Tea Salons Go from Stodgy to Trendy

The leafy beverage gives you a mellower buzz than coffee. It’s also cooler than ever.

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Madame ZuZu's

Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan plays guitar for guests at Madame ZuZu's, his upscale tea salon, which opened in Highland Park, Illinois last September.

Wine lovers have long enjoyed intimate, exclusive tastings and the liberal use of arty descriptors like unctuous and piquant. Now, a growing number of tea-loving Americans want to bring the same level of connoisseurship to the ancient brew.

While tea consumption has been on the rise in the U.S. for a decade, in the past few years it has rocketed to new heights of hipness. There are now more than 4,000 boutique tea rooms across the country, including Harney & Sons and DavidsTea, both of which offer up to 200 varieties of whites, greens, blacks and darjeelings.

Helping to fuel the buzz are celebrity tea lovers. Last week Smashing Pumpkins’ frontman Billy Corgan celebrated the first anniversary of the opening of Madame ZuZu’s, the teahouse he runs in Highland Park, Ill. Meanwhile, New York City’s SalonTea, which features teas “handpicked from the finest private estates throughout the world” boasts clientele such as Madonna’s daughter Lourdes Leon who reportedly hangs out there with friends.

Corgan says he opened Madame ZuZu’s — where he recently debuted a new song — with the idea of recreating the “hothouse effect” of Paris salons in the 1920s. “I liked the idea of creating a localized place to exchange ideas, during an age when a lot of interaction has moved to the internet,” he says. “To me, tea is more in line with that salon culture than the coffee-clutch laptop thing. I was trying to find something a bit more artist based, maybe more sensual.”

Tea’s sensual appeal was a big part of what inspired Kiley Holliday, a certified Tea Master, or tea sommelier, to open Bosie Tea Parlor in New York City a few years ago with her partner, pastry chef Damien Herrgott. With more than 80 blends of tea, tea-infused pastries, and champagne tea service, Bosie juggles wait lists on weekends for parties and individual regulars eager for weekly me time. Among the most popular: Earl Grey with caramel and Matcha lattes, which are made with a blend of the finely ground Japanese green tea, almond milk, water and gur (a sugar from India).

A big lure of the tea room, says Holliday, is that it provides a rarefied respite from the daily grind. A tea service at Bosie, she says, “is very pretty visually: the elegant scones, pastries little sandwiches add a little bit of refinement and ceremony to someone’s day. New Yorkers are often rushing with coffee and bagel in hand. At Bosie we say, we are going to pause and ingest our stimulants slowly.”

It’s also fun to be able to one-up your java loving friends. When Starbucks opened its Tazo-only store in Seattle last year, a spokesperson compared the shop, which allows consumers to mix their own blends of loose tea, to wine tastings, “where you’re standing up, sipping and talking about the flavor profile.” Classes such as Tea 101 at Harney & Sons–where customers learn to distinguish between a Chinese Mutan white and a Japanese green Sencha —and Holliday’s classes on ideal food and beverage pairings, like leek and cumin quiche with Kenyan black tea, help inform the vibe.

If you want to be a tea aficionado but can’t get to a tea room anytime soon, Holliday offers a few pointers. First, go for loose leaves when possible and stay away at all costs from the bags sold in cardboard boxes. (“In the U.S., most of the tea in an average store-bought bag is about as good as the leaves they sweep up off the floor in tea factories,” says Holliday.) Second, follow proper brewing instructions to avoid bitterness (temperatures and steeping times vary).

Finally, relax. At Bosie, she encourages customers to “forget the modern world” and savor how delicious tea can be amidst the mellow jazz of Chet Baker and Billie Holiday. In other words, twerkers beware: “You’re not gonna hear Miley Cyrus in my place.”