Every Wednesday, the sunny lounge inside Cha Cha's Tea fills with the scent of cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves.
"We make our own chai here in house," Ashley Hoekstra says. "And today happens to be chai-making day."
Hoekstra, a self-described tea freak, is the friendly owner at Cha Cha's Tea, a tea shop and lounge that opened this March in the heart of the Grand Avenue Arts District.
Cha Cha's is one of the first businesses to open at the newly renovated Desert Sun Plaza, an adaptive reuse project that is resurrecting part of Grand Avenue's historic Desert Sun Motel.
Hoekstra believes that Cha Cha's Tea might be the only tea lounge in the city. "There's a lot of tea shops, but they usually encourage you just buy the leaves and take them home and brew your tea at home," she says.
"They don't really have a seating area for you to enjoy the other side of tea – which is drinking it."
Indeed, Cha Cha's has the laid-back vibe of your favorite neighborhood indie coffee shop. There's local art on the wall, plenty of wall outlets, and free Wi-Fi.
Cha Cha's, Hoekstra tells me, was designed as an antidote to stuffy English-style tea rooms.
"Dudes don't feel comfortable walking into an English tea room," Hoekstra says.
"We're not like that. You don't have to feel obligated to dress up to come here. Cha Cha's is very chill ... I guess you could say we're not your grandma's cup of tea," Hoekstra says, laughing.
The tea menu at Cha Cha's is designed to appeal to both tea enthusiasts and newer tea drinkers alike.
"We're a shop for tea-lovers, so we have some special stuff for people who really enjoy tea," Hoekstra says. "But at the same time, I wanted to make it really accessible to people who are new to tea. So we carry a lot of classics that people know about, like chai."
The menu at Cha Cha's features popular "craft" tea drinks like a spiced chai latte, matcha green tea, and London Fog – a cozy blend of Earl Grey tea, lavender flowers, steamed milk, and vanilla.
The tea selection is extensive, and you can pick out something to brew for a traditional pot of hot tea.
Cha Cha's also offers a traditional gong fu-style Chinese tea service using a Gaiwan tea set. The ritualized tea service provides multiple tea infusions and is said to help tea drinkers experience every layer of flavor. If you've never brewed with a Gaiwan tea set, Hoekstra is happy to show you how it's done. She has even created a handy step-by-step diagram for newbies.
If you're a newer tea drinker looking for something simple and refreshing, Hoekstra recommends something like her homemade Peach Pop tea.
Another favorite is the Moroccan Mint tea, a heavily sweetened blend of fresh spearmint, fresh peppermint, and gunpowder green tea (customers can request the drink with less sugar).
"It's probably one of our best-tasting drinks because we follow the way they make it in Morocco," Hoekstra says.
There's also a strong seasonal component to Cha Cha's tea menu. Currently, you'll find a large menu devoted to iced tea drinks.
"To Arizonans, tea is iced tea," she says. "We have a whole page of iced tea drinks for people who just want a nice, refreshing glass of iced tea."
This summer's iced tea menu includes drinks like Cactea, a cactus blossom tea made with rooibos (red tea). There's also Strawberry Sour, a strawberry-hibiscus iced tea, and Tangerine Sage, made using Sencha green tea, sage, and citrus.
Hoekstra says she plans to update the menu frequently to reflect the current season and the weather. She also sells tea munchies, including fresh quiche made by local baker Elvia Zamora, and vegan teacakes and scones from Treehouse Bakery.
For die-hard coffee drinkers, Hoekstra offers a solid pour-over cup of joe.
Hoekstra traces her tea obsession to a pivotal encounter at one of Phoenix's first Matsuri festivals, the annual celebration of Japanese culture that's held in downtown every winter.
"A Japanese woman dressed in full kimono led me into a tent and I got to experience a traditional Japanese tea ceremony," Hoekstra remembers. "It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever experienced at that point ... It won my heart. I realized that tea doesn't have to be this stuffy English style, and that so many other cultures have it."
Hoekstra was hooked. She moved to Tucson and started selling tea at local farmers markets at the age of 17. Eventually, she got a job working for Teavana, one of the biggest tea companies in the country. She worked in the Teavana corporate office when the company was acquired by Starbucks. The dream, though, was to open her own tea shop someday.
Over the years, Hoesktra has cultivated close relationships with tea growers around the world. Hoekstra works with about 16 direct wholesalers to source the tea at Cha Cha's.
"I can actually pick up the phone and call the farmer direct. I can ask them, 'How's that summer green tea growing?'"
Hoekstra hopes that visitors to Cha Cha's Teas will notice the difference between her tea and the kind of tea you might find at restaurants or other tea shops.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"I'm a tea drinker," Hoekstra says, motioning to her personal tumbler filled with green tea. "I've been to a lot of tea shops where I don't know if the owners actually drink tea, because the tea on their menu really doesn't taste that great."
"We're not like that. I want to make sure that I'm giving people who want to learn about the tea the best tea experience you can get."
Cha Cha's Tea.1325 Grand Avenue, #3; 602-802-7854.
Open daily 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.