The warm aroma of chai—a combination of black tea, cardamom and black pepper—immediately greets visitors at the Flagstaff Tea Co. Stepping inside, the noise of a passing train and traffic on south San Francisco Street falls away; the cozy tea room offers a quiet reprieve, enticing passersby with a broad selection of aromatic blends.
I stopped into the tiny shop on a sunny, yet somewhat chilly day. I had been surprised that morning by a thin layer of snow on my porch; walking downtown, I craved something warm to combat the cool breeze. The Daily Offering at the Flagstaff Tea Co. was the perfect remedy: a creamy matcha chai. While many may expect a syrupy sweetness found in many other matcha beverages, this one had a subtle, perfumed flavor and the spiciness of the chai added a robust, warming undertone.
Heather McCleester, who owns the shop with her partner Chris Lomas, greets customers with a wide smile. She happily answers any questions about the teas on the shelves—for her, the job is not only a business endeavor, but also an opportunity for her to share her knowledge. A self-proclaimed tea connoisseur, she admits to drinking around eight cups of tea every day.
“I’m all about quality and flavor,” McCleester says. “The chai here is the best I’ve tasted in my life.”
The chai truly speaks for itself. There are a few varieties on the shelves including a chocolate chai, a cardamon chai and a more traditional variety with nutmeg and cloves. Just smelling the tea proves its quality and many of the ingredients can be seen with the bare eye—whole cardamon pods are sprinkled among the black leaves.
McCleester recently bought the shop from Curran Malhotra, who runs a wholesale tea company in Vermont. Malhotra moved back to the East Coast, but McCleester still orders the same chai from his company. He has made a name for himself by using premium ingredients and grinding the tea by hand. McCleester is intent on continuing to offer this specialty chai to her customers in Flagstaff.
“A lot of times, big name tea brands will market tea as something really healthy for you, but if you look at the ingredients you’ll see it has artificial flavoring and artificial coloring,” McCleester says. “I’m not a fan of refined sugar or artificial flavorings, so I try to keep our teas as natural as possible. I want to be transparent: this is the best stuff, all the ingredients are things that you want to put in your body.”
At the Flagstaff Tea Co., the experience can’t be rushed. Unlike some coffee drinks, which can be quickly ground and prepared to order, tea takes more time. There are unique brewing times for different varieties—even the best ingredients can turn bitter and acidic if brewed too long.
McCleester offers the example of green tea, which should only be steeped for two to three minutes. If steeped for much longer, green tea will take on an unpleasantly harsh flavor, turning potential drinkers away.
In Japan, entire ceremonies are designed around the process of making tea. The seeming simplicity of brewing herbs and hot water is elevated to a nearly religious level. Each step is carefully planned out down to the smallest details, even providing guidance on how to sit, what to wear and what foods to eat. Influenced by Zen Buddhism, the procedure can be a personal and spiritual experience for the participants.
While McCleester is not trained in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies, she still finds a certain mindfulness in preparing the beverage. It offers an opportunity to enjoy the process and the flavor of the final product.
“When you’re preparing a tea, it has to be the full five minutes to get that optimal flavor,” McCleester says. “You can’t cut it short, you have to sit there and wait with it. With some of the premium teas, they blossom and bloom as the water is infusing it and I think it’s beautiful. It’s like art.”
McCleester treats each order from customers with the same care as she would treat her own cup of tea. She describes wanting to have a positive impact on each person’s day, even if it is through the simplest means. A chef by practice, her favorite aspect of owning the business is finding teas to match even the wariest customer’s taste.
“I want it to be a personalized experience,” McCleester says. “I love matching people to their tea. It’s like being a matchmaker.”
The Flagstaff Tea Co. offers a peaceful refuge, tucked away on Benton Avenue just off San Francisco Street. The ample seating and comforting ambience make it an ideal destination for an escape during a busy day. And with a wide array of products, ranging from chai and green teas to herbal, even the most stubborn coffee drinkers will find something to sip on.
Located at 123 S. San Francisco Street, #5, the Flagstaff Tea Co. is open Thu, 9 a.m.–6 p.m.; Fri–Sun, 8 a.m.–6 p.m., and closed Mon–Tue. For more, swing by the shop, call 637-8462, or visit them on Facebook.