It used to mainly be for anglophiles and people who’d run out of coffee, but nowadays, tea is sexy. And its sensual side is being explored everywhere, from third-wave coffeehouses like Pasadena’s Copa Vida (where sultry, aromatic cups of tea are brewed in sleek Alpha Dominche machines) to hip restaurants like Hinoki & the Bird in Century City (who’ve commissioned their own signature blends).
With Master Tea Blender Steve Schwartz at the helm, L.A.-based Art of Tea is often who these restaurants, coffeehouses, and, hey, even Vera Wang, call on to help them up their tea game. The small company, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary, has been a big player in the evolution of the coffee alternative in Los Angeles by offering a mold-breaking collection of hand-blended, sometimes rare, and often organic, artisanal teas.
We recently sat down with Schwartz to find out how tea became such a thing in L.A. and what’s next for the company and the drink. He even gave us the recipe for a tea-infused gin and tonic that we’ve included at the bottom of this post.
When you first started 10 years ago, what was the state of tea in Los Angeles?
In L.A., especially, it was second-tier to coffee and to smoothies — smoothies were the big thing, and Pinkberry was probably starting to just get off the ground. Tea was sort of this afterthought. You know, “Oh, I’ll drink tea if I’m sick,” or “I’ll drink tea if I need to.” It wasn’t big. Really, just out of a passion, I saw an opportunity to really expand people’s tea knowledge in the hospitality and food industry and elevate people’s experience with tea because there’s a whole world of flavors out there. It’s mind-blowing.
What were tea drinkers drinking at that time, and what are they drinking now?
Over 85 percent of all the tea that’s sold in the U.S. is iced tea. I think that still holds as true today as it was 10 years ago. Most people were drinking a tropical-flavor iced tea, and I don’t want to bash any popular brands because I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them. You have to set a bar, whether it’s high or low, and I’m really grateful for those brands because they’ve created the second-most consumable beverage in the world, right behind water.
What has the third-wave coffee movement done for tea in L.A.?
What I love about a lot of the third-wave coffee roasters and coffeehouses is that they’ve elevated the sex appeal of tea — the show, the display of leaves opening up and unfurling, and really appreciating origin, flavor profile, and the artisan that’s crafting it. It’s been great. Some places, like Copa Vida and other coffee shops, are doing a lot more with tea. They’re taking our Hibiscus Cooler, for example, and cold-brewing it for close to 24 hours and then putting it on tap, and it’s delicious, or maybe they’re adding a little bit of carbonation to it. They’re able to put their own spin on it, which is really exciting.
What’s your most popular flavor?
It’s interesting. Let’s take Earl Grey, for example. It’s one of our most popular teas, but we’ve had a few spins off of our Earl Grey that have allowed that genre of tea to become more interesting. One is that, in order to be a true, authentic Earl Grey, it needs to be blended with bergamot oil. There’s a lot [of brands] that use bergamot flavor or a lemon or a lime. We actually get an Italian bergamot oil, and we hand-blend it into our leaves … the difference between an experience of a true bergamot oil that’s being applied onto the leaves instead of a flavor of some kind, it’s amazing.
What do you think keeps people from trying tea?
When they’re producing whole-leaf teas like ours in the factory, the dust flies up in the air, falls on the ground, it’s swept in giant piles, and that’s typically what’s reserved for most traditional tea bags. When people drink tea from a traditional tea bag, they’re drinking the leftovers, the stuff that’s not so great. We source just the top 2 percent of tea that’s sold in the world — handcrafted, organic whenever possible, high-quality, artisan-type teas. So, when people actually experience a tea that’s pure in its form, or a unique blend we’ve created, I think that people, just like with coffee, go from Folger’s Crystals and “I don’t like coffee” because you don’t like Folger’s Crystals to “Oh my gosh, I tried something from Stumptown or Blue Bottle, and it’s unbelievable.” Tea has kind of gone a similar route — from fannings to a whole-leaf artisan experience.
Have Angelenos been more receptive to tea, in general, than other places in the country?
I think the trend that’s happening right now is [people are saying], “I’m not a tea drinker, I’m not a coffee drinker. I’m both.” You know, I’ll have coffee in the morning and I’ll do tea in the afternoon … it’s no longer this black-and-white divide. People are starting to appreciate a good quality flavor and story. The other thing is that in L.A., we’re known for being pretty obsessed about health and wellness and longevity. … Angelenos will look for health quality and benefits of a particular tea, and if you can back that up with something that tastes great, too, it’s a win-win.
Do you think the role of tea will continue to change — will it ever replace the after-dinner espresso or other coffee rituals?
I hope that it becomes just as meaningful an experience. There’s one company that we’ve started to work with that’s taking this Fukamushi deep-steamed sencha and putting it in a small tray with a square ice cube on top of it, and letting it sit on a tiny espresso saucer until the ice cube melts for just a few minutes, keeping the ice intact. With the pressure of the ice cube, you’re actually taking a small sip, as if it were a shot of espresso. Instead of an espresso shot, you’re getting this green tea shot with a really thick espresso consistency. I think playing with unique methods behind tea after the end of the meal, it will aid in the digestion process much better than espresso. But, with that said, I love a shot of espresso after a meal.
Has tea service become a necessity for every new, chic restaurant?
You can have an amazing steak or meal, but if you end it with a poor-quality espresso or poor-quality tea, that’s going to be the last experience that a guest is having. But if you end it with an amazing tea experience — something that they can’t get at the supermarket — that you can only get at a food-service or hospitality venue, I think it would elevate the game of that restaurant. Also, there’s some fun, funky stuff that’s being done with tea.
What kind of fun, funky stuff?
Well, we created a cocktail book recently. At Soho House a few months ago, we did an event where we paired some of these different recipes with some of the alcohols that they have, and it was a hit. It’s just fun, and it’s so L.A. It’s perfect for Angelenos who are looking for the health benefits of the tea, but they still want alcohol — they work really well together.
Recipe for Art of Tea’s Blueberry Cheesecake Gin and Tonic
- 1 oz. Art of Tea’s Blueberry Cheesecake Tisane, steeped and chilled
- 3 oz. gin
- 3 oz. tonic water
- Handful of fresh blueberries (optional)
- Steep 1 tbsp. of Blueberry Cheesecake Tisane in boiling water for seven minutes. Cool to room temperature.
- In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, combine gin, tonic water, and 1 oz. of tea.
- Shake and strain into a chilled martini glass and garnish with fresh blueberries.