our packaging, our product presentation, and our communication.

How do you compare the artisanal tea experience to drinking coffee? I suppose drinking fine tea compares to coffee in the sense that it gives you energy. High-end teas can actually contain more caffeine per cup than coffee. And people tend to be able to drink more tea than coffee over a given day. Also the way our body metabolizes the caffeine present in tea is different than with coffee – the energy curve tends to stay up longer. Moreover, tea contains a wonderful amino acid called L-Theanine which is not present in coffee, that has both a relaxing and euphoric effect.

What are the qualities one should look for when picking a signature tea of one’s own? You can tell a lot from the appearance of the leaves. Are they whole? Are they uniformly sorted? You’ll note that a lot of industrially-processed tea is broken down into bits. This is an indicator that a lower grade tea or discards from higher grade teas are being used. And then look for the aroma profile while drinking: the longer the aroma stays in your mouth after you’ve drank it, the better the tea.

What’s the biggest misconception about tea? I think the biggest misconception about artisanal loose-leaf tea is that it is slow and complicated. When in fact it’s just the opposite, certainly when you compare it with making a cup of third-wave coffee, for instance. If you have a good tea to start, there is very little you can do wrong. All you need is water, preferably with a low mineral content. And adhere to two simple rules: Don’t brew it too hot, nor too long. Done.

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What are some underrated teas that don’t get the attention they deserve? Off the top of my head, I would say Korean green tea, such as our Maia’s Pick, a second flush green from an organic garden on South Korea’s Jirisan mountain. There are some beautiful ones, and in terms of flavour profiles, they sit between Japanese and Chinese green teas.

What is the correct way to drink tea? In my opinion there is no wrong way to drink tea – it’s however you personally like drinking it. However, I think you’ll find that with fine tea, you’ll don’t really need to add anything to enjoy it. Think about how much tea you want to brew and choose a pot accordingly. Make sure it’s not too big - remember you can infuse a good tea several times over, so better to conserve the leaf and rebrew. So for a single person, I tend to choose a pot that holds about 1- 1.5 cups per steeping. Adding about a heaped teaspoon per cup of tea you want to brew per steeping is generous. Boil your water and then wait for it to cool down: for black teas, steep at about 180-190F; for green and white teas, between 140-160F. Always err on the side of cooler, rather than hotter when brewing: this conserves the aroma and prevents the tea from becoming bitter. Brew the first steeping for about 90 seconds; the second for 30 seconds; the third for 60 seconds; and, if possible, each subsequent one longer.

Yelena Shuster is a New York transplant by way of San Francisco and Ukraine who’s written for the New York Times, InStyle, Mashable, Cosmopolitan, Manhattan, and more. Schmooze with her @YelenaShuster.