On a bright summer Friday, three of my colleagues from Try The World and I ducked into the Burgary on Clinton Street on the Lower East Side. Before our eyes could even adjust to the dim lighting, Amy Dubin, founder of Janam Tea and #teaisaplant, was already waiting to greet us. We were here to experience her afternoon tea service, recently featuring in the New York Times, and to learn more about her passion for single-estate Indian teas.
Amy is the supplier for the Kingly Estate Black Tea in our Subscriber box, and is one of the most knowledgeable people we know about teas in general and Indian teas in particular. Following her leads, we snaked through the Burgary to an old-school bank vault door, opened to reveal a curving wooden staircase. The stairs led to Garfunkel’s, a stunning speakeasy hidden on the second floor, and Janam Tea’s home base.
The ambience is “sexy, not stuffy,” as Amy explains, with plush couches, cozy armchairs, and vintage teaware dotting the glass-topped tables. The location’s liquor license allows Amy to serve an add-on champagne option.
It’s not your typical afternoon tea experience, and it’s not meant to be. When Amy opened her first teashop in Downtown Jersey City in March 2005, the first in the Western Hemisphere for single-estate Indian tea, she sponsored a skateboarding team. The teenager skaters were in and out of the shop, grabbing cookies and tea on their way home from school. What other teashop do you know of that sponsors a skate team? Or any sports team, for that matter? Along with supporting the team, the sponsorship was a signal that hers was no stuffy teashop only for the prim and proper. As we spoke with Amy over the course of the tea service, her passion for shattering the prejudices and assumptions around what tea is, what sort of social situation it should denote, and who should drink it continually shone through. She explained, “I want afternoon tea to be about personal connections and making memories. I want to associate tea with beautiful moments in people’s lives.”
The idea that tea is for anyone – “tea is a plant, and is more closely related to a cigar than it is to coffee” – is one that is close to Amy’s heart. Accessibility is a huge part of her mission. She educates about tea, to her customers, yes, but also to members of the restaurant industry. The accessibility aspect extends beyond tea knowledge – she also supports tea farms that are going through organic certification, a long and expensive process that can halt production for around three years, and sources from farms that support their local community through ethical hiring practices. Hers is not an impersonal operation – more often than not, the teas that she sources comes from farms she has actually been to. Amy has traveled within India extensively, and has lived and worked with many of the people whose hands have rolled the very tea she serves.
We had the chance to try four teas on our visit, along with two beautiful tiered trays of tea accompaniments. Aside from the scones and jam, Amy makes all the food – from cucumber and mushroom and scallion cream cheese open-faced sandwiches to melty brown butter cookies – herself. The teas themselves were amazingly unique. The first was a handmade orthodox leaf tea from Mandal Gaon in Assam, the color of honey. Next was a black tea from Sikkim, a Buddhist state to the north of Darjeeling and higher in altitude. This tea, the color of scotch, was grown in the fall, and had earthy notes of toasted hazelnut chestnut. The final two were a light green tea from Assam, an unusual but exquisite offering from an area that is known primarily for black teas, and an Italian rose petal tisane. (As we learned from Amy, herbal teas are not really teas – you can steep nearly any herb, but if it is not from a tea plant, it is called a “tisane”.)
Throughout the whole experience, from the glass cups that allowed us to actually see the luminous colors and shine of what we were drinking, to Amy’s charming and open personality, to the sultry interior of Garfunkel’s, I don’t think I’ve ever been more relaxed in a tea parlor. We left full (and giddily caffeinated), and wanting to come back for more.