THE TEAHOUSE VIBE

The Baltimore Sun

Wintry sunlight seeps into the storefront window, brightening the entryway and glinting off dozens of metallic canisters that, displayed behind the bar, hold dreamy-named versions of the elixir that is Teavolve's raison d'etre.

Mandarin green. Lapsang souchong. Lemon mango. Rooibos paradise. Golden Jasmine. Sonari assam. Sundew.

Deeper into the room, people sit across from one another absorbed in conversation, hands wrapped around warm mugs. Local art lines the walls and a soothing soundtrack that the owners accurately call "chill lounge" filters through unobtrusively.

It's exactly that - the chillest of lounges - that Sunni Gilliam and Del Powell have created here with Teavolve, a spot-on illustration of the teahouse trend that's invigorating one of the world's oldest beverages with modern attitude.

Tea, you must understand, is no longer your grandmother's drink. So spots like Teavolve are anything but the frilly, flowered and oh-so-feminine parlors where gray-haired ladies sip effete brews from dainty porcelain - with pinkies erect. Styled after this generation's ever-popular coffeehouses, teahouses are where the coffee-disinclined go to meet friends, plug in a laptop, hold a business meeting or check out an open-mike night.

And, though they're not about to overtake Starbucks any time soon - or ever - teahouses are multiplying in the United States. A decade ago, there were only 200 of them, says Pearl Dexter, the editor of Tea, a Magazine. Now there are 2,000, compared with more than 10,000 coffee bars.

Soon, a Teavolve in Harbor East will join the original Fells Point outlet. Chocolatea, which strives to be a neighborhood hangout, opened a little more than a year ago near the Johns Hopkins University. And even at area malls, Teavana stores, though they don't have seats around here, promote tea-drinking as a lifestyle, complete with accessories and soundtracks.

Driving the newfound interest in tea, Dexter says, is an increasingly health-conscious American consumer, the sort of person who worries about being overly caffeinated and appreciates antioxidants.

The soothing, peaceful and outright Zen mythology, infused like so much ginger or cinnamon into the beverage, doesn't hurt, either.

"It's sort of radically good for people," says Aparna Jonnal, an Otterbein doctor, who chatted with a friend recently at Teavolve over a wild berry tea smoothie. "In this world where I feel that really bad things are being shoved at you constantly, it's so nice to have a tea to soothe my nerves and make me feel nice."

Jonnal's friend Diana Savage, a legal secretary who lives in Hampden, says she feels better about drinking tea than coffee. "It's because it has that - what's that word?"

"Antioxidants," Jonnal helps.

"Yes! That!" Savage says, laughing.

Though a number of scientific studies have found that drinking black tea - which is naturally fat- and calorie-free - might help ward off certain cancers and reduce the risk of heart attack, those potential benefits are probably more than diluted if one takes drinks made from those blameless leaves, as many teahouse drinkers do, with a helping of whipped cream and flavored syrup.

Moreover, certain teas contain serious amounts of caffeine - even though coffee tends to get most of the jittery rap.

But to Jonnal, choosing a cup of Darjeeling or Earl Gray is not unlike choosing yoga or meditation or being environmentally aware. "It's part of this wave of people working to do things that are good for them and good for the world," she says. "It's questioning the whole fast-paced, mainstream way of thinking."

Though teahouses appropriated the loungelike vibe from their coffee counterparts - along with the comfy sofas, Wi-Fi connections and contemporary menus, Jane McCabe, who edits the Tea and Coffee Trade Journal, says teahouses diverge from coffeehouses in their fundamental spirit. That is, coffee contributes to a hectic world and tea is the antidote.

"Coffee is bustling," she says. "It's a happening place. People are in and out. You've got actual traffic. A tea bar is more tranquil."

Moreover, McCabe, who says her 18-year-old daughter couldn't drag her boyfriend into a traditional tearoom, didn't have to push at all to get him into a teahouse.

"The demographics are changing," says Joseph P. Simrany, president of the Tea Association of the U.S.A. "The older female was the standard, but today the lines are very much different.

"I've been to many an afternoon tea where I've seen deals taking place and architects with designs spread all over the place. ... a lot more acceptable environment than the two-martini lunch."

Yet most places to find fine tea, certainly in the Baltimore area, haven't abandoned tradition.

At Ellicott City's Tea on the Tiber, for instance, the tearoom advertises "the quiet elegance and refinement of a grand English Tea parlor."

"As you sip your tea," the Web site says, "you can imagine ladies and gentlemen of a bygone era in their afternoon finery enjoying the comfort and camaraderie of friends."

With the Serenity Tea Room in Frederick, owner Blanch Henry, who was raised on South Carolina iced tea, wanted a little of that quiet elegance, and she definitely wanted fine china and finger sandwiches, yet she also wanted men to feel comfortable.

So she chose lace tablecloths, floral curtains and a doily or two but tried to avoid creating the full-scale Victorian experience that many afternoon tea purveyors apparently can't resist.

"It's not too frilly," she says. "I'm not over the top."

Before opening Teavolve, Gilliam thought she would open a coffeehouse. That was until a doctor advised her to give up the java. So she essentially crossed out every coffee reference in her business plan and replaced it with tea.

So, like her Starbucksian brethren, she's got the requisite hot or cold or outright milkshaky drinks, those drizzled with caramel or mixed with mint or blended with fruit to the point that the humble cup of straight-up stuff might wonder if it's even in the right place.

The Mochaccino has little on Teavolve's Rooibos Vanilla-Caramel Latte, a vanilla-tea treat with caramel syrup and steamed milk. For $4, Powell can whip up a Caramel-Toffee Latte that smells of something baking and makes one forget tea is even part of the project.

"When I launched the specialty drinks, that absolutely opened the door for a lot of nontraditional tea drinkers," Gilliam says. "People love them."

So for the tea, the atmosphere or to quench some more ethereal thirst, customers like Jonnal and Savage say they'll be found again soon at a teahouse back table.

"You get your own pot of tea and it's all warm and there's something so comforting about that," Savage says, as her friend adds: "It's kind of beautiful, too, to see the leaves in the water, coloring it."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

Things you might not know about tea

Tea is nearly 5,000 years old.

It was discovered in 2737 B.C. by the Chinese Emperor Shen-Nung, who was known as the "divine healer."

After water, tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world.

On any given day, about half the American population drinks tea.

In 2007, more than 65 percent of the tea brewed in the United States was prepared using tea bags.

About 85 percent of tea consumed by Americans is iced.

Of the tea America is drinking, about 82 percent is black tea; 17 percent is green tea.

[Source: Tea Association of the U.S.A.]

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