Four Great Tea Spots in Nashville
My first cup of tea was a Darjeeling. My mother recommended it as a starter tea, adding a smidge of milk to make it silky smooth. Immediately hooked, I joined her in her nightly ritual of cradling a warm mug of tea and nibbling something chocolate…her “Miller Time,” as she liked to say.
Today, I have a full cabinet dedicated to tea and still ask for tea for Christmas. Every cup of tea is an experience. I love its versatility; the same drink can all at once be so personal and communal, ancient and refreshing, comforting and ceremonial, commonplace and celebratory.
In our coffee-saturated landscape, it can be hard to be a tea enthusiast. Tea often gets a bad rap, whether as too posh, too sweet, or with too little buzz. Fortunately, Nashville is home to several tea evangelists who are eager to play ambassador to the wonderful world of tea.
JOEL AND LEAH LARABELL
Stepping through the door of High Garden, you leave East Nashville behind and land in a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Dried herbs hang from wooden beams, glass jars with handwritten labels line the floor-to-ceiling shelves, and cozy wooden booths beckon you to come and stay a while. This “otherness” sensation is in fact the goal for Leah and Joel Larabell, the masterminds behind High Garden. They offer no WiFi and discourage laptops; this space is an oasis from the bustle, a place to simply be, and drink tea.
But not just any tea. High Garden sets itself apart through its devotion to the health of both their guests and the plants they steward. They work with small farmers all over the world, purchase tea in season, and maintain an intimate knowledge of the flavors and health benefits of each of their offerings. As Leah puts it, “Years of work goes into every cup: hand-blended, hand-bagged, ethically grown.” Speaking with over fifteen years of crafting herbal remedies, she adds, “People want to be healthy; they want to feel well. We want to show off all the beautiful things these leaves can do. My goal is to be an herbal matchmaker, creating combinations that will not only do something, but help people create a relationship with these plants.”
With Leah mastering the herbs, Joel brings balance as the (giddy) tea guru. When I asked him to make me a pot of oolong, his eyes lit up like a kid choosing which Christmas present to play with first. “It’s been so beautiful to watch people connect with tea,” he says. “They say, ‘I didn’t know green tea could taste so good and make me feel so well.’”
High Garden also brews its own kombucha, which it offers on tap in the Root Cellar, a bar in the back (psst…you can get growlers of the stuff!)
Loose leaf tea can be steeped several times. Joel says that sometimes subsequent steepings taste even better than the first!
Seventeen years ago, Nashville native Sarah Scarborough began tinkering with her own chai recipe while working at a Tibetan tea house in Montana. The chai became so popular, she says, that it “basically turned itself into a business.” Ever since, tea has led Sarah like a star in the East, shepherding her everywhere from Alaska to New Zealand to Nepal, learning all about tea farming, sourcing, and cultures. Today, she brings all the best of her travels back to Nashville to share with us in the tea room she plans to open this February in 12 South.
Sarah’s approach to tea might surprise café regulars. “There is no comparison with coffee,” she told me. “Tea is more like wine-cultivar, origin, terroir matter as with wine. When talking about pure tea, you taste the land.” To prove this, Sarah poured a gently steeped green tea and asked me to pay attention. “Doesn’t it taste like Sauvignon Blanc?” I delightedly agreed. Sarah took the parallel further, saying that tea and wine are similarly ceremonial. “They are about sitting and sharing and gathering.”
In her future tea bar, Sarah will offer free-trade tea and chai to-go or stay, as well as tastings and classes. “Tea is an escape. I want Firepot Chai to be that for people: a moment of peace, and a bit exotic.”
Sarah likes to ‘wake up’ her tea by swirling the leaves in hot water before steeping, releasing aromas which indicate the best steeping time and temperature for that particular tea.
When Jenny Zhong came to America, her suitcase held only a tea pot and a packet of oolong from her family’s tea farm in China. After a childhood surrounded by pure leaf tea, the American South came as a shock. “What was all this sweet stuff?” she asked. “In China it is an insult to put sugar in tea.” She decided to save up and start a tea shop.
Passing under an unassuming, yellow sign reading “TEA,” Jenny’s guests are greeted by stacks and stacks of gorgeous, little pots. To the American eye, Chinese tea pots and cups look teeny, like a doll set, but it all has to do with the optimum way to enjoy Chinese tea as a delicacy. Jenny will happily spend all day educating you on this history of tea and the various methods of preparation and consumption. She will also regale you with stories from her childhood, for which teas best heal which ailments, all the while pouring sample after sample for you to taste for free.
Because of her heritage, Jenny has a deep appreciation for tea’s health benefits, ritual, and value. She dearly wants to help her neighbor avoid the doctor. “People need this information!” she urges, as she pours ginger lemon for metabolism, and White Farmer tea for respiration. She also knows which teas take the longest to grow and prepare, and why they are treasured so highly. “If you gave me $1000 wine, and I drink beer, wouldn’t you be mad?” She wants to steward these handmade teas well, and walk every guest through the Chinese ceremony of warming the pots, blanching the leaves, breathing in the aromas, and—as is polite in China—slurping the tea loudly.
The Chinese way of steeping tea is only to steep it for a few seconds. This allows for flavour and aroma to be released without the tea becoming too bitter.
THE CAFÉ AT THISTLE FARMS
What would you do with 2,000 tea cups? Host afternoon tea, of course!
This was the solution to the happy problem of too many tea cups gathered by the Café at Thistle Farms, the brainchild of tea enthusiast Becca Stevens. Thistle Farms' mission is to heal, empower, and employ women survivors of trafficking, prostitution, and addiction. One of the ways they do this is through their café, which originally was conceived as a simple tea room. Before the original café opened, Becca Stevens asked supporters to send Thistle Farms a teacup and a story. They received over 800 cups, many accompanied by moving tales of love and healing to encourage the women in Thistle Farms’ care. This past year, when planning the café renovation, they asked the public for the same gift. This time they received 2,000 cups, many of which can be seen in the sculpture hanging from the new café ceiling, as well as in each afternoon tea service.
For Thistle Farms, afternoon tea is a natural extension of their mission. “Tea means conversation and stories,” says Courtney Sobieralski, the Director of Café Services. “Sharing stories is part of healing.” Afternoon tea fits, she says, because it is perfect for sharing life and finger foods.
Thistle Farms serves afternoon tea in a traditional English style, with a three-tiered platter of scones and finger sandwiches along with tea of your choice. The café offers Firepot Chai teas as well as blends from Moringa Madres, an organization that hires women in Mexico to grow the superfood, moringa. They also offer vegan and gluten free options. Tea service is by reservation only, so be sure to give them a call!
According to Courtney’s research, it is not polite to raise The pinky with your tea cup, nor to loop your finger through the cup handle. Bummer.