Although Portland is known as a popular pilgrimage place for coffee enthusiasts, this weird, Bigfoot and alien-loving, farm-to-table, artisan-friendly, rose-growing paradise also houses some very fine tea establishments. The City’s unofficial slogan is “Keep Portland Weird,” and although I didn’t experience any Bigfoot sightings while I was here, I did have an unusual amount of great tea in Portland.
In no particular order, these are six places I’d encourage you to visit the next time you’re in the City of Roses and looking to get tea drunk.
Lan Su Chinese Garden Teahouse
Operated by the Tao of Tea, a visit to the Lan Su Chinese Garden tea house is worth it for the view alone. Be sure to get a seat on the second floor, preferably near a window, where you can gaze over the pond filled with fat lily pads. Looking inwards, sit back and enjoy the atmosphere, with Tang dynasty decor and occasional live traditional music.
This location focuses on Chinese tea culture, with a huge list of green, black, oolong, pu’erh and blend teas. I recommend either going for the gaiwan or gong fu tea service. A laid-back version of tea ceremony that really makes you appreciate every aspect of the tea. Ask your server to go through it with you.
Steven Smith Teamaker Tasting Room
Steven Smith is a bit of a legend in Portland. In fact, he’s one of the most famous tea purveyors in the world. He was involved in creating Tazo Teas, Stash Teas, and now Steven Smith Teamakers is his legacy tea company. They’re based in Portland produce some fine, fine teas. I’d even say they’re leading the charge for tea innovation in the city.
Much like how gastro pubs and breweries offer experimental beers on tap, here at Smith Teas you can find experimental teas on tap, including some smooth nitro-filled bubbly teas.
The use of nitro is interesting. CO2 bubbles give that harder ‘pop’ bubble feel, but nitro bubbles are smaller and give a much smoother, almost Guinness-like texture to the tea.
If you arrive before 3:30 p.m., you can catch a glimpse of the teaworks in action, with tea packing happening in the room just beyond the tea bar. Through the windows, you can see how tea is processed and packaged.
Order a flight of tea from the tea bar and let your host tell you about each one. They’ve also got these great little info cards they stick in your flight. They’re really doing this service well.
A beautiful flight of teas, all different colours. Tea in Portland knows what's up!
If you don’t have the time to make it out to Smith Teamakers, Stumptown Coffee locations throughout the city carry Smith Teas and make it easy to grab. Some locations also have their tea on tap.
Umami Cafe at Portland’s Japanese Garden
If your city has a Japanese Garden, I promise you I will find it. This absolutely beautiful spot combines a traditional Japanese garden, modern tea service, and gorgeous architecture that blends new and old.
The Umami Cafe building is a gorgeous, light-filled space designed by Tokyoite professor and architect, Kengo Kuma. Here the tea comes from Jugetsuyo, a traditional Japanese tea company that’s been operating since the 19th century.
At the Umami Cafe, you’ll get a high aesthetic experience for your money, and the prices are reasonable. About $12-$14 USD for a tea set, including your tea plus a paired sweet. Ask what the seasonal sweet is. They change with the seasons.
Tea Chai Te
The founders started Tea Chai Te as a college project, and have grown it into an established local presence. They sell more than 100 types of tea, and have a nice choice of bubble tea offerings. Their NW23rd location that I visited also had kombucha on tap.
Their Sellwood neighbourhood converted caboose spot is also very Portlandia and hits all the right hipster notes.
Behind the Museum Café
Tucked in behind the Portland Art Museum on SW 10th avenue, Behind the Museum Café’s specialty is Japanese tea and treats with a twist. This is the place to go if you want to get great Japanese tea and sweets without leaving downtown Portland.
I’d like to recommend the savoury Wasabi Popcorn, made in-house, organic, and super tasty. The savoury treat makes a nice pairing with an iced mugicha on a hot day. Mugicha is Japanese barley tea. They also serve houjicha (Japanese tea roasted over charcoal), genmaicha (brown rice tea), and sencha (traditional Japanese green tea).
Unique menu items to try while you’re there include the houjicha brownie and houjicha latte. You just don’t see average places experimenting as much with using Japanese tea in baking. When you’re there be sure to ask what sweets are in season. The owner used to teach Japanese cooking in San Francisco, and everything they make is excellent and authentic.
The cozy tables and floor to ceilings windows with lots of sun also make this a great place to sit and read or work on your laptop for a while. If I lived in Portland, this would be my regular hangout.
Portland’s International Rose Test Garden
Who would have thought Portland would be so good at growing roses? Its warm, dry summers and cool, rainy winters apparently make the perfect bed for the thorny if beautiful flowers.
The International Rose Test Garden was created in 1917, and is free to enter. Originally it was built to help preserve European rose species people feared might be lost during the WWI bombings. Since then, people have called it the “City of Roses,” and you’ll find no shortage of souvenir shops in this bucolic wonderland selling postcards that say exactly that.
It may seem like an oddball place to go looking for tea, but in the many shops surrounding the world-famous International Rose Test Garden, you’ll find stands hawking Portland Rose Tea, made with the famous buds. It’s unique to Portland, so why not?
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