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Hidden In Plain Sight: The TeaHaus Sommelier In Ann Arbor

Perhaps you’re familiar with a wine sommelier.  At most of your finer eateries, you’ll find one who can assist in selecting the best wine pairing for your meal.  These are highly trained people who have become experts in all things wine.  But, we’re betting many of you have never heard of a tea sommelier?  While rare in the United States, they do exist, and, as a matter of fact, one such person is running a successful business in Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown District.  89.1 WEMU’s Jorge Avellan introduces you to a certified tea sommelier, who has been publicly drafting tasty brews, while “Hidden in Plain Sight!” 

It’s a busy afternoon at the TeaHaus in Ann Arbor.

"Let’s go with the Japan Kabusecha."

Twenty-six year old Ansted Moss from Ann Arbor selects one out of the 180 different types of teas displayed in a wall of tin cans behind the register.  An employee reaches for it and scoops up some of the tea for Moss to smell.

"Oh, I love the smell of that. It’s such a sweetness that comes through, even in the scent."

Moss reveals that he loves to come to the TeaHaus because it gives him the opportunity to discover new teas and learn about them.  We chatted as he continues looking at the wall of tin cans.

Jorge: "Did you know that the owner is a tea sommelier?"
Ansted: "I did not. I didn’t know that. And I can understand that now from looking at the selection it’s very well thought out, so it seems like something that someone put a lot of thought into it."

TeaHaus owner Lisa McDonald says, as far as she knows, she’s the only European-trained tea sommelier in Washtenaw County and perhaps in Michigan.  McDonald added that there are less than a couple of handfuls of them in United States.  She got her training in Germany in 1999 while working as consultant for a tea purchasing company. 

"So, in the U.S., we are starting to see a lot of online courses available and lot of organizations that are offering sommelier training that you can do online. In Germany, it’s a little more involved. It’s like two years of classroom type training and two years of apprenticeship type training."

That includes everything from how tea plants are harvested, how they're processed, and how the final product ends up on the shelves.  Using a proper tea set, McDonald explains how a sommelier does a formal tasting.

"This is a porcelain bowl. We have little cup that has what I would say almost teeth looking things on them and a lid. So if I’m going to properly brew a tea, I would put my leaves first on a white paper so that I can see them. And the dry leavess will then go into the cup and I would pour the boiling water over it. Normally, I set the timer to three to five minutes, which for most teas would be too long, again for tasting reasons. When the timer goes off, I just tilt the cup into the bowl and it just rests in the bowl, which strains out most of the tea leaves. Once the water comes out, I like to turn it upside down, shake it a little bit because you have the perfect platform to smell and see the brewed leaves."

But the majority of the time, hot water dispensers are used to brew tea at the TeaHaus.  And as simple as that may sound, there is a thought process that goes into that as well.  McDonald explains.

"These are water dispensers that we have on a reverse osmosis system, so all of our water goes through reverse osmosis and then we keep them at different water temperatures. We have teas that brew at boiling like the black, herbal tea, fruit teas. But we have teas that brew as low as 140 degrees. So we have three water temperatures, but we can cool down and blend the water until we get the perfect temperature."

McDonald moved to Washtenaw County after meeting her husband in Germany, who is from Ann Arbor.  She opened the shop in 2007 and since has expanded her business by adding a café, at the TeaHaus, where customers can enjoy a full English Tea service among other treats.  Her teas come from all over the world, including India, China, and Japan.  McDonald reveals the main reason why Ann Arbor is a good market for her business.

"I always use the example of my son when he went into kindergarten. There were 24 kids in his class, 17 of which did not speak English at home. It’s a very international city because of the university. And it’s funny because people will come and it won’t be, oh I had this tea once from a tea bag that I bought at the grocery store, it’s well, two weeks ago when I was in Sri Lanka, or last month when I was traveling through China, you know, that’s my competition there, people who come back from their worldly travels and are looking for that tea."

The Earl Greys are the bestselling teas.  The TeaHaus sells about 120 kilos of them every year.  Overall, roughly 4,200 kilos of tea are sold annually at the store.  McDonald says some of their teas are made with locally produced ingredients. 

"All of our chocolate teas have Mindo Chocolate. I love working with Mindo, and it’s a wonderful local company. The owner is great. The people who work there are great. It’s some really amazing quality so we use their coco nibs and their coco bean shells."

McDonald’s expertise and creativity is making its way to other parts of the community as well.  The TeaHaus has partnered with other local businesses, including The Ravens Club and the Ann Arbor Distilling Company and, together, are creating tea-based cocktails.  If you’re looking for some tea-infused eats and something a little sweeter, you can head to the TeaHaus’ sister business, the nearby Eat More Tea.   They offer tea-infused gelato, tea-based spice blends, and candy.  If you do, say hello to Lisa McDonald, the rare tea sommelier, who continues to expand her expertise while working “Hidden In Plain Sight.”

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— Jorge Avellan is a reporter for 89.1 WEMU News. Contact him at 734.487.3363 or email him javellan@emich.edu

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