close
close

How Chicago’s tea community is revolutionizing the way we connect

When Marco Namowicz planned the first informal tea party for Chicago CommuniTea, he had no idea what to expect. In case the event turned sour, the veteran tea educator and retail operations manager for Argo Tea brought out board games and projected a documentary about tea on the walls of the Living Water Tea House in Chicago’s Little Italy.

Six hours later, the event was enjoyable. Attendees enjoyed live music and delicate iced tea in the relaxed atmosphere of the contemporary tea room, while enjoying conversation and East Asian tea in flavors such as rich pu-erh, warm oolong, and graded Japanese matcha. .

As a larger group of tea enthusiasts and professionals came together cup after cup, the Chicago Tea Collective came to life. From informal meetups and educational workshops to monthly CommuniTea nights and more, attendees have forged friendships and traditional Asian tea flavors over the past two years. Now it’s a space where anyone can bring a cup full of curiosity to the table, Namowicz said.

On a CommuniTea night, dry and wet leaves are passed around so people can smell and touch them. Within minutes, the hot water works its magic on the leaves, creating an amber liquid with a floral flavor.

The assigned roles, based on practices Namowicz learned in a Chinese teahouse, ensure that everyone can play a role. The designated pourer makes sure everyone has their cup, and a runner can change the waste container and bring more water. The holistic experience makes making tea like connecting with an old friend, Namowicz said. There is the familiarity of an established ritual, but also a constant surprise in the way the flavor notes and aroma change with each infusion.

Shaolong Jiang, founder of Living Water, recalled how teahouses in Asia traditionally focused on community, where people actively shared with each other. But building a community rich in conversation and connection is never easy, Jiang said. He was nervous about opening a tea house in Chicago. The endeavor has been nothing short of an adventure since 2020, filled with tea-based artistic, literary, comedic, and musical collaborations.

Jiang said keeping his teas rooted in tradition also reaffirms his identity as a Chinese immigrant. In a world where boba teas and sugary drinks loom large, there’s nothing more humbling than a traditional tea practice that simultaneously connects you to the past and present.

“The way to appreciate it is to leave it as it is,” he said. “You can’t beat Mother Nature.”

Traditional tea practices, such as China’s gongfu cha, activate all the senses. In a practice that emphasizes brewing tea with discipline and skill, every little detail becomes important, from the semi-porcelain clay of a brown teapot that helps dissipate heat to the hand-painted gaiwan bowls arranged on a table.

Gongfu cha involves infusing a large amount of leaves in a series of short infusions that progressively lengthen by a few seconds. Cups of liquid are decanted and consumed one after another. Unlike other brewing methods, which concentrate all of a tea’s potential into a single serving, this practice makes each cup an exciting, unpredictable journey in itself. With each maceration, a new flavor or aroma is unlocked, but without the bitter astringency that accompanies longer macerations.

Jiang is not alone in harnessing the dynamic journeys of ancient tea practices as a way to build community and connection.

Owner Sheila Duda sets timers to brew tea during afternoon tea at TeaLula on May 17, 2024, in Park Ridge.  (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune)
Owner Sheila Duda sets timers to brew tea during afternoon tea at TeaLula on May 17, 2024, in Park Ridge. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune)

At Park Ridge, Sheila Duda is facilitating a similar environment. As the founder of TeaLula, a tea shop now celebrating its 16th anniversary, she has witnessed how tea has gone far beyond gender and age stereotypes. At any given moment she will see some eighth graders arriving after school, a table of business people, or a father sharing a cuppa with her daughter.

In 2023, Duda began a tea experience designed to foster meaningful connections and conversations. During afternoon tea, listening to people chatter and the clink of his teacups feeds his soul, Duda said.

The “Great Wall” of tea at TeaLula on May 17, 2024, in Park Ridge. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune)

What also feeds your soul and brings you a tear or two? The countless memories TeaLula has created for community members. She remembered that a young woman always came to drink tea by the front window with her father-in-law. A while later she received an unexpected call.

“She just said, ‘My father-in-law passed away and I’m so grateful to have the memories of being here with him, the two of us, having a cup of tea, sharing with each other,’” Duda recalled. . “That really touched my heart, that we had that kind of impact.”

He also vividly remembered how a man came for a tea tasting on a busy mid-week day. Despite being short-staffed that day, Duda hosted multiple tastings and conversations about the tea’s characteristics soon turned into conversations about life and love for several hours. When it was all over, the man explained that that day was the anniversary of a divorce that left him devastated.

“And then he said, ‘Now has become the best day.’ I can remember this day not as the worst day of my life, but as a day when I came and enjoyed tea with a stranger,’” Duda recalled. “Those are the stories that change everything. “It’s more than the tea shop.”

Tea can not only create a space for deep conversations, but also transport you to a place you’ve never been before. With just a few sips you could imagine yourself at dawn in the humid, mountainous tea plantations of Sri Lanka or India.

When Duda visited those vast, green fields, he was able to see firsthand the difficult work the harvesters experienced and the role the weather plays in the flavor of the leaves. Those trips reinforced his belief in ethical and sustainable sourcing, and photos of his trips through the store are a continuing reminder of the journey from garden to cup.

“You can’t look past those photos without taking a moment and remembering the people who have worked hard to give you this simple, elegant drink that will blow your mind,” Duda said.

Despite some misconceptions about tea’s bitter taste, Duda, Jiang and Namowicz maintain that there is a tea for everyone. Finding it becomes a matter of experimentation, where changing factors such as time and temperature can completely alter the flavor of a tea.

For example, Duda said he will deliberately steep some tea to demonstrate those elements.

“This woman once said, ‘Oh, that’s what my green tea tastes like: It was bitter!’” Duda recalled. “I say, ‘All you have to do is lower the temperature.’ Now she’s like, ‘I could drink this all day.'”

At TeaLula, Duda emphasizes how past interests help staff guess what people might like. A clue as simple as knowing whether people like pumpkin pie instead of apple pie can suggest that they will love a salty or spicy tea flavor, like chai.

Angelina Kasiyan serves tea and food to Mary Lou Ness, 92, and her three daughters, Carol Nicolosi, Mary Ness-Bross and Joyce Biring at TeaLula on May 17, 2024, in Park Ridge.  Mary Lou and her daughters were celebrating Mother's Day late by having afternoon tea.  Afternoon tea included tea selections, sandwiches, hot scones, cream, homemade jam, lemon curd and desserts.  (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune)
Angelina Kasiyan serves tea and food to Mary Lou Ness, 92, and her three daughters, Carol Nicolosi, Mary Ness-Bross and Joyce Biring at TeaLula on May 17, 2024, in Park Ridge. Mary Lou and her daughters were celebrating Mother’s Day late by having afternoon tea. Afternoon tea included tea selections, sandwiches, hot scones, cream, homemade jam, lemon curd and desserts. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune)

Within the Chicago Tea Collective, creating accessible and inclusive spaces, free of complex jargon, is key. That’s why the monthly CommuniTea meeting remains a donation-based event, where no one will be turned away due to lack of funds. Everyone is invited to share a cup, no matter where you are on your tea journey.

“The most important thing is to allow people to bring to the table whatever they have in their cupboards,” Namowicz said. “Let’s not get to the place where you have to buy this tea from this seller or anything like that. You have everything you already need. Let’s use what you have and make something and enjoy tea on a deeper level.”

Jenna Wang is a freelance writer.