Walking in the well-worn and trendy neighborhood of Newtown, I came up to a storefront featuring a sign of recycled timber. I was greeted warmly by Amber Hudson and Paul Sunderland, the owners of Sydney’s newest teahouse, T Totaler. The couple set up the shop front three months ago after two years building up a following by working the Sydney market circles. Amber and Paul are modern tea alchemists who have become known for crafting experimental blends of local Australian tea using innovative brewing methods.
They brought that sensibility to their shop. “We find that tea is about sitting, relaxing, and enjoying other peoples company,” says Paul. “We wanted to bring a calming environment.” But Paul explains that the T Totaler is not your typical Zen teashop. “We wanted to steer away from the classic English style of high teas, tea cozies, and delicate chinaware and wanted to go with a botanist industrial theme. That comes from the fact that we like to experiment. That’s a big part of our business and we wanted to get that across in the way we designed the shop.”
The café captures this industrial, experimental feel without leaving you cold. There are native flowers popping out of test tubes and beakers holding the various blends of loose-leaf tea available for purchase. There’s a playfulness in the way the pieces that fit out the premises have been repurposed from their original use: a light made from an old camera hangs above the cake display case, one table is made of an old grate topped with a pane of glass, while the table opposite is a retro ironing board. Giving new life to salvaged items brings a certain aesthetic to the shop, but also reflects a commitment to sustainability. It doesn’t stop there; the loose-leaf tea is sold in beautiful amber pharmaceutical jars which customers are encouraged to reuse when it’s time for a refill.
“That was a big thing for us. We use recycled paper for invoices and business cards. After we’ve served tea to our customers we take the leftover leaves, feed that to our worms and from that we actually get fertilizer to feed our edible garden,” Paul says. Edible flowers and heirloom tomatoes from this kitchen garden tucked behind the shop are used in menu items. The tea is locally sourced, too.
“That’s a bit of a difference with us. We have a lot of Australian-grown teas that a lot of people don’t realize grow here. All our green teas are grown in Victoria. We’ve got different herbal blends, which are grown in Australia as well. We are really passionate about sourcing locally,” Amber explains.
Loose-leaf tea isn’t the only thing on offer; also available is their unique spin on traditional tea service, including cold-drip tea, a slow infusion using filtered water that produces an intense aroma and flavor while preserving the antioxidants of green tea by not boiling them out.
“We find this really popular, especially in Sydney as it’s so hot. We pour that over some hand-cut ice. The most popular, Chai Yoga cold drip, we match that with salted caramel popcorn. The pepperiness matches really well with the sweetness and the saltiness,” Amber says.
“I love sparkling drinks so we came up with the sparkling tea. We are trying to stay away from soft drinks and this is a healthy alternative. Our most popular one is our Sparkling Immune, which is our all-Australian grown immune boost blend. It’s got echinacea, olive leaf, aniseed myrtle, and rosehip. We infuse that and add sparkling filtered water, and that gives it that spritz.”
They also have their line of signature ‘Tea-tails,’ including the Tea Negroni, akin to an alcoholic Negroni. Turning cocktails on their head, they are having fun experimenting with tea-infused non-alcoholic cocktails.
T Totaler offers several workshops for tea enthusiasts of all levels. One is called Tea Alchemy, which covers the history of tea and brewing methods, then invites participants to blend their own tea and take it home. The emphasis is on experimenting and getting creative. There is also a tea and cake degustation that spans six different courses, where Amber bakes cakes to specifically match certain teas, balancing flavor profiles. Everyone sits around the shop’s communal table and enjoys together. The business has really blossomed in Sydney with wholesale clients including chef David Chang’s acclaimed Australian outpost Momofuku Seiōbo. They have also been offered a pop-up shop in Sydney’s iconic Strand Arcade over December, right in front of the popular Christmas tree. It appears that Amber and Paul’s fresh approach to tea is becoming contagious.
As Amber puts it, “We are showing different ways to use tea; it’s not just a hot cup.”
—Rachel Colbourne-Hoffman is a freelance writer who calls Sydney, Australia home.