Tea, the world’s second-most-consumed drink, after water, has been surging in popularity in the United States. The U.S. Tea Association reports that Americans consumed nearly four billion gallons in 2016, and the industry expects continuous growth of 4 to 6 percent annually in the coming years. Factors driving the increase include tea’s many health benefits, its sustainability and environmental friendliness, and its wide variety of styles and uses, which keep it feeling fresh for customers who constantly demand innovation and new products.
Seattle’s damp, frequently gray weather is reminiscent not only of England’s but of the climate of many tea-growing regions in Asia, so it’s no surprise that restaurants in the city have lately struck an irreverent balance between Eastern tea culture—careful curation and delicate steepings—and the nostalgic British tradition of afternoon tea, plucking the best from both worlds and giving them a tipsy twist. And thanks to niche online importers (like The Lost Tea Company, which sources tiny amounts of high-quality leaves from family farms in China), growers (like Minto Island Tea Company, in Oregon, and its counterparts in Hawaii, who are farming certified-organic tea plants), and even Starbucks, whose lattes have flooded the country—and Instagram—with “superfood” matcha green tea, Americans of all backgrounds are prepared to embrace the tea trend. Here’s how five Seattle bars and restaurants are breathing new life into the ancient drink.
Creative Cocktails in the Afternoon
Just off the Kimpton Alexis Hotel’s lobby sits an elegant, split-level space called the Author’s Corner, where the restaurant presents themed meals like the weekend-only Afternoon Delight. Business in the Author’s Corner has grown 30 percent since this brunchy tea tasting menu was introduced in late January, with Sunday seatings in higher demand than Saturdays. The experience can involve up to 18 seasonal courses, with tea pairings that move from lighter styles to more full-flavored ones as the meal progresses, from subtle white tea to Earl Grey with local blueberries. Diners can also elect to have cocktail pairings, sipped from fancy glasses just like the tea. The drinks change as frequently as the food, but of note was the Fizzy Fez, a blend of Steven Smith Fez mint tea, Copperworks Gin from Seattle, lemon verbena, and egg white, which was paired with a curried chicken salad tartine.
Over at Belltown’s new tiki bar, Navy Strength, co-owner and cocktail powerhouse Anu Elford is exploring global drinks culture, with a different region featured in the Travel section of her menu every six months. Now through September, Elford’s Indian heritage inspires the beverages, which include an afternoon tea–themed happy hour, from 4 to 6 pm, with a daily punch special that’s served with a sandwich. A recent iteration featured tropical punch—peat-barreled Big Gin from Seattle’s Captive Spirits, matcha powder, mint, lime, and pineapple—alongside barbecue duck sliders on Hawaiian rolls.
Champagne has also edged its way into the monthly ticketed afternoon teas that Rachael Coyle offers at her chic subway-tiled and chandeliered Coyle’s Bakeshop in Greenwood. Guests can opt to start with a glass of Champagne, often served with a float of St-Germain or violet liqueur, which kicks off eight dainty courses of savories, scones, pastries, and desserts, paired with three or four teas. The concise yet comprehensive tea selection ranges from floral oolong to earthy pu-erh, showing that Coyle knows her way around tea leaves almost as well as she does around a bakery.
Nocturnal High Tea
When bar manager Thanny Bradford created the signature Matcha Mule at The Forge Lounge downtown more than five years ago, he was way ahead of the tea trend. By far the bar’s best seller—many customers order it without looking at a menu first—the drink is an energizing, lightly bitter twist on a Moscow Mule that combines dry, spicy Bedford’s Ginger Beer from Port Angeles with lime and matcha-infused vodka and is served in a highball glass to show off its color. The Matcha Mule has remained so popular that it’s also on the menu at The Forge’s new Pioneer Square sibling, The Sovereign. There, drinkers can approximate a nocturnal boozy high tea by ordering appropriate finger food, like deviled eggs and breads slathered in smoked sardine butter or vegetarian faux gras made from walnuts, mushrooms, and lentils.
The Panama Hotel, more than 100 years old, is a designated national historic landmark in the Japanese quarter of Seattle’s Chinatown-International District. The hotel’s throwback teahouse takes loose leaves very seriously—it’s also the rare example that stocks a limited bar. The simple cocktails are made even better by the addition of tea. For instance, a Soju Martini is mellowed by an oceanic Japanese green tea. A pot of dark, roasty oolong—suitable for multiple steepings—plus a shot of whiskey can make for a deeply satisfying boilermaker if combined, or, if sipped separately, a bracing drink that’s an uplifting alternative to a beer and a shot.
Adam H. Callaghan is the editor of Eater Seattle and a freelance writer and editor specializing in food, fermentation, beverage, and travel. He hails from Maine and lives in Seattle.