Editor’s Note: Since January is National Tea Month, The Smoky Mountain News talked to some of the tea connoisseurs in Western North Carolina about their love of tea and disdain for the traditional iced tea so popular in the South.
Despite being nestled in the land where sweet tea reigns, the sole tea house in Western North Carolina refuses to serve up the sugary drink.
The policy is clear at Soul Infusion Tea House & Bistro in Sylva: “We do not serve any pre-sweetened teas. You may sweeten any of our teas to your liking.”
Co-owner Jason Kimenker admittedly appreciates the appeal of homemade sweet tea on a hot summer day, but he hopes customers will give tea a chance in its purest form.
“We just request that you try it once without adding anything to it,” said Kimenker.
Meanwhile, Stephanie Batha, an Irish-English woman and co-owner of Herren House in Waynesville, had never even heard of iced tea before coming to the U.S.
According to Batha, the British are less liberal about plopping ice into their drinks.
“Iced tea, yeah, that would’ve been a joke,” said Batha.
Kimenker and Batha are just a few of the tea lovers in Western North Carolina who generally steer away from sweet tea at restaurants to avoid the heavy heaping of sugar or high fructose corn syrup that’s often mixed in.
Instead, Kimenker prefers herbal teas, while Batha sticks to the classic British option: black tea with milk and sugar, or black tea with lemon.
Coming from an English-Irish background, Batha said tea has always been a part of everyday life. And she’s not alone — tea is second only to water in worldwide consumption.
“If anything bothered you, you had a cup of tea. If you were excited about something, you’d sit down and have a cup of tea and talk about it,” said Batha.
For Batha, tea is a source of comfort and community.
Every visit to her grandmother involved tea in some way, whether it was a simple cup paired with bakery-fresh bread, or just one piece of an afternoon feast with sandwiches, cookies, chocolate cake and sausage rolls.
“Really, that was dinner,” said Batha. “There was so much food.”
Batha hopes to bring the same tradition to Waynesville someday. She recently held an afternoon tea during Haywood County’s Fire & Ice festival to test interest.
It’s not the first time she’s hosted an afternoon tea. Batha has brought the British tradition with her as she’s moved to various places abroad. During her time in Congo, Batha’s gatherings became an instant hit with expatriates and continued for years after she left.
Like her grandmother, Batha offered meringues, cheesecakes, scones and other desserts with endless pots of tea at the events.
“I’ve been cooking for this tea quite happily. It goes back to those days,” Batha said.
The world’s drink
Soul Infusion in Sylva offers an array of 66 different types of loose-leaf tea from places as far-flung as Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Fiji and France.
In the nine years Soul Infusion has been in business, co-owners Jason and Karin Kimenker have become experts on tea, well aware of its origins, benefits and varieties.
Pointing to four shelves stocked with tea blends, Jason says, “You could get a whole story on each one of those jars.”
For example, Jason explained that chai, tea mixed with aromatic Indian spices, came about because the lower castes in India were stuck with bitter tea from the bottom of the barrel. They added spices to the tea to make it more palatable.
“In the U.S., it’s become this fashionable gourmet drink when truly, it was the poor man’s drink,” said Jason.
One of the most popular teas at the Sylva tea house is one the Kimenkers concocted themselves. Ruby Slippers is an herbal blend of blood orange and pear with green tea. The same blend with black tea instead is called Paris Romance.
“The names are just as fun and romantic as the teas they inspire,” said Jason.
Karin, who also serves as the executive chef at Soul Infusion, utilizes tea in her cooking. She’s used smoky tea to add a ham flavoring in split pea soups and put green tea to work in sorbets and sauces.
While the Kimenkers obviously like how tea tastes, there are other reasons they are drawn to the drink.
“I like that tea has such a rich history that with each sip that we take, we can trace back a lineage to ancestors who have gone through hardships and celebrations together with cups of tea,” said Jason.
According to an old wive’s tale, a Chinese emperor discovered tea 5,000 years ago when the wind blew a few leaves from a tea plant into his cup of hot water.
A few years ago, the Kimenkers attended a world tea conference in Las Vegas, a trade show for the tea industry, and discovered Soul Infusion is one of the few urban tea houses in the U.S.
Coffee still seems to drive the American population.
“[It’s] a much faster, go-go-go beverage,” said Karin. “With teas, it’s all about slowing down, taking time out of your day, sit and relax a little bit. Kind of regroup, refocus, reground.”
While most people assume there are lots of different varieties, all real tea comes from a single plant that is processed in different ways. Like wine, distinct soil and growing conditions lead to diverse kinds of tea.
Tea is produced in only a very small scale in the United States. South Carolina and Alabama are the only states on the east coast to grow the tea plant.
Studies have shown that tea has plenty of benefits, helping to prevent cancer, boost cardiovascular health, inhibit bad cholesterol, reduce high blood pressure, and improve women’s fertility.
While adults can recognize the values of drinking tea, Jason said they’re not alone in appreciating the beverage.
“Believe it or not, kids like tea, especially when it’s fruity or pink,” said Jason “They’re very curious.”