We're Just Building a Tea Shop

  • Holly Helt

When “bending like bamboo reed” as the saying goes, sometimes you have no clue where the wind will take you.

That was us at the beginning of last year. Here we were, a Japanese tea company with some of the finest tea on the planet but not exactly sure how to get it out into the world. Do we hold tea salons in the UK? Do we sell it online and hope customers understand the importance of water temperature, storage issues and timings? Or do we relax into the beauty of our surroundings in Kyushu and let the universe show us the way?

Fortunately we relaxed. One thing led to another and connection after connection carried with it the key to our next chapter: the Chiki Tea, café and bakery, in Japan!

As 2015 winds itself down, it’s interesting to reflect upon this journey. This time last year we were putting the finishing touches on our tea shop here in Kyushu before the January grand opening. I say finishing touches… we still didn’t have enough power for the milk frother; our builder had gone AWOL and was holding us to ransom; and there was no front door!

Staff interviews and training was administered amid rubble and stray power-tools… wandering stray cats and overly curious neighbors. 

Luckily two very good friends, ex-baristas in New York teaching English in Japan, came to our rescue and took on the role of training our Japanese staff in milk frothing (when we finally got the machine working). Our signature Matchaccino was being pumped out in glorious fashion once everyone understood the science and art of the froth. The sado whisking technique for the Matcha component had also taken on the seriousness of a zen master attempting to perfect the art, knowing that there is no end. 

In general things were moving in the right direction and there was a positive sense of momentum in the air.

So a week before opening, we called a staff tea break to pause in gratitude with a pot of the best Kabusecha on the planet (!). But what should have been a mindful moment turned into utter chaos when it seemed as if we’d forgotten how to steep loose leaf tea!! Pot after pot was miserable…no flavor…no depth…no creamy mouthfeel. We were stunned! We went through all the motions in the new kitchen and opened bag after bag of our new batch of Chiran cha under the guise of “product testing in situe”.  Nothing. No taste at all! Was the tea passed the sell-by date? Never mind the front door, or the builder going crazy, what’s going to happen if we can’t even steep loose leaf tea?!

We phoned our farmer, tried different waters, opened multiple bags of tea… all to no avail. But here is the strange part: we could steep incredible tea in the quiet of our home as we did every morning gently waking up to a new day. So why on earth was the tea so flavorless in the café?

In a moment of complete surrender, the answer came to us. We were rushing the process. Consumed by speed of service in the cafe, we were trying to rush the pots out the door while still steeping for that golden 60 seconds. It was evident that we’d forgotten one of the key steps to perfecting Japanese loose leaf green tea steeping: HEAT THE POT AND WARM THOSE LEAVES!!! Allowing the leaves to get cozy and begin to release is an essential step in getting the most from your delicate Japanese tea leaves. 

That incident put us off schedule by almost a full day.

Then water started leaking through the ceiling over the kitchen and down the wall at the back of the café.

Where’s that builder gone now?!

We have to pay how much money to whom?

Will the industrial sized ovens make it through the internal door even though they have to go over the roof first?!

Why were we putting ourselves through all this?!

Simple answer: we want Chiki Tea to be based in real life, not just a website that flogs tea. Japan offers such incredible quality and we feel it merits a sincere attempt to learn about the product from the ground, meet the people who bring it to market, and provide a genuine offer to customers looking for a third space where green tea, rather than coffee, reigns. We want to create a powerful foundation in order to reach out to as many people as possible, brandishing the “Drink Green Tea!” message. Game on!

January 2nd marks our first year anniversary in the Chiki Tea cafe. The journey so far has been incredible and we’re looking forward to seeing how the rest unfolds. We are toying with the idea of opening a pop up shop in London, to give our concept a try in the English-speaking world. Let us know what you think! Stranger things have happened…We’re proof!

Welcome to Chiki Tea

You can view a few more videos and photos of the build on Twitter: #JustBuildingATeaShop

by Holly Helt

(This was originally written for and published on the T-Ching blog )

About Holly Helt

Holly is American and grew up in Japan drinking Japanese tea from age-three. She has studied two methods of tea ceremony, Urasenke and the lesser-known Yabunouchi, which has a direct lineage to Sen-no Rikyu (known as the father of the tea ceremony) ; it's also the school of practice for samurai. In 2012 she founded Chiki Tea - an online retailer of Japanese green teas, all sourced directly from small farms in Japan. Splitting her time between Japan and her home in Texas, Holly strives to bring the best teas from Japan to as many people as she can find to share in her life's passion.

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