"This smells like candy!" I couldn't believe it was tea as I took in the sweet and satisfying aroma of one of Tealish's dessert teas, Toasty Almond. It smelled like candy granola, apples and cinnamon mixed together with a nutty goodness. Tealish is located on Walnut Avenue in Toronto, in the trendy Queen West area of Trinity Bellwoods. I stopped by there for a visit during my recent trip to Toronto.
The person allowing me to smell this tea was none other than part owner of Tealish, Mike Rachmel. Not even a lingering headcold could stop Mike from sharing his story with enthusiasm and passion, and his case of the sniffles wasn't anything a hot cup of matcha couldn't soothe. Mike tells me that because matcha is the result of grinding green tea leaves to a fine powder, it has 15 times the "green goodness" as green tea itself, and it boosts the immune system and energy levels with loads of antioxidants.
Mike mixing matcha
As we chatted about how a young, hip guy such as himself ended up selling tea, I began to realize there had to be more to this plant-based beverage than meets the eye. Growing up in London, Ontario, tea for Mike meant Tetley and Red Rose, as I am sure it also did for most of us. After university both his horizons and his palate started to expand, and eventually tea started to mean much more.
Mike and his partner Laura opened the doors to Tealish in 2006, but their idea to open a modern tea boutique had been in the making for a while. With oodles of travel behind him, Mike was searching for a way to connect with people and blaze his own entrepreneurial trail. Being food and wine lovers, both Mike and Laura enjoyed seeking out new taste experiences, so it was only a matter of time until different types of tea appeared on their radar.
Although they were new to looseleaf tea at first, they were eager to learn more about this magic beverage. In their search for more tea knowledge and experience they found that "there was something missing", said Mike. He and Laura began to realize that the approachable, experiential tea cafe they sought didn't seem to exist at the time in Toronto. It's true what they say about necessity and invention. Mike and Laura's frequent question "why isn't there?" slowly turned into "why don't we?", and they started on their quest. The idea was to create a fun, fresh approach to tea that could be 100% unpretentious, engaging and educational. Enter Tealish.
One of their hopes is to remove the stereotype around who qualifies as a "tea drinker". Many of us picture sweet old British grannies, English Professors or common cold sufferers to be the only ones toting teacups. On the contrary, Mike believes that "there is a tea for every person!" Their tea is certainly catching on, and among those who have already discovered Tealish are Canadian Celebrity Chef Laura Calder and talented singer/songwriter Brett Dennen.
With Tealish, they wanted to open peoples' eyes to the amazing selection of looseleaf tea. For me personally, my eyes were first opened to the rainbow of tea flavours when I worked at Whole Foods Market. I'll never forget my first whiff of a peachy-flavoured white tea or a blueberry rooibos. Wherever you first get turned onto a food or drink, it can inspire you to taste more new and interesting flavours. Trust me, once you start, it's difficult to stop!
In the beginning, Mike and Laura contacted over 100 suppliers and tasted over 1000 teas in order to choose what they would sell at Tealish. They source tea from China, Japan, India and Sri Lanka and herbs from South America, Argentina, Egypt (camomile) and even here in Canada (mint). Their teas have no artificial ingredients.
I felt the need to go there, so I asked him "the organic question". In response, Mike told me that their tea is technically not certified organic or fair trade. However, if you look past the official certifications, it sounds ethically produced in my opinion. Their tea comes from the top traditional tea estates in the world. No factory farming is involved, and no pesticides are needed due to minimal pest problems at the high elevations where the tea is grown.
Money is also a factor. For many of their suppliers, organic certification is too expensive. On these tea estates, tea is a way of life. Female workers hand harvest the tea, and during the busy season, the estate owners boost productivity and employee satisfaction by having schools and hospitals on site to care for their children and families.
As Mike told me about these "small, passionate, quality-conscious estates", I couldn't help but draw a parallel between the source of their teas and Tealish itself. Small, passionate companies who focus on a good product and live and breathe tea as part of their lifestyle. The passionate, positive vibe of Tealish is contagious, and I challenge anyone who says they don't like tea to spend just 5 minutes with Mike. I believe he will inspire you to try something new.
Back to the organic question, the short answer is: Tealish's teas are tested against the European food safety standards. Essentially, they are organic, but they are just not certified by North American standards.
I learned a lot from Mike that sunny October morning. For example, I learned about "fannings". Up until now, all I knew of fannings were of the Dakota variety. Fannings are the dust and small particles of tea leaves. Apparently when we dunk a teabag into our cup, we are really only sipping the essence of the dust and particles of tea, not the leaves themselves. This fact alone has completely converted me to looseleaf tea!
Tealish is hoping to provide an enjoyable tea experience for everyone. For Mike and Laura, tea serves so many purposes in life, it can help energize you, calm you down, provide you with whatever you need. In their view, the health factor is a bonus.
A pretty flowering tea, in full bloom
I asked Mike what was new at Tealish and found out that a major focus lately is tea for your lifestyle. Whether you are an athlete, looking to improve your health or you have a sweet tooth, Tealish has a line of teas for you. Called "Good Energy", "Chill Out" and "Dessert Teas", their specialty lines are bound to suit you or someone in your life. Speaking of specialty teas, they will even create a personalized blend for your wedding, birthday party or any other occasion!
Scot-tea, a personalized blend created for a 30th birthday.
Leaving the store with my Toasty Almond vanilla soy latte in hand, I noticed that this tea brewed pink -- don't be put off by the colour guys, I tested it on a man's man a few days later and he loved it! It went perfectly with an oatmeal raisin cookie on a chilly Monday evening.
Mike wants to invite people to the shop that don't think of themselves as tea drinkers, because he is convinced he can show them a tea that they will love. "Tea is the superfood of planet earth", Mike said, and I'm definitely starting to believe him.