University of Colorado students celebrate a friend’s birthday at Dushanbe Teahouse in Boulder. © Matt Bidwell
By Laurel Kallenbach
Originally published: July/August 2016
Known for mountain views, microbrews and farm-to-fork menus, Boulder also brews up exotic international teas—some blended right in town.
1770 13th St., 303-442-4993
One recent rainy Sunday in Boulder—my hometown since 1990—I sought out my favorite breakfast at a Persian teahouse next to Boulder Creek. The Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse, ornate and colorful, offers rose-garden seating, but because of the weather, I chose an indoor table. The ceramic table top is decorated with columbines.
I ordered my favorite breakfast here—cardamom-spiced Indian chai and the “Greek Scramble,” eggs with spinach, tomato, olives, feta, and potatoes. As I waited, I admired once again the teahouse’s intricate wall panels, ornate wooden pillars, and bronze sculptures of “The Seven Beauties”—maidens from a 12th-century Persian poem.
And I people-watched, looking for the effects of exotic tea and design on distracted patrons.
A few tables away, two women hunched over their smart phones, oblivious to the gorgeous ceiling, deftly painted with Tajik floral and geometric patterns in red, green, and cerulean.
After the server brought my eggs, and between bites, I noticed that the bewitching Seven Beauties had worked their magic: the texting women had abandoned their phones and were now chatting and smiling over their pots of tea.
A father and daughter—she looked about 7—sat at a tapshan table, painted with intertwined flowers and surrounded by a pile of embroidered pillows. The daughter reclined like a princess while her dad read her the breakfast menu.
In the 2,500-year-old Persian-Tajik tradition, the Dushanbe Teahouse presides over a Boulder community hub: the plaza where the vibrant Farmer’s Market is held from April through October. Here, too, is the Creek Path where cyclists and skateboarders zoom beside the glacier-chilled waters. Though it serves breakfast, lunch, dinner, afternoon high tea, and 100 varieties of tea, this beautiful teahouse also offers the gift of art, international friendship and cups of conversation.
Yet Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse isn’t the only Boulder teahouse worth a visit—for the tea and other pursuits.
1141 Pearl St. (relocating to 1211 Pearl St. in autumn, 2016), 303-443-3612
Lined with boutique shops, art galleries and restaurants, the Pearl Street Mall is the heart of Boulder’s downtown. Amid Pearl Street’s hubbub—street performers and shoppers— lies a serene haven with antique Chinese décor: Ku Cha House of Tea, which serves high-quality teas from the Far East. I ducked in one afternoon and browsed the tea store with its shelves of artfully arranged loose teas and tea wares. A glance at the menu board behind the counter dazed me: green tea, black tea, white tea, yellow tea, boba, oolong, puerh, herbal tea, spicy chai, rooibos, yerba mate. How to decide? I stalled by sampling Ku Cha’s daily free tasting: a nutty green tea with a whiff of pine.
“There’s a story behind every tea,” said Annalisa Wells, Ku Cha’s manager, who helped demystify a few teas, including a smoky Lapsang Souchong (it’s dried over a pinewood fire), a jasmine tea called “Snowflakes Falling on a Jade Pond,” and Bi Luo Chun green tea, grown solely for 16th-century China’s Imperial family. Today, nonroyals like me can buy two ounces right off the shelf. “If you can’t decide what tea to purchase, our staff can make suggestions,” said Wells.
We walked through a bamboo archway into Ku Cha’s traditional Chinese tearoom, where people sat on floor pillows at low tables. (Conventional tables and chairs are also available.) Wells invited me to try the traditional Gong Fu Chinese tea ceremony for an authentic experience. I selected the “Oriental Beauty” oolong from Xinzhu, Taiwan, whose sweet, fruity flavor is the result of an antibody the tea plant produces to ward off insects.
The Gong Fu tea service arrived on a lovely wooden tray with slots where splashes and spilled water could drain into a plastic tray below. The setup included a miniature Yi Xing clay teapot, a pitcher, small cups, and a tiny pig figure. “That’s a tea pet,” explained Wells, “so that you never drink tea alone.”
Gong Fu means “making tea with skill,” and the Ku Cha staff will explain the ritual steps for “microbrewing” tea in tiny batches. Wells began by scooping leaves into the pot, rinsing it and the tea, then discarding the rinse onto the tray. Then the tea-making began in earnest. Because the clay pot is so tiny, each steep lasts only 30 seconds. Wells poured tea into two cylindrical, clay, “smeller” cups, which allowed us to sniff the first aromas of the brewed tea. She then covered them with tasting cups, inverted them, removed the clay cup, and voilà: honey-colored tea.
As we took our first sip of the subtly floral-tasting Oriental Beauty, Wells explained that first brew is always light because the leaves’ flavor hasn’t fully been released into the water. We continued, and the second and third brews achieved what Wells called “the full experience of the tea.” I detected a richer flavor: nutty with hints of caramel and honeysuckle. Tea tasting bears a striking resemblance to wine tasting.
After we had finished, Wells mentioned that some Chinese perform the Gong Fu tea ritual each morning because its meditative actions set the day’s tone. And so I emerged from Ku Cha House of Tea into the flow of bustling tourists with renewed serenity and appreciation for the thousand beautiful sights and sounds of Pearl Street.
4600 Sleepytime Dr., 303-581-1266
Celestial Seasonings’ Sleepytime bear awats guests at the Information Desk. Courtesy of Celestial Seasonings
Celestial Seasonings put Boulder on the international tea map, and its history is a quintessential Boulder success story. Founded in 1969 by hippies who handpicked wild herbs from the surrounding mountains and sold them to health-food stores, today Celestial Seasonings serves 1.6 billion cups of tea annually worldwide. Every year, more than 140,000 visitors tour the factory and tasting room, one of Boulder’s most popular free attractions.
Last summer I tagged along with my friend Melissa and her young sons for a visit. Bounding through the Tour Center door, the two boys raced to the giant Sleepytime teddy bear, who appears on packages of Sleepytime Tea. While I fetched our tickets, Melissa coaxed the kids away from the bear long enough to get them interested in the samovar-like urns with hot and cold tea.
“Can I have caffeine?” asked Orion. “No-o-o,” said Melissa, steering him away from the Morning Thunder. “But here’s Goodnight Grape—it looks yummy.” Armed with tasting cups, the boys weren’t content with one flavor at a time. They gulped mixtures of Tangerine Orange and True Blueberry, while I sampled refreshing Watermelon Lime Zinger.
Soon the factory tour was announced. While Melissa whisked the kids to the bathroom, I watched a 10-minute film about how Celestial Seasonings imports tea leaves, herbs, and spices from around the globe to blend here in Colorado. As we queued up, our guide gave us hairnets to wear, which made us all giggle.
Our first stop was the Tea Storage Room, filled with giant bags of earthy-smelling leaves and buds of Camellia sinensis, the tea shrub that’s native to Asia and India. All tea, except herbal varieties, are made from Camellia leaves, which contain caffeine. Despite their color, black tea and green tea are made from the same plant, but their distinct flavors depend on how long they’re oxidized. The herbal blends that made Celestial Seasonings famous—Sleepytime and Red Zinger—contain no Camellia, so technically they’re not “teas” but “tisanes,” beverages infused by herbs and spices like chamomile or hibiscus.
The Mint Room really got the boys’ attention. As soon as the garage-like doors rolled open, we were overpowered by the eye-watering, sinus-clearing smell of peppermint and spearmint. We stepped in a few feet but didn’t linger. No wonder my favorite Mint Magic tea is so strong!
Bundles of energy, the boys bounced through the next part of the tour, tugging impatiently on Melissa’s arms. Eventually we reached the factory, where machines filled boxes of tea and wrapped them in cellophane. To my surprise, the boys hushed; their eyes widened as lines of boxes zoomed by on conveyor belts like in a Willy Wonka movie.
The tour ended in the gift shop, filled with boxes of tea, tea mugs, T-shirts, candies. The boys were tired, so we went outside and sat on a courtyard bench. “When I was a little girl in Nova Scotia, I grew up drinking Celestial teas,” said Melissa, as she pulled them onto her lap. I couldn’t help but think that someday her sons would tell their kids the same thing.
Naropa University, 2130 Arapahoe Ave.
To go deeper into tea culture, I went to the Naropa University campus for a lesson in the Japanese tea ceremony, an intricate Zen tradition dating to 16th-century Japan. The ceremony is done weekly at a teahouse at Naropa, which blends academics with Eastern contemplative practice.
After calling ahead to check on space (only eight people can participate at once), my friend Florence and I waited beneath swaying ash trees outside the tiny tea hut. Not knowing what to expect, I was nervous, but we were greeted by instructor Mike Ricci, who would guide us as we participated in the tea ceremony.
We followed stepping-stones into the Zen garden and ladled water from a stone bowl to wash our hands and rinse our mouths. Next we left our shoes on a bamboo rack below the tea hut’s small door and entered on hands and knees. We settled on tatami mats next to two other guests. Florence sat with her heels tucked beneath her; I made do with Lotus Position.
A student wearing a half-length kimono acted as the tea host; we watched quietly as she began her carefully choreographed preparation. First she bowed before the tea setup: a ceramic bowl, a tea box, a few wood utensils, and a kettle of steaming water. Then she picked up the bowl, rotated and examined it, and rinsed it with a ladleful of hot water. Every movement was thoughtful and efficient. Occasionally Ricci would gently correct her; once he reminded her which corner of the tea napkin to fold first.
I wiggled; my leg was falling asleep. Soon, the host removed the lid from the tea box and placed it in its position on the mat. Inside was powdered matcha green tea, the color of new-mown grass. With a tiny utensil, she scooped the tea into the bowl, poured in hot water, and frothed the tea with a bamboo whisk. Every movement was precise; every item she touched was gazed upon with admiration. It felt like watching a slow-motion ballet.
While speaking Japanese, the host bowed and offered the first guest the bowl of tea. I studied the routine as the bowl moved from guest to guest: bow, accept the bowl of tea, examine it, sip once or twice, wipe off the bowl’s rim, and then pass it to the next person. When finally it was my turn, I admired the bowl’s bamboo-leaf pattern before mindfully sipping the fluorescent-green tea. Thick and almost creamy. Grassy but not bitter.
Toward the ceremony’s end, I was distracted from sitting in one position for so long. Apologetically I shifted. No one batted an eye, and I realized that the tea ceremony is intended to create beauty, tranquility, and symmetry—not rigidity or discomfort.
Later, as Florence and I left the tea hut and others entered, I thought about how the ceremony focused my attention on easy-to-miss details. That simplicity is the true secret of tea—whether it’s a bowl of matcha, a mug of chai, or a glass of iced herbal. When we prepare it with care and share it with friends, family, or even strangers, time stops and enjoyment begins.
Laurel Kallenbach is a freelance writer based in Boulder.