Souvia Tea isn't the kind of place that commands attention, but when you visit you might not want to leave. Located in a strip mall in north Phoenix, the shop is quiet, clean, and unassuming. Its soft, sweet aromas, floor-to-ceiling tea cannisters, and myriad steeping devices kind of make walking into the shop feel like walking into a fairy tale cottage.
Owner Olivia Wingert has cultivated this experience. After she left her hometown near Frankfurt, Germany, Wingert felt overwhelmed by the fast-paced lifestyle and coffee-loving climate of the United States. She wanted to emulate the experience of village living and build a community centered around tea. As Souvia enters its tenth year as a cafe and wholesale operation, it's clear that she has succeeded.
Wingert views tea as a philosophic experience; as she puts it, making a cup of tea "requires you to be mindful. You must be present when you make it. It is a little meditation in itself."
Souvia attributes much of its success to Wingert's commitment to cultivating relationships, both with her customers and with her suppliers. The company sources tea through several importers, but have also imported directly from the producer. Wingert prefers to work with German importers, in part because the popularity of tea in Germany means higher quality selections, in part because many importers in her native country have been around for upwards of a hundred years, in part because she prefers the rigidity of European food regulations. Souvia has made a conscious effort to move towards certified organic offerings, but value transparency in sourcing above all else. "I need a tea's background. I want to know where it comes from, when it was harvested, who produced it."
A very loyal customer, Rene Eva-Haertl, recently came on board as part-owner of Souvia. This partnership will allow Wingert to focus on her other passion: Chinese Medicine. Wingert has recently moved towards supplying medicinal herbs as well as teas and tisanes, and will soon complete her degree in acupuncture and herbalism.
I must admit, when I visited Souvia I was overwhelmed by all they had to offer. Their menu features more than a 140 teas and herbal infusions, ranging from straightforward greens to the more exotic Pu-Erh to seasonal blends flavored with aromatic elements. Wingert took my complete inability to make a decision as her cue, and chose a sweet, malty black tea infused with cinnamon for me. The tea was perfectly extracted, with toasty caramel notes, a dry mouthfeel, and not a hint of astringency.
Souvia offers regular tea tastings and "Tea 101" classes. Wingert was happy to provide me with an off-the-cuff primer.
All varieties of tea - with the exception of herbals- come from the same plant (Camellia sinensis, if you wanna get fancy). It's how the leaves are processed after harvest that determines whether a tea will ultimately be classified as White, Green, Oolong, Black, or Pu-erh. Green teas are minimally processed - the leaves are dried by steam or in a pan. Black tea leaves have been left in contact with oxygen, so that they fully oxidize. Oolongs are partially oxidized, and Pu-erh teas are oxidized and fermented.
As with coffee and wine, a million different factors shape the way a tea tastes, including where it is grown, climatic conditions, soil texture, and of course, the all-important processing. "A tea can come from a particular estate - Darjeeling, for example - but seasonality can make or break a year's harvest," says Wingert.
To make better tea at home, Wingert has four simple rules.
The first? "Buy good tea. Save the teabags for puffy eyes." Wingert recommends buying whole leaf tea. Packaging is critical - look for light-proof tins rather than cardboard boxes, and make sure the leaves are sealed in airtight bags. Once opened, Wingert recommends keeping the tea away from heat, light, and moisture. The tea should last for a year or more if these conditions are met, but will slowly lose aromatics and flavor after that point.
Second, pay attention to steeping time. This will change depending on the type of tea. Souvia uses kitchen timers to avoid overextracting their tea, which draws out unpleasant tannins.
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Third, use good water. Filtered is best. and make sure to also mind the temperature.
Temperature is number four. Especially with green tea. Many of us have a habit of pouring boiling water over our poor little tea leaves; Wingert draws a vegetable analogy. "Green teas are unprocessed- the plant is still fresh, it's just been dried. Think about it as though it were lettuce; we wouldn't scrub our lettuce leaves with very hot water, they would wilt."
Souvia retails tea and steeping expertise to several Phoenix shops, including 32 Shea, Urban Bean, and Fair Trade Cafe. For more information about how to improve your tea drinking experience, a menu of their looseleaf options, or to learn about classes and tastings, visit Souvia's website.