Bob Holcepl is used to being on the forefront of beverage trends. When he opened Civilization (then called Cravings) in Tremont 20 years ago, it was just him and Arabica in the local coffee business.
"People thought we were insane selling gourmet coffee in Tremont," Holcepl recalls. "It was the White South Bronx back then."
Now, of course, people have embraced coffee culture to the point of seeking out fair trade, organic, shade grown, single origin beans when ordering their morning cup of pour-over java.
Holcepl believes that tea is the next coffee, and he is once again placing himself on the leading edge of a beverage trend. As early as next week, he will open the Tea Lab in the 5th Street Arcades. Over in Ohio City, Amber Pompeii is preparing to open Cleveland Tea Revival, a "modern tea café," across the street from Rising Star Coffee. Both are part of a growing national trend fueled by consumers who are discovering the pleasures of tea that lie beyond a spot of Earl Grey.
"I believe tea in the United States is where coffee was back in 1990," notes Holcepl. "Back then, we were all about changing people's perceptions of coffee over to quality. I think that now is the right time to do that for tea."
Pompeii apparently agrees.
"It's just the perfect time," she says. "People are starting to get hip to tea because of places like Teavana, who really put tea on the map in United States. America is pretty far behind when it comes to tea culture, but it's becoming this huge thing in major metropolitan areas."
Pompeii, a Cleveland native, recently moved back to town from Seattle, where she fell in love with the burgeoning tea culture. While there, she worked in the same sort of modern tea café that she intends to replicate on Cleveland's near-westside. Pompeii understands that tea still has a way to go before it catches up with coffee, but she is more than up to the challenge of nudging people along.
"People often make the common mistake of trying to compare coffee and tea, when really they're two completely separate things," she explains. "I really like coffee, but I can't drink it all day. But I can drink tea all day because the caffeine level works better for me."
Despite the seemingly endless array of tea flavors—with exotic names like Vanilla Orchid and Orange Pekoe —tea isn't all that complicated, explains Holcepl.
"Tea is tea—it's all the same plant," he says. "It all depends on where it's grown, when it's picked, and how it's processed. Like with wine, terroir is a real thing. Where tea is grown can mean the difference between a tea that's $2 an ounce and one that's $25 an ounce."
When she opens in October, Pompeii will carry 50 high-end teas, divided into the major classifications of white, green, oolong and black. White tea, she explains, is the lightest, made from the first flush of tender growth. Black, in contrast, is dark and rich, crafted from mature plants. Pu'erh, a wildcard of sorts, is a style of fermented black tea.
"There are so many different varieties of tea that there has to be something you would like," promises Pompeii. "If you walked through the door we'd talk about flavor profiles, what kind of things you expect from a beverage, and we'd find something to suit your palate."
Cleveland Tea Revival will sell tea by the cup or ounce to go, or you could sit down and enjoy a full tea service at one of a handful of tables. Pompeii believes that many people's ill opinion of tea likely stems from poor ingredients combined with poor technique.
"People often complain about tea, that it's not strong enough or it's too bitter," she says. "That's probably because too little or too much tea was used, the water was too hot, or it was brewed too long. Some teas are brewed completely different from others. When everything is done correctly it becomes this ceremony, if you will, where you end up with this perfect cup of tea."
In addition to loose-leaf tea, Cleveland Tea Revival will sell the necessary equipment—and offer the appropriate instruction—to brew tea properly.
Holcepl's Tea Lab will focus on tea and little else. The 215-square-foot shop will be filled with 120 stainless steel canisters filled with tea. Though he does sell tea at his City Roast stand at the West Side Market, Tea Lab will offer an "expanded palate with more high-end options," he says.
But more than anything, the style and setting of the shop will afford him more time to discuss tea with his customers.
"It's just too busy at the market," he says. "This will be a very modern store that is just about tea. I want people who live, work and eat downtown to buy tea for their home and office. We want to change how people look at a tea store."