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Tea stakes claim in coffee mug land

Bread and Brew
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Jonny Grass relaxes over a cup of loose leaf tea at Townshend’s Alberta Street Teahouse in Northeast Portland. The cafe is a tea retailer and wholesaler, offering 84 tea varieties as well as herbal infusions.

From the Temple of Cosmic Reflections in Lan Su Chinese Garden to the Tea Court at the Heathman Hotel, the ceremonies of tea are alive and well in Portland.

There's a new generation of tea lovers returning the focus to tea itself, shaving centuries of mystique and concentrating on quality.

At Townshend's on Northeast Alberta Street, grad students with laptops and artists with hippie hair order from a tea menu that has 84 varieties - black tea, green tea, oolong, chai. That's not counting a separate menu for herbal infusions that may help with headaches, cramps, low energy and more.

Cubby holes hold numbered jars so that you can sample with your nose before you decide. The first thing you need to know about tea is that your sense of smell is very important.

Townshend's was founded in 2006 with the opening of the Alberta shop, and has two additional locations, one in Bend and one inside Whole Foods in the Hollywood district. Townshend's is also a tea retailer and wholesaler, but with a focus on the café experience.

Ordering tea here is different from ordering it in a typical coffee shop, where you're handed a bag and a cup of hot water. Here, they measure loose leaves and brew it for you. It takes a little longer, and this is the second thing you need to know: good tea takes time.

Tea can be contemplative, subtle, multifaceted - in school, it would have been the smart, shy kid. The locations of many of Portland's tea specialists reflect this character, with shops squirreled away in unlikely places.

Jasmine Pearl hides in a maze created by one-way streets, Sandy Boulevard and Interstate 84. Inside a former bakery - a gorgeous building with a tower and a row of white brick arches - this is mainly a wholesale operation, but it's also a great place to expand your knowledge of tea.

The tea-smelling station here is fun and easy to use, with color coding, the tea's name, and pricing on each canister. Better still, owner Chuck Bauman will personally brew you a sample of any variety you choose, and talk you through the process.

I was immediately struck by the aromas of something called sticky rice Pu'er, a traditional tea from Yunnan Province, China, scented with an herb that is strangely reminiscent of sweet and floral sticky rice. A few minutes later I had a cup in my hands.

It's invigorating, complex, and seemed to dredge some half-formed memories from the back of my mind. I left buzzing.

The next thing you learn about tea is that it can get you high.

It can also cure a winter bummer. On a bitingly cold day, I found my way to Foxfire Tea, in the back of the Ford Building on lower Southeast Division Street. Owners Quinn and Katherine Losselyong do everything themselves, from selecting teas to driving a delivery van, but they're happy to brew you a cup in the tasting room.

For me, Katherine recommended the Imperial Feng Qing, a smooth black tea with an almost floral fragrance - a natural mood elevator.

Chai, the spiced Indian-style tea, is also salubrious on a cold day. At Tea Chai Te, in an upstairs apartment on Northwest 23rd, you can choose from 15 different hand-blended chais, ranging from sweet to spicy. The café includes a funky upstairs balcony, and, with their penchant for unusual spaces, the owners recently opened a second location in a red caboose in Sellwood.

You don't have to look very hard to find Steven Smith teas - the Portland company's teas are available nationally, most notably at Williams-Sonoma. But to get to the Steven Smith Teamaker tasting room, on Northwest Thurman Street, I recommend a compass and astrolabe.

Steven Smith is the godfather of tea in Oregon. He was a founder of Stash Tea, and then of Tazo, which is now the property of Starbucks. His pleasantly appointed tasting room includes a big window where you can watch tea being packaged. It feels like a winery tasting room, and employs a vocabulary to match: Big Hibiscus is the 'cabernet of teas,' while others are astringent, jammy, vegetative, nutty, toasty, buttery.

Like wine, tea can be a lifelong passion, and it takes time to get to know it. In fact, as a civilization we've been working on it for more than three thousand years.

The last thing you learn about tea is that you still have more to learn.

Townshend's Alberta Street Teahouse, 2223 N.E. Alberta St., 503-445-6699, www.townshendstea.com

• Jasmine Pearl, 724 N.E. 22nd Ave., 503-236-3539, www.thejasminepearl.com

• Foxfire Teas, 2505 S.E. 11th Ave. No. 105, 503-288-6869, foxfireteas.myshopify.com

• Tea Chai Te, 734 N.W. 23rd Ave., 503-228-0900, and 7983 S.E. 13th Ave., 503-432-8747, www.teachaite.com

• Steven Smith Teamaker, 1626 N.W. Thurman St., 503-719-8752, www.smithtea.com

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