Zakti's Creators Let Tea Out of the Bag

Tea is often overshadowed by the stronger, more caffeinated coffee. But there is way more to tea than ordering it sweetened or unsweetened. If you felt like it, you could geek out over the origins, flavors, and steeping methods of tea for the rest of your life. Pam Miller and her partner Janeil Engelstad fall solidly into that tea geek category, so much so that they decided to start their own loose-leaf tea company, Zakti, based here in Dallas.

Miller left her job as a vice-president at Neiman Marcus to start Zakti, and Engelstad continues to work as an artist, educator and curator and is also the founding director of Make Art with Purpose. In addition to starting Zakti, Miller has been working on a series of certifications from The Specialty Tea Institute to become a tea specialist. Tea specialists know a whole lot about the history and types of tea, as well as the specifics of production, processing and serving. Miller is on her third of four possible certifications and when she completes the fourth she will be able to teach others about tea complexities that I can only begin to imagine.

Zakti will be hosting a tea tasting this Thursday at the Hospitality Sweet located downtown. You can also buy their teas on their website or at Bolsa Mercado. If you want to dip your toe into tea culture, Miller and Engelstad would be a helpful and encouraging starting point.

Miller and Engelstad recently talked and emailed with City of Ate about what makes tea so fascinating and how to find that perfect cup of tea:

How did you get into tea? Miller: Growing up in Seattle, a tea city, Janeil has been drinking tea since she was very young. I started to be a serious tea drinker during a trip that we made to Asia in 2003. In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, we visited a traditional tea shop, where we were introduced to a variety of teas including oolong and aged pu-erh teas from China. We actually took a class while we were there that was conducted in Mandarin. Neither one of us speaks Mandarin, but still I left inspired and excited about tea and began to study it in depth. I found out that the more I learned about tea, the more there is to learn and that this would be a lifelong endeavor.

Why did you decide to start Zakti? The idea of a tea business is something we talked about since that trip to Asia in 2002. We've since taken time to learn more about tea and returned to Asia, including Sri Lanka and India, visiting farms, plantations and factories to learn about how tea is grown and processed. While we were developing our brand and the website we started sharing tea with our family and friends. Last year we got our website up and have begun growing our business slowly.

What do you love about tea? Oh my gosh, where to start -- really we love just about everything about tea -- the culture around the various ceremonies, the tea service, the history, the people who grow tea and the fact that all true tea stems from a single species of plant, Camellia sinensis. There are different varieties of Camellia sinensis, but the flavor of the leaf is most determined by where it is grown and how it is cultivated and produced. As we have traveled throughout the tea growing regions of the world we have experienced the different cultures around tea. From the most beautiful and detailed tea ceremonies in Japan and Korea, to the gongfu style in China, to sharing a "cuppa" in London. In the end, no matter the culture, tea is about slowing down, sharing, community and gratitude.

Where do you get your teas? What do you look for when purchasing teas for Zakti? We are currently sourcing tea from China, Taiwan, Japan, India and Sri Lanka. Next year we are returning to Asia, and one of the purposes of this trip is to meet new farmers and expand our tea selection. We source the best, high quality teas that we can find. We taste all our teas before purchasing and work with brokers and buyers from these countries to get unique and delicious teas. We take great care in selecting sustainable and ethically grown and harvested teas that are among the finest in the world.

What are your favorite teas? We enjoy all tea varieties. In the morning, we like to start out with an everyday pu-erh, which is delicious, both black and with some kind of milk. Since it has been so warm recently, we have been making oolongs over ice, which we garnish with fresh fruit and mint. If we are drinking a hot oolong, we enjoy tikuayin oolong drunk from a glass. The tightly rolled leaves expand beautifully when steeped. Good quality oolongs can stand to be steeped for very long periods of time without becoming bitter or astringent, so we leave the leaf in the glass and just keep adding hot water as we drink it, until the leaf has given its entire flavor.

What should someone look for when purchasing tea? Tea bags are great for convenience, but loose-leaf tea will give you the best flavor. You can also get multiple steepings from loose-leaf, and that means more cups per ounce. If you are new to tea, I recommend buying different types of tea in small amounts and trying them out. Some people prefer the grassy or vegetal green teas while some like strong black tea. It's good to keep in mind that there are four variables when steeping tea that can have a drastic influence on the taste of the tea you are drinking. Those are leaf to water ratio, vessel used to steep the tea, water quality and temperature, and steeping time. Changing any of these will change the flavor of the tea.

If you find you like the flavor of a particular tea and want more flavor, add more tea not more time. More time strengthens the tea but changes the flavor. It can become bitter and/or astringent with more time, due to the tannins being brought out. But some people like a more astringent tea and dry mouth feel. Really, the perfect cup of tea is one that satisfies you, so start with the steeping recommendations and go from there.

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