Some restaurants are so wine focused that they employ someone solely to procure, store and serve hundreds, if not thousands, of bottles of the stuff. Other restaurants place such value on cocktails that they'll bring in a consulting bartender to design their drink menu, if they don't hire a full-time mixologist. Coffee seldom gets a dedicated employee, but a few restaurants will spend an employee's annual salary on a machine that will froth the perfect cappuccino. And beer -- let's just say you better have a list and it better be long.
Tea, though: Tea is most often served as an afterthought. Bags filled with dusty, broken leaves -- the tea drinker's equivalent of jug wine -- are steeped too long in water that's too hot, resulting in bitter, astringent brews. If loose-leaf tea is offered, the teaware is often insufficient, resulting in dripping infusers and other steeping snafus.
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Despite the fact that tea is the most consumed beverage in the world behind drinking water, it is mostly misunderstood here in America. But if certified tea specialist Kyle Stewart has his way, that could be changing soon, at least here in Dallas.
Stewart's sales pitch couldn't be simpler. He approaches hyper-refined restaurants like Lucia and points out the costly white truffles, the delicate pasta and the heritage meats, asking: Why do you buy the very best ingredients, serve them alongside world-class wines, and then wrap up your customer's meal with awful tea? Now customers can order a cup steeped from Stewart's tea leaves to close out their elegant Italian meal at Lucia and many other restaurants around Dallas.
Stewart partnered with coffee bean fetishist Phil Krampetz to start The Cultured Cup in 1995, and the two have slowly been changing how Dallasites drink their tea and coffee ever since. They operate their small shop by appointment only, but on the weekends they often conduct tastings, inviting customers to come in, sample and learn about tea and coffee. Of course, those customers have to find the shop first. It's tucked into the backside of an office park on Gamma Road in Far North Dallas, and the back door opens up into a cluttered stock room and office. Past the printer and computer screen and past the bags of tea leaves and coffee beans and commercial grinders, a horseshoe counter divides a must-see space for any local hot-beverage enthusiast.
On a recent Saturday, Verdi's Requiem was blaring from small speaker cubes atop shelving that holds scores of canisters filled with tea. Stewart held two smaller canisters of powdered tea called matcha as he stood behind the counter, and invited customers to take a peek. One, a commercial quality product chefs might use in preparations like green tea ice cream, is a dull, grayish color. The other, containing what Stewart referred to as ceremonial quality tea, glowed an electric green.
As the sound system switched to Mozart, Stewart carefully mixed a measure of the fancy matcha powder with hot water using a bamboo whisk. He talked about forming a connection with a tea bowl made locally and by hand from clay. He talked about mindfulness as he carefully moved the whisk in small circles in the bowl. He talked about the absurd amount of care the Japanese put into manufacturing just an ounce of this jolly-green powder. As he whisked the liquid into a froth, Stewart delved into layers of tea nerdery so complex you might decide to give up on matcha altogether -- that is, until he hands you a paper cup filled with the mesmerizing emerald green liquid.
"It tastes green," said one customer, simply. High quality matcha has a sharp, grassy flavor that reaches beyond vegetal to something far more organic. It's slightly silty.
Next, Stewart instructed his guests to taste the soft French butter caramels that had been melting in slow motion on a plate. They came free with a twist, and coated the palate with a sweet fattiness that changed subsequent sips of matcha permanently. The caramel knocks the edges off the harsh flavors. What remains is more immediately recognizable as tea, though more vibrant and alive than what you're used to. One customer was so enraptured she immediately spent more than $200 on tea and tea paraphernalia.
The weekend tastings are a great way to learn about a specific kind of tea, but it's also fun to peruse the canisters that line the wall, looking for your perfect brew. Tell Stewart a little about your tastes and preferences and he'll consult his apothecary of tea canisters until he finds you the right one. "You have to smell this Russian Caravan," he says, taking the tin down from his shelf. He gives the tin a quick shake to stir up the dormant leaves and liberate their scent, and then he pulls off the lid and extends the open container outward, enveloping the recipient in a heady scent. Ash, wood, whiskey -- and is that a hint of tobacco?
Stewart says the tea is smoked over smoldering pine bows, and he's already rushing forward with another open canister. Swoosh: the distant smell of oolong, and if you wish for it, stone fruit. After a few sniffs one of the teas inevitably grabs you, and another four ounces of leaves go out the door in an airtight plastic bag.
Most customers find The Cultured Cup after stumbling on Stewart's tea at a restaurant -- like the outstanding pu erh with a subtle scent of dark chocolate served at Gemma, or the Green Dragon on the menu at Jeng Chi that seems a perfect pair with dumplings. As Stewart converts restaurant owners, he slowly converts their customers, who immediately notice there is something special about the tea they're drinking, and seek out his tea room despite its odd location, which Stewart actually sees as a good thing. "The people who come here really want to come here," he says.
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New customers come and go, and with each of them, a new conversation begins and ends. The tasting room at The Cultured Cup could be considered a tea-nerd salon if it had more room. And despite Stewart's affinity for his quirky location, he's excited for an upcoming expansion he's planning with his partner.
As the tasting events become more popular, the pair is in negotiations with their landlord to rent more space in the same building. The new space won't include a retail storefront, but it will open up the tasting area, making the business more approachable to newcomers. It will also facilitate Stewart's tea classes, which are sanctioned by the Specialty Tea Institute, and Krampetz's coffee events, too.
The new space may even help The Cultured Cup to become a magnet for caffeine junkies. It's easy to picture them gathering around the horseshoe counter, chatting while they shop for coffee and tea. They will talk about tasting notes as much as they talk about their favorite restaurants and other happenings, and leave carrying plastic pouches filled with the potential for more stories, a newfound knowledge of their favorite beverages and a buzz.
The Cultured Cup 13714 Gamma Road, No. 104, 972-960-1521, theculturedcup.com, Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and by appointment, $