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Teahouses brew community, one pot at a time

Tucson Green Times

Published January 15, 2009

By Mae Lee Sun
Just before three-thirty on a Friday afternoon, in the middle of Tucson’s Sam Hughes neighborhood, Zhu Ping Hodge puts on a pot of boiling water in preparation for an open tea tasting that takes place at the same time every week.  She’s recently returned to her shop, Seven Cups Teahouse, from China after spending several months there researching and buying new and varietals selections of high grade organic teas.

Having opened Seven Cups only four years ago, she is pleased at how popular the place has become.  Like in China and other countries around the globe, the teahouse in Tucson attracts those who are looking for everything from a serene environment in which to contemplate and rest, or come seeking education on tea culture and a comfortable place forge meaningful relationships.

Simon Smith and friends Melissa Nagelspach, Lauren Woods, and Heather Wallace enjoy good conversation over a cup of tea at Seven Cups Teahouse in Tucson. Photo by Mae Lee Sun

Simon Smith and friends Melissa Nagelspach, Lauren Woods, and Heather Wallace enjoy good conversation over a cup of tea at Seven Cups Teahouse in Tucson. Photo by Mae Lee Sun

“Ever since the emperors and high officials made it popular to drink tea in their palaces hundreds of years ago, the common people followed.  At first, drinking tea was ceremonial, a tradition to show respect for your ancestors. But it was during the Tang dynasty in the 1300s that families adopted it as a necessary part of daily life,” She says.

The medicinal value of tea is largely why it became popular. As practicing herbalists, the Taoists were called upon by royalty to recommend certain types of tea believed to extend life or to help induce a sense calm and relaxation.  Drinking tea was welcomed before meetings and in situations where unnecessary confrontation was to be avoided and to keep the peace.

The jingle of bells strung along the storefront door, welcome in a handful of random guests. They each take a seat, gathering around a custom tea table made from a slab of a JiChi (chicken wing) tree.  The tea tasting begins, each round accompanied with a bit of tea history and impeccable instruction on preparation and consumption.

In the main tearoom, softly lit by a handful of red silk Chinese lanterns dangling above seven, hand carved wooden tables, a group of four young women sit chatting about their lives and school. Although not emperors, the ages-old wisdom that comes with drinking tea seems to have crossed the boundaries of culture, age and time as to why these women imbibe.  “If you’re stressed you can come here and have a cup of tea and everything feels better” says Simone Smith, adding that she’s falling in love with the place although it’s only her second time here.  Smith’s friends give similar reasons for frequenting the teahouse, saying they like the calming atmosphere, the taste of the teas and enjoy bringing other people to the experience.

On occasion, a middle-aged man and his son can be seen at Seven Cups playing a quiet game of chess.  They’ve become ‘regulars’ as have dozens of other Tucsonans who have claimed the teahouse as their own and want to see the tradition of tea culture thrive.

Meanwhile, across town in the northwest foothills, another group of regulars meets for a similar reason but under a different ambiance at the Chantilly Tearoom on Genematas Drive.  The surroundings are Victorian, graced with white lace, floral printed table coverings and fine china.  Proprietor Tamara Read opened the shop six years ago for many of the same reasons as Hodge- the sense of serenity and privacy that it offers to those who want to take a reprieve from the daily hustle and bustle or want a special place to celebrate their lives in a European manner.

“I started a few clubs here, like the Stitch and Scones and the Reading Club as a way for people to come together and share in their interests and bring along friends.  Stitch and Scones is a knitting club that meets twice a month.  Some of the regulars have their own china that they’ve purchased and store here so that when they come, it’s brought out specifically for them.”

On occasion, the calendar might offer hat decorating classes or an Alice in Wonderland Tea. Sundays are reserved for private parties which many local charities book to hold fundraisers. During the holidays, there’s Storytime with Mrs. Claus.

Read, like Austin, has grown up around tea and has visited numerous tea rooms throughout the years.  Some of her  customers referred to Chantilly as a ‘beautiful happening’ and an ‘oasis of serenity’, so in that respect, it is not so different from Seven Cups as they have both attracted a strong community following and have been around for nearly the same time. The tea classes they offer differ in custom although both attract groups wanting to bond through the shared experience.

Written by maeleesun

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