by Sylas May
A mushroom-like lump of bacteria floats in a jar on the counter of Mana Bar, the newest tea shop in Lawrence, Kan. I’ve drunk the vinegary liquid it floats in, which tastes something like balsamic vinaigrette dressing, only sweeter.
It’s called kombucha, and it’s a popular kind of tea in parts of China, Russia and Japan. Produced by leaving a culture of probiotic bacteria in black tea to ferment, kombucha is dubbed a health food by many of its supporters, who claim it’s capable of improving digestive health.
Kombucha is one of many unconventional types of tea that Mana Bar stocks. You certainly won’t find bags of English Breakfast here.
“A lot of Americans, when they think of tea, they think of grocery-store tea and tea bags, and that’s just the lowest on the totem pole as far as tea quality goes,” said Derek Poskin, Mana Bar’s chief procurement officer. “A lot of our job is just re-educating people on what tea is.”
Apparently, it’s herbs, roots, leaves, and mushrooms. It’s hot, in multiple senses of the word — the Tea Association of America says the demand for specialty and exotic teas rises 10 to 15 percent each year.
I’ve been a tea drinker since childhood, but I’m still no expert, so I decided to find out what the best teas in town are from the people who sell them and drink them.
Mana Bar: Toasty Ti Guan Yin
At Mana Bar, the owner, Matthew Rader, says something familiar, like jasmine tea, might be the best place to start exploring high-end tea.
“Jasmine tea is probably something everyone has come across at some point,” Rader said. “But ours is just so above-the-bar that people just smell it and are like, ‘Okay, if it even tastes half as good as that, I want that.’”
For the more adventurous, Mana Bar carries teas that would baffle most tea novices, including teas that taste like coffee.
“We have a dark roast Ti Guan Yin that, when brewed properly, almost tastes as strong as coffee,” Poskin said. “But it’s a very mellow energy, as well.”
The Taiwanese Ti Guan Yin tea I took home to brew, while not as dark as coffee, had a similar aroma and went down smoothly. I didn’t really suffer the crash like that of coffee, either; the tea kept me going for a few hours without ever feeling lethargic or nauseous. Plus, watching the tightly rolled leaves unfold in the water was a great way to relax.
Brits: Smoky lapsang souchong
Many other places in Lawrence stock loose tea leaves to swirl around in the pot. One such store is British import shop Brits, where you can find common teas like Earl Grey alongside stranger varieties like Ntingwe Kwazulu. Owner Sally Helm says most of the teas sold in the shop are basic, but more people have started buying green teas, like the popular rose tea, instead of the more traditional black varieties.
Some of the teas Helm sells are well outside most people’s comfort zones — and a few are even too outlandish for her palate. One such tea is a Chinese black tea called lapsang souchong, which is smoked as it dries.
“The lapsang souchong, to me, it tastes like the bottom of an ashtray,” Helm said. “But it’s all a matter of taste.”
When I tried brewing it, the room smelled like a bonfire for about an hour after the tea had steeped. The tea itself was very strong and spicy, and it definitely woke me up. If you like your tea strong, lapsang souchong is a great way to get into exotic teas.
House of Cha: Iron Buddha
At the cozy House of Cha, employee Isaac Jambor recommends something called Iron Buddha. “It’s really caffeinated and really strong, especially if you let it steep for a long time,” he said.
As I swish it around my mouth, I can’t place its flavor; one minute, it’s fruity, the next, earthy. It’s always rich and smooth, though, and it doesn’t taste that strong to me at all.
He also suggests a powdered tea from Japan, called matcha, for tea-lovers on a budget. “It costs $8.00 per ounce, so it’s not as expensive as our other teas,” he said. “Plus, it has rice puffs in it.”
People don’t drink tea just for the taste; the health benefits are reason enough to drink it. Tea is rich in antioxidants and can reduce regular drinkers’ risk of heart disease and stroke, according to the Tea Association of America.
Mana Bar’s Rader and Poskin can vouch for the beverage’s benefits, too, as they have seen regular customers visit the shop when they feel a cold coming on. The bestseller for these customers: naturally, the probiotic-rich kombucha.
“It is kind of the high road to dealing with sickness,” Poskin said. “Instead of antibiotics, you do probiotics.”
Want to broaden your horizons with some weird teas? Here’s the roundup of recommendations, along with where to find them and how much it’ll cost you.
Ti Guan Yin
Mana Bar, 1111 Massachusetts St.
Price: $5 per ounce
Brits, 929 Massachusetts St.
Price: $7 for 4.5-ounce box
House of Cha, 21 W. Ninth St.
Price: $15 per ounce
Edited by Hannah Swank
Photo by Ryan Ott