American Tea Room is in the middle of a major expansion, with an Arts District location it’s looking to open this summer, a forthcoming renovation of its Beverly Hills store, and a Newport Beach outpost that could debut in the fall.
So this means it’s time for owner David Barenholtz to rack up the frequent-flyer miles.
Barenholtz’s tea shop is known for ultra-rare selections from all over the world. American Tea Room is, for example, the only place in the United States where you can buy Arya Pearl First Flush White Darjeeling, an organic, hand-selected, unprocessed tea that costs $80 per quarter-pound. It’s a luxury item, no doubt, delicate and fresh in a way that typical teas are not.
“When you inhale it, it’s like spring, so you get notes of almost like pollen and early flowers and a little daisy note,” Barenholtz says of the tea that is grown up in the Himalayas, in the high-elevation region of India that’s often referred to as the Champagne of tea. “It smells like a spring hillside to me. Tastewise, I get little notes of pear and a little hint of honeysuckle. It’s got a very savory quality to it also, which is kind of unique because it’s not processed at all. It’s just left out in the sunlight. I drink it and I always feel like I’m in a really good mood afterward.”
When we speak to Barenholtz on Tuesday morning, he’s a bit out of it, because he’s still having weird sleep patterns after returning from a 10-day trip to China and Hong Kong. He’s on the road two to three months a year, working out his manufacturing and packaging, meeting tea producers, and looking for crops he can bring back to L.A.
A lot of this most recent trip was about quality control and making sure what shows up in his new Arts District location at 909 Santa Fe Ave. looks right. But he also connected with growers from Yunnan and visited Guangzhou, “historically the tea-trading capital of the world,” where he took several meetings about potential products.
In May, he’ll be going to Taiwan and also China’s eastern coast to focus on green tea production. Over the years, his tea adventures have taken him to Morocco, India, Japan, and other places where tea is a daily ritual for almost everyone he encounters.
“It’s very interesting when I go to different countries,” Barenholtz says. “Native to virtually every country is tea drinking.”
The United States isn’t quite there yet, but Barenholtz, who founded American Tea Room in 2003, will keep criss-crossing the globe to do his part. He’s always thinking about ways to introduce Californians to fine tea, even if it’s through iced tea that’s as carefully crafted as fancy cocktails. He says that going to the world’s best tea regions is like visiting Bordeaux for wine. It’s revelatory and as much about culture as it about market forces.
“I like to take one global adventure during the year that I think will be an inspiration tea-wise,” he says. “I look at tea stores, tea service. I went from an Easter Sunday high tea at the Peninsula Hong Kong to having tea at a little tea cart in Dongguan. I also did everything in between.”