12 Exceptional Tea Houses You Need to Experience
As anyone involved in the world of tea knows, there are hundreds of fantastic tea houses across the states. To give you a sense of the range of what’s out there, we asked tea experts, wholesalers, and hobbyists from across the country to recommend some of their favorite tea houses, and then we narrowed that list down to twelve.
The tea house scenes in NYC and the Bay Area are so incredibly robust, we could build an entire list for each. But we wanted to spotlight tea experiences from all over the country, and, because there are so many specialties within tea, we also varied the list according to styles. This is a sampling across the board, a quick primer and a gateway that’ll start your journey into tea culture. Just, please, don’t bring your laptops.
Yes, many tea houses offer a varied and thoughtful selection of whole leaf teas, but how many can say they were built by hand in Tajikistan and then carefully shipped to the base of the Rocky Mountains? A gift from the mayor of Boulder’s sister city Dushanbe, Tajikistan, the legendary tea spot is not only absurdly picturesque, but also offers loose leaf options from its own Boulder Tea Company (including exceedingly rare and magical fermented Chinese tea “Pu-Erh”), its famous Teahouse Chai, and tea-based snacks like a Lapsang Souchong tea-roasted bulgogi.
Opened by Pakistani women's rights advocate and author Khalida Brohi, The Chai Spot serves as a necessary correction to the corruption of chai in the quick-service American coffee shop world. For one, going there means staying there -- after patrons order their traditional cardamom chai (or their Sulaimani, coconut rose, butter, orange blossom, or dirty versions) and a range of South Asian snacks, they're invited to remove their shoes and hang out and relax on ottomans in the incredibly bright and colorful lounge areas. Brohi and her husband David Barron opened the first Chai Spot in Arizona in 2015, and after its rousing success, opened the second location in NY's Nolita neighborhood in late 2018. A percentage of proceeds from The Chai Spot also support the women's rights causes Brohi champions, in case you wanted to feel even better about purchasing your beautiful beverage.
To understand Song Tea, you have to understand a little history. For one, its founder Peter Luong’s family has a rich tea background, as they sold it out of their SF apothecary for over 30 years. But when Luong and his sister began to run the business in the mid-aughts, they decided to focus exclusively on tea, and re-named the shop Red Blossom. Though they built Blossom into one of the great tea houses in the Bay Area, in 2012, Luong craved his own space and vibe, and so Song Tea was born. Aside from an inventory of wood fired ceramic bowls, pots, and cups, Luong offers usually around 25-30 teas at any given time, but uniquely, tends to change out around half each year. And he’d also prefer if folks in the tea industry wouldn’t always take things so seriously. He summed up that ethos best in a 2018 World Tea News interview, “I don’t like the 'fetishing' of tea,” he said. “Tea should just taste good.”
JoJo Tea is cool. It’s cool because its the brainchild of Miami native Mike Ortiz, currently one of the American Tea Masters Cup champions, and a man who has to wade through a pool of his own charisma. It’s cool because its tasting space is set up speakeasy style with no fanfare or storefront on the third floor of a building in a neighborhood in between Little Havana and Coral Gables in unincorporated Dade County, giving it that extra mystique.
It’s cool because said tasting room is only open for a couple of hours a night by reservation on weekends, and because those tastings of eight teas go from unoxidized (white, green, yellow) to oxidized (diff types of oolong) to raw and ripe Pu-Erh. And because the last weekend of every month is a “freestyle tasting,” which Ortiz compares to an omakase-esque experience, in which selected tea masters just take you along on a special ride that could really go anywhere.
Also, rumor has it that, because so many restaurants and bars in Miami use JoJo Tea, there’s a late night industry crowd that comes in on weekends, and the tea parties go on all night. And maybe that’s just a rumor, but like I said, JoJo Tea is cool.
Elyse Petersen’s Tealet aims to connect independent, family run tea farms all across the world directly with customers. But as part of that practice, the Vegas home base, which sits amongst warehouses back behind Vegas’s Chinatown district, is well known amongst Tea Heads for its relaxed tea house vibe, and access to a fantastic loose leaf teas from across the world (not to mention the surreal parties).
With the possibilities for same day tasting reservations for up to 20 around the same long wooden table (and drop-ins as long as Petersen is in town, and not in visiting tea farms across the world), Tealet will shape the tasting in any way you want to go. Usually they will have a tea brewing when you walk in, and let your feedback steer the rest of the experience. Tastings can be anywhere from “one to seven hours,” according to Petersen, but you should really note the once-a-month “tea parties” they’ve become famous for throwing. Last year at Christmas, they made the entire space look like a gingerbread house and hired professional actors to play elves for a festive “Tea Party Rave.” It is in Vegas, after all.
Though NY has no shortage of great tea houses (Tea Drunk, Floating Mountain, Puerh Brooklyn, T Shop, Setsugekka, we could go on…) we opted for this labor of love from tea merchant Stefan Ramirez (who studied at the Urasenke tea school in Japan), his wife Shin Won-Yoon, and Andreas Vagelatos.
29B first shot into the public consciousness the way a lot of things do nowadays: via Instagram. But while their matcha beer and other creative tea-infused alcoholic creations have gotten the most public praise, the Tokyo style tea-bar quietly boasts an incredibly nuanced but expansive tea selection, and offers up every single tea they have available online for consumption by the pot in their tasting room, plus a monthly chef series, and general tea education classes. But look, no judgement here if you want to just go get a matcha beer.
The squat brick building with the green awning downplays just how darn influential this tea house is. Founded by the legendary International Speciality Tea Association founder Austin Hodge, Seven Cups specializes in Chinese teas, which Hodge and his team hand select during frequent visits, and the Arizona-based tea house lets you choose from over 80 loose leaf teas and offers up snacks, tea-wares, and a popular free Friday tea tasting. Or if you want something more, their Chinese Tea Ceremony’s mix of culture, history, and incredible tea is almost as famous as their founder.
Everything about Denong is beautiful. From the space, which looks like a handsome bamboo forest fell into the middle of your incredibly stylish friend’s dining room, to the breathtaking porcelain gaiwans, to the Pu-Erh tea they specialize in, Denong is the tea house equivalent of a fine dining tasting menu restaurant. Originally started in the Yunnan province in China (where Chinese tea culture began), Denong works directly with the villages that harvest the tea, helping them tend to and protect their tea gardens. They’ve opened tea houses across Asia and we’re damn lucky there’s one in the States.
Tea master and West China Tea Company founder So-Han Fan grew up in Houston, the son of a Chinese father and Jewish mother. Growing up around Chinese food traditions, he became interested in tea, and spent two years living in China working for an NGO and immersing himself in tea culture and history, before launching his tea business, opening Guan Yin alongside SMteaX’s Christopher Caballero. Guan Yin specializes in gong fu cha, also sometimes called Chinese Tea Ceremony, but Guan Yin itself is not formal, and feels more like a relaxed house party with tea, with the occasional DJs, yoga classes, and other chill events with a decidedly Austin vibe.
There is only one self-proclaimed “Queen of Oolong,” and that title goes to Shiuwen Tai, a Taiwan native who came to Seattle in the early 2000s and became an oolong evangelist, spreading the good word of the Taiwanese tea to friends and through farmer’s markets until she opened her own tea house. As you might expect, Floating Leaves specializes in oolong teas sourced directly from Taiwan (though they carry others), and even have a suitably nerdy podcast, in which they taste new teas. If that’s not enough, they are in the process of making a documentary about a tea teacher in Taiwan and his influence on the culture. All hail the Queen, indeed.
Unlike many of the places on this list, Tea-licious is not Asian tea focused. The owner Ivonne Lietz is a native of Germany, and has traveled and worked all over the world. When she finally settled down, Lietz missed the European cafe culture, so Tea-licious is a Hawaiian inflected ode to those European tea houses. Lietz eclectically picks and chooses whichever aspects have most appealed to her during her travels. So aside from a robust loose leaf tea selection, matcha lattes, and the likes, she also offers things like Portuguese custard tarts, European style baguette sandwiches, and, of course, a German breakfast of rolls, pastries, cold cuts, and the works.
Nestled inside an "alchemical art sanctuary" across four acres of gardens and tea temples in urban Portland, the "Tea Journeys" with "Tea Monk Po", AKA Paul Rosenberg, are famous across the American tea world. Reservations for up to seven folks must be made in advance, but then you just let Po do his thing, which usually means offering up rare Pu-Erth and other styles of tea to guide you on a spiritual journey. Many of the tea professionals we talked to consider going on one of these 90 minute journeys with Po an essential part of the American tea experience. But don't be intimidated -- as Po says, "Tea is profound, but not serious."