Mobile food has always intrigued me. There is something so fabulous about opening up shop on wheels and traveling to share your creations with the world. After secretly wishing for a tea truck in Philadelphia for over a year, I was thrilled when Melange Tea Cart decided to roll into the City of Brotherly Love and share tea with passersby.
As I approached the truck, the vibrant orange cloth seemed to welcome me as it waved in the wind. Tea aficionado and owner/operator of the Melange Tea Cart, Boris Ginsburgs, greeted me as I browsed his incredible selection of tea. As I read his thoughtful tea descriptions that referenced origin, color, name, steep time and flavor, my inner tea nerd rejoiced to see that he was truly passionate about educating customers about their tea. Listening to him interact with customers, I was so pleasantly surprised to hear him excitedly share details about their selection and recommend future steeps.
Intrigued to learn more about his wonderful truck and love of tea, I asked Boris a few questions and graciously answered each and every one with incredible detail.
But before I leave you to sip and soak in Boris' wise words and insight into the tea truck world, let me recommend that you follow @MelangeTea on twitter to learn about their teas, location and hours.
An inside look at Melange Tea Cart, Boris' favorite teas, how he chooses his tea, his thoughts on Philly as a "tea city" and much more:
When & Why Did You Decide To Share Your Love Of Tea Through Your Fabulous Cart?
Yumiko and I had talked about a food cart once or twice, but only as much as any married couple discusses possibilities, daydreams, 'wouldn't it be nice', etc. In December of 2009 we happened to stumble into an
opportunity to acquire a working food cart in an established location at Drexel, and we pounced on it. For maybe a month or so, we kicked around a number of ideas about what to do with the cart, different foods we could prepare and serve, identities we could build. Tea was the perfect answer for us.
From a practical standpoint, a tea cart is a devious form of genius. Most street vendors put in enormously long hours behind the scenes to run their business, and the overhead expenses are pretty crazy; in actuality, carts are not a very successful business model. Running a tea cart is, in comparison, a remarkably easy affair, the labor can easily be managed by the two of us, while allowing us to maintain active social and personal lives. We also believed that doing something "different" would have the best chance of success, and gives us the best chance in the long run of building our identity up and leading to something bigger.
Relative to "normal" food carts, our workload is infinitely less, and therefore we can focus most intently on presenting the highest-quality offerings possible at the lowest possible price. This is the center of our approach. One of the reasons we've been unhappy at other jobs we've had is simply that one could not be *proud* of what one was doing to earn a living; we wanted to ensure that we could be proud of our cart, and serving something healthy, made as close to perfection as we can manage, and affordable to one and all... that seemed worth doing.
Is There One Particular Tea That You're Excited To Share With Philadelphians (that they might not otherwise know of)?
I think what we've been most excited about, actually, is the ability to offer single-origin teas to our customers. Blends are commonplace and, to us, a bit boring - English Breakfast certainly has its place in our hearts (still the tea we drink most in our daily lives), but it's exciting to give people the chance to separate out the parts, and start to explore the Keemuns, Assams, Ceylons, Kenyans, and so on, that make up the blends with which they are so familiar. It's wonderful to educate our customers - it's very common for most customers to be surprised there is more than one Darjeeling!
Allowing people to explore the varietals lets them develop their palate, learn what 'base' flavors they most enjoy, and gives them a footing upon which to launch into exploring the possibilities of scented teas, tea blends, and so on. It's incredibly gratifying to have customers who, a few weeks ago, were ordering "something strong and dark", and are now talking about preferring a Yunnan in the morning and a Ceylon in the afternoon because of their different finishes. The more they learn, hopefully, the more they can appreciate how much effort we put into what we do, and we hope they will continue their tea journey with us for a long time to come.
Now that autumn has finally arrived we can get away from the light, bright teas of summertime and start enjoying dark, warm, robust, full-bodied teas:
In the morning, a nice cup of one of the darker Assam teas (preferably CTC), steeped to its fullest (without oversteeping, of course), with honey and milk. The bold flavor base of the Assam is a great wake-up, and filled out with the milk and honey makes a fine 'breakfast in a cup' for those of us who don't eat breakfast.
Towards the afternoon, right now I'm very much in love with tea from the Uva Highlands of Sri Lanka - it's a fascinating variation on the traditional toasty warmth of a Ceylon tea, with a brisk, almost minty-cool finish. I think I love it because it's always exciting to find a new taste, and it was definitely a new taste to me on first try.
At night, I've been totally into the Keemun these past few weeks, since we got a particularly good batch of a Broken Orange Pekoe from one of our suppliers. Beautiful clear colors, a perfect balance of perky astringency and warm wooded flavors, and one of the smoothest finishes I've ever experienced in a 'standard' tea. Wonderful, wonderful tea for my all-night research sessions.
Those are the favorites for "the three cups of the day". The other two we'll call specials, as they are for special occasions only and not something we enjoy regularly:
I found a fabulous Tie-Guan-Yin (Kuan Yin Oolong) that I've been enjoying immensely recently - exquisite colors, complex but smooth flavors, and one of the most remarkable feelings I've ever gotten from a tea, totally defying verbal description. I've said to people that it's something like the feeling one gets from a pure fruit juice, particularly after an illness, when one can actually feel the nutrients entering the bloodstream and a wave of vitality spreads through one's system - it's something like that... but so, so much better.
And for an ultra-special cup, there is this a tea I stumbled across two years ago called Panda Pearls White Tea. White downy tea leaves are rolled into Gunpowder-like pellets, seemingly intertwined from both lightly- and medium-oxidized leaves, giving them a black-and-white look to them, hence the name. I haven't had a cup of this in about a year but can still remember the color, aroma, and sensation like it was a minute ago. Absolutely remarkable tea that I plan on having again on New Year's to celebrate our first year with the cart.
Do You Think That Philadelphia Has Potential To Become A "Tea Lover's" City?
I'm not sure that the enjoyment of tea has as much to do with a city, so much as it has to do with the tea that is offered thereto. I do believe that there is something universal about tea: the groups of humans that have enjoyed it for countless generations are about as diverse as one can possibly imagine, from the silken-robed nobles of a sixth century Chinese court, to yak-furred horse-mounted Mongolians crossing the Gobi in the seventh century, to the powder-wigged merchants of eighteenth century United States, to the twentieth century tea farmer and his family in the sun-baked hills of East Africa... it simply boggles the mind how tea, above almost all other things, is so enjoyed by so many people in such vastly different circumstances.
That being said, the only thing that has hampered tea's growth is the one thing that almost always distorts and twists wonderful things -commercialism. Tea and coffee hit Europe at about the same time, but the coffee was honest (from all accounts), while the tea was not. Tea was easily adulterated, weighed down with iron shavings, had its leaves artificially dyed with poisonous compounds, mixed with all kinds of leaves other than tea, and unfortunately practices like this were quite commonplace in China in the initial rush to sell as much tea to the European ships as possible. It took several decades before the practices were weeded out as the Europeans learned to more intelligently judge the tea they were being offered, and it was only because the British had already sunk so much investment into the trading of tea that they bothered to work all this out, long after the other European nations had simply given up on tea entirely. But the damage had been done - the public suspected tea, and were wary of it, in nearly every European nation besides the U.K., hence coffee being the preferred drink on most of the continent. A similar thing happened in the United States, when early shipments of green tea were discovered to be fraudulent, causing a consumer backlash preventing the tea trade's solid establishment here.
Tea in America additionally suffered a unique setback. Boston, New York, and Philadelphia were, in fact, "tea cities" with very well-established tea cultures in the late 1700s, but this disappeared almost overnight because of the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution. Tea became associated with British aristocracy and was therefore shunned for a few generations. Since that time, there have been occasional attempts to reintroduce tea as a national beverage, but in all cases, companies focused more on their image, on their marketing, and forgot to actually select good tea, and make it properly - while temporary successes were enjoyed, this almost always led to well-deserved failures.
Let's put it this way - when tea fails in America, it's certainly not the fault of tea. It has always been the fault of merchants not taking the time to do it right, and price it reasonably, and select and serve it diligently at all times. We hope to apply this basic philosophy to our business and see if we can't save tea, before it is further swept up the way of coffee and becomes a completely industrial, over-commercialized shadow of its former self.
How Do You Choose Your Teas For The Cart?
The first step is buying teas from different sources - you never pick a single supplier and think you've found a 'one stop shop'. We will either 'go on a hunt' or 'just browse'. Going on a hunt means we choose something we're going to deliberately explore, and get variations on that form from various sources for comparison - so, for example, we may order several different presentations of Longjing from various places, to compare them all side-by-side. Just browsing means we're testing a single supplier by ordering a range of teas from them and comparing them to determine the supplier's tastes, abilities, and conscientiousness.
The next step is graded preparation and cupping. Graded preparation is a little complicated, and we don't do it all the time - but in any tea where there is ambiguity about its preparation, or some variation in its preparation, we need to make cups side-by-side so we can see what the differences are. So, for example, let's say we get a 'Russian blend' from a supplier and the instructions say 'steep in boiling water 3-5 minutes'. We will then set up a row of three cups for each taster (our friends help us with this, sometimes against their will) - each person will get a cup steeped for 3 minutes, one that was steeped for 4 minutes, and one for 5. Then we can compare the color, aroma, and flavor of each cup and decide what we think is the best 'average' time for the tea, and will be equipped to vary the cup to the taste of our customer at the cart, if someone requests a tea to be 'bolder' or 'lighter' than its usual form.
With green and white teas, which are often unmarked with any instructions, things get more complicated, because not only do we have variations in steeping times, but water temperature is also a factor. Thus, a taster might get nine cups of a green tea - three cups that were steeped at 190 degrees for 2, 3, or 4 minutes respectively; three cups that were steeped at 180 degrees; and three cups that were steeped at 170.
Once we do all of these things, we start to form a picture of which suppliers provide the examples of certain teas that we most enjoy, and feel that we can most consistently prepare to the satisfaction of our
customers. We now have a fairly rich database of suppliers and notes on what their individual strengths and weaknesses are, and we continue to add to this with every testing session.
After that, it's the business side of things - or what I call "Lemonade Stand", in reference to an ancient computer game I used to play. Every day has its mood, and we change our menus to fit - if it's a dreary,
misty day but just after a holiday when everyone had a nice break, then you want something that's relaxing and contemplative but still cheery and light. If it's a bright chilly Monday morning during, say, Finals Week, then we know our customers will likely need something more bracing and invigorating, with lots of energy for their studies. It's about figuring out what 'the flow' is, and going with it - a game within a game all to itself, to be honest. But by compiling as much data about our environment and our customers' patterns as I can, and applying our own experiences with tea to the equation, we make careful decisions about which teas we purchase and serve for a given time. We order very small batches of tea to maximize the liveliness of the teas upon serving, so this is a very serious game that we are still learning a lot about - it is, in fact, the root of our business, and something we approach with a mixture of scientific method and raw intuition.