First Look: Tea Bar PDX

The Whole Leaf

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Tea Bar’s white walls and cool gray cement floor don’t speak too loudly. With furniture in blond wood, a solitary slate-colored rug, and tea tins in a uniform metal, my first impression of Portland’s newest café is lulling. Stepping out of the deluge into Tea Bar on a foggy, rainy day is like moving from one milky world to another, except while the former might invoke the dreary the latter is a blank canvas: simple, calming, and primed for sensory exploration.

Color arrives in the form of tea. As I sit at one of the stools at Tea Bar’s long, wooden bar, owner Erica Indira Swanson begins to open the metal canisters and set them before me: a dark green genmaicha dotted with golden brown rice, an even darker Lapsang souchong smelling exquisitely of pinewood fire, and a startlingly bright green, baby-powder–fine matcha with an aroma of sweet grass. If my first impression of Tea Bar was strikingly minimalist (the café is also sparsely populated by a bar, a row of two-top tables along one wall, and a single long, communal table), my second was wooed by its hidden details.

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Tea Bar owner Erica Indira Swanson mixes a “matcha shake.”

As we discuss her journey to tea, Erica continues to unstopper more brushed metal canisters, admiring the teas within. She shows off the shop’s two glass mugs, a small and a large, elegant in their plainness. She pours me a portion of Magic Kombucha into one of them (brewed from live cultures, green tea, and artesian well water in Olympia, Washington), and eventually begins fiddling with one of Tea Bar’s recipes, a matcha “shake”—whole milk, culinary grade matcha, and natural sweetener shaken and poured over ice. Tea Bar opens in less than two weeks after months of build-out and planning. Though the mood is relaxed, Erica is still at work.

“I’ve been drinking tea ever since I was ten or twelve,” she says. “I started out by going to Townshend’s on Alberta, then I moved to China when I was sixteen.” Erica’s travels throughout China, Cambodia, and Vietnam (she is fluent in both Mandarin and Spanish) drew her further into tea. When she returned to Portland she worked in her family’s real estate business. About three years ago the building Tea Bar is housed in was purchased by that business. Once it was renovated, the time to open a tea bar seemed right. Erica hired on a manager and began planning.

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You might be asking yourself: does Portland need another tea café? It may be the weather in part that gives Portland its reputation as tea drinking, but surprisingly, teahouses are still fairly scattered , though those that do serve are treated to ample business and sacred hometown rights. Historically, tea companies (Tazo, Stash, Townshend’s, The Tao of Tea) have flourished in Portland. Even in a sea of coffee roasters and bars, demand for tea here is large and growing, as is a network of passionate tea buyers and brewers.

The city’s newest addition is titled simply, and its mission is simple. Tea Bar, which opens on December first, will offer a carefully curated menu focused on quality, not quantity. Many of the teas will be organic and a handful direct-sourced. Bubble teas will be made without syrups or powders, chai likely brewed in house, matcha whisked to order, and Pu-erh (both ripe and raw) served traditionally in a gaiwan.

“Our goal is to have a condensed menu,” says Erica. “Other places in town you’ll go there and be given a booklet, and that can be so overwhelming. So I really wanted to curate the menu in a way that people can come in, and we can still have a good selection of teas, but it wouldn’t be overwhelming. We aren’t going to have 150 teas.”

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Pastries from Bakeshop and bagels from Bowery Bagels, two local companies, will kick off the shop’s food offerings, which might expand with time. Erica is passionate about organics and natural sugars. She chose Magic Kombucha partly for its low sugar content and plans to integrate raw honey from a family farm in California into some of the drinks.

Tea Bar’s goal isn’t to be quirky, mystical, high-design, or Portland-esque, but to offer outstanding tea in a setting that doesn’t distract from the thoughtful menu. Sipping the finished matcha shake from a short, white ceramic mug (with matcha direct-sourced by Portland’s Mizuba Tea Co.), a perfect balance of creamy sweetness and tea grassiness shines through. As Erica blends and her manager Cindy shoots photos for the shop’s Instagram and Erica’s tiny, white dog, Ponyo, circles the bar happily, they casually discuss adding a pop of color by painting the lower wall of the bar. It’s a toss away conversation, where with many café build-outs, it might be an early focus, settled months ago. But at Tea Bar, the focus is different. I can taste it in my cup.

—Story and photos by Regan Crisp, Fresh Cup’s associate editor.