Apr. 25 2015

Everything You Missed at Halifax’s First Tea Festival

AN EARLY WEEKEND in April saw Halifax’s inaugural tea festival. During April 11th and 12th, tea enthusiasts and friends of tea enthusiasts flocked to the gymnasium in the basement of the United Church on Brunswick street for a weekend full of tea learning and exhibitors.

Frank Harris of Just Us! pours a cup of properly brewed tea for a participant in his

Frank Harris of Just Us! pours a cup of properly brewed tea for a participant in his “Brewing the Perfect Cup” workshop on Sunday afternoon.

Both days saw a well-attended event, with guests skirting around kettles of hot water being walked around the room to fuel the tea samples offered at each booth. There was live local music between workshops, and even a Russian bellydance performance.

The Vendors & Workshops

Tea Geek’ery owner Lacey Bain kicked off the workshops on Saturday with Grow Your Own Tea 101  . ‘Grow Your Own Tisanes’ might have been more accurate, as she doesn’t actually grow tea plants, but does grow a number of organic herbs and produce which she then blends to create delicious herbal infusions, such as the Apple Bliss they were offering samples of.

Laceland, her family’s farm in the valley uses no pesticides, and no artificial colours, flavours or preservatives make their way into her teas. She started blending and drinking tea in response to skin and stomach problems, and developed the business once she discovered her love for putting things in hot water. She also recalls being a child and creating a dandelion-infusion for her Dad to drink, which he did, despite its questionable taste.

Extremely popular at Tea Geekery’s booth was the ‘mix your own tea’ station, featuring a number of jars containing organic steepables. “We brought 28 jars of product thinking it would last both days, but we blew through that in one day,” said Lacey. For the tea they can’t grow, they source organically from all over the world, “black and white tea from China, Rooibos from South Africa, Chamomile from Germany.” I ask her what their most popular blends are. “In the valley they like vanilla crisp and dulcie chai, the familiar flavours.”

Not only was there lots of tea at the festival, but tea accessories as well. Estylle, based in Fall River, does made-to-order tea cosies, mug cosies, and pretty much anything else you can find on Pinterest. Apparently, beanie beards and Minions hats were big this Christmas, “I must have made fifty,” says founder Serena Gauthier.

The festival wasn’t all small, local vendors; King Cole also had a booth and were offering  strawberry pineapple tea – hot or cold. While I was skeptical of how much ‘tea’ was actually in this summer concoction, it was nice to learn that all King Cole products are blended locally in Sussex, New Brunswick, and that the company that runs it all (Barbours) is almost 150 years old. They also employ one of the two North American Tea Masters, Des McCarthy. It’s still not clear to me what exactly being a “tea master” entails, or how you receive that designation, but I’ll admit, it’s very cool sounding.

I was really exited to see a table from Novel Tea in Truro at the festival! I’ve been meaning to visit this place. They offer really good good, lots of tea paraphernaelia, and second hand books. What’s not to like? They’re also expanding their shop this year, and I hear the mango lemon iced tea is really good.

Satya Tea (above) is one of the larger local vendors I didn’t even know existed before the festival. They currently offer 244 types of tea – all blended and packaged here in Halifax. For so many teas, the company has only two employees, co-owners Laura Evans and David Moore.

One of the more unique vendors, Sense & SensibiliTea markets their old-school English tea and chocolates with steampunk flare and a lot of history.

Owner Wanda Aulenback (seen above with the amazing tea holdster) was originally a costume studies student at Dal, but ended up studying history. A perfect combo for her venture, and her ‘Tea for Time Travellers’ workshop was full of great historical facts.

Did you know? In the 17th and 18th century, the English would steep their tea over and over again, until all the flavour was gone?  Bergamot was first adde to tea to mask the stale or old tea smell. Once people realized they enjoyed the scent so much, it was added to fresher tea as well and Earl Grey was born.

Did you know? Most tea cups didn’t have handles when the drink first landed in Britain. The cup was held with two fingers – one on top and one on bottom, until women complained and requested handles be put on.

Did you know? John Hancock, inciter of the Boston Tea Party riots was actually a tea smuggler. He wanted people to buy his cheaper, smuggled tea instead of the government-sanctioned tea sold by the East India Company. He started the rumour of a ‘tea tax’ to rile people up, but really he just wanted to sell his contraband tea since the East India Company had a monopoly at the time.

Next, I had Penny Lighthall read my tea leaves.

This was my most esoteric experience at the tea festival. In my tea Ieaves Penny found the following symbols: a wanderer, a dryad (“It’s like a hobbit hut not a hobbit; Bigger than a pixie, not a leprechaun.”), a sleeping dragon, a thunderbird, a freshwater tap, a mermaid, several small bats, and a few baby dragons.

If you’re into Rorshach ink blots and the mystical, you’ll love this. The funnest part was actually seeing the shapes she’d point out, and thinking, “Yeah, that does look like a baby dragon!” Penny was very nice to talk to, and she’s also a bird whisperer.

Steeped Tea was also present – you may know them as the brand owned by the couple (Tonia and Hatem Jahshan) from Hamilton, Ontario who struck it big with this idea on Dragon’s Den a few years ago. They had a smokey ranch dip infused with lapsang souchon there – I can attest it was very tasty.

Just Us! Coffee Roasters Co-Op was also there. Although their forefront foray has always been coffee, they’re making their way more into the tea game as well. They were selling tea-infused truffles made at their Grand Pré location. I tried dark, smokey chocolate with lapsang souchon and sea salt. Too many weaknesses combined.

According to Spring Garden location manager Justin, they also do a unique lapsang latté with honey – sounds awesome.

Just Us!’s internal sales rep, Frank Harris (above) also gave a workshop about brewing tea correctly, “the grower can make it perfectly, it was be packaged perfectly, but if brewed the wrong way can be ruined.” He also joked during his presentation about how his parents used to brew tea – the typical English way – steeped too long and strong. “What they were trying to do was turn it into coffee”‘ he jokes.

Laurel Schut’s Kombucha DIY workshop taught me what a SCOBY is (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast, and a “slimy pancake”) and how to make this effervescent drink at home.

Humani-T Café co-owner Nehmat Sobhani gave an inspiring talk about tea, From Plantation To Your Cup where he spoke extremely knowledgeably about the production of all types of white – from white to black and everything in between, including rooibos, and yerba maté (which he is holding in the photo below).  Of all the vendors, I ended up speaking with him the most.

Nehmat is originally from Iran and moved to Nova Scotia in 1983. He studied electrical engineering at Dalhousie University (then TUNS), but after he graduated it seemed the only jobs available were all weapons-related. Not wanting his legacy to be missile-tracking systems, he instead went into business.

As a teenager he attended school in Kandi, Sri Lanka. Conveniently, many of his classmates grew up to be tea plantation owners who he does business with today. He has even climbed Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka, a famous 2,250 metre high tea-growing mountain, the tea from which is extremely rare and expensive. The roots of the tea plant on high peaks like this sometimes go 100 feet deep into the side of the mountains, to get at the fresh spring water underneath.

You can see the passion that runs the business, when he tells us, “Tea enhances community building, enhances conversation,” or poetically describes unoxidized leaves drying on long swathes of white fabric as, “a green lake, with the tea leaves shimmering.”

In the photo above, left to right you’ll see: Nehmat, his nephew Kiyan Sobhani and brother Shahrooz Sobhani, who all co-own and run Humani-T’s two locations.

Truly a family business, many of the cafés treats are based on family recipes, “that is one my father used to make” he says as he points at their Raw Energy Squares. Nehmat also describes his father buying teas, “a but of ceylon, a bit of assam, a bit of darjeeling” and blending them until he found the “right” flavour.

Their Prince of Persia blend, for example is from four plantations in Sri Lanka. It is blended to hit both parts of your tongue, “the taste that hits the back of the tongue is the one that has you running for your next cup of tea.” Nehmat grins. I try it cold. It is very good.

Their Rooibos Chai is also available for testing. Nehmat describes how when they first decided to have a chai, they thought they would buy the blend from India, “who better to make it?” However, when they had their first import, the chai they opened smelled strongly of chemicals, and other additives, something against the Humani-T philosophy. “We sent it back.” Indians known how to make chai beautifully at home, but corporate India had sent them something very different.

Taking matters into their own hands, they bought a german stone mill to crush their own chai spices: cardamom, fennel, cloves, cinnamon, peppercorn, ginger… “A lot of the stuff in here will treat Schedule A diseases: cancer, arthritis, etc. Of course, I’m not allowed to tell you that.” he winks.

He explains how chai is very thermogenic (creates warmth) and how rooibos can help with digestion and is also caffeine-free. “There’s also very little tannic acid – you can boil and boil without damaging it, and also reuse it. It’s very forgiving to make.”

When they decided to sell matcha, they ran into a similar problem as they did with the chai. They ordered a matcha mix from California, but it had an ingredient-list a mile long, and included several processed sugars. Again, they sent it back and decided to come up with a better solution.

Matcha lattés are ‘blasphemous’ I’m told, but when you order one at Humani-T, at least you get real matcha powder (with one ingredient: matcha), blended with milk and a bit of honey. No chemicals or additional processing here.

I’m sold. I buy both the Prince of Persia and the Rooibos Chai. I’ve been drinking the rooibos chai every night since. It’s one of the best chai blends I’ve ever had.

Humani-Tea opened as a café in 2010, so be sure to stop by sometime as they celebrate their 5th anniversary this year.

Margot Bureaux was Nova Scotia’s first certified tea sommelier. She laid out a fantastic presentation in her Tea Cupping and Overview of World Teas workshop, which included a full rainbow of tea-tasting. Everything from light peach-fuzz whites to the dark brick of puerh, including her favourite (Golden Hand-rolled Himalayan Tips Black Tea from Nepal).

May attendees from her packed session came up afterwards to grab a silver spoon and try the many variations.

Misc. Fun Facts From The Vendors:

  • Puerh tea used to be used as currency during the Ming and Qing dynasties in China.
  • All tea is camelia sinensis, but assamica species do better in humid temperatures, thus why it’s grown more in India.
  • Powdering green tea in Japan began so that more volume could fit on the donkeys carrying it up the mountain to the monasteries.
  • You should keep a tea pot for every different kind of tea, so each can develop a patina for its flavour.
  • Tea cosies aren’t dumb (as I had previous thought) – they actually do keep your tea warmer much longer.
  • The tea that makes it into tea bags is often the lowest of the low quality.
  • ‘Masala Chai’ means ‘spicy tea’. Masala = spicy; chai = tea. So ‘Masala Chai’ is technically what we call ‘chai’ in English. Chai just means any tea to the rest of the world.
  • Crew of ships in 1700s that carried tea would not get scurvy. Drinking tea seemed to offset the effects.
  • Matcha must be ground slowly in order to prevent the heat from friction, which would cause oxidation.
  • Licorice is an aphrodisiac.

A couple changes I would love to see next year:

  • Better location. The window-less basement gymnasium had intensely fluorescent, yellow-green lighting that made you feel like you were in a Cold War bunker. It was hard on the eyes, and going outside afterwards made you feel like a mole-person emerging from the ground after many years.
  • Separate area for workshops. The workshops took place in the middle of the market floor. Because of the building’s acoustics, even with the mic-system they had rigged up it was often difficult to hear speakers, and awkward as people were shopping five feet away, and trying to move through the crowd that had stopped to listen.

You can visit the Halifax Tea Festival website for more information. The whole festival was pulled together almost single-handedly by Ashton Rodenheiser, along with a faithful assortment of volunteers. Pretty impressive for such a small group.

If you’re a tea drinker or tea vendor, I would definitely email Ashton about signing up for next year — I can see this one becoming a successful Halifax annual.

All the best, and happy tea drinking. Now signing off from this mammoth post and going to reward myself with a certain hot beverage.