From the birthplace of Oolong Tea, in the Fujian region of Southern China, (one of the most biodiverse regions in the world), Kuros Zahedi steeps a variety of red tea. Before being poured into tiny cups from an ornate pot, the aroma precedes the first drops of orange liquid. As the space fills with layers of earthy lushness, he says, “You can take the same tea leaves from the same tea bush and make white tea, green tea, oolong tea, fermented tea, all from the same plant.”
Serving thousands of years of tea wisdom in a cup, SAKU Tea opened a year ago within Chelsea Jepson’s Tide Lines location. Kuros Zahedi and Sandra Loeffelmann have expanded their teahouse, boasting an international menu representing some of the world’s most distinct teas. From Durban to Mumbai, their offerings create a temple of tea sacred to those who prefer leaves to beans, or their hand crafted super food latte blends of frothy perfection.
The couple met at the University of Oregon in the early 90s, and have been exploring tea and café culture ever since. So what happens when an Austrian queen of coffee meets a Persian king of tea? “I’m from Vienna, basically the coffee capital of the world, and yet I never liked coffee, I always drank tea,” Loeffelmann admitted. Amid laughter, Zahedi countered, “I always grew up drinking tea. Persians drink a lot of tea.”
Zahedi’s family drank high-quality black tea poured from a “samovar” – a highly decorated urn used throughout Russia and Iran. Tea was served in delicate glass cups, perhaps engraining a heightened appreciation for tea’s ceremony. SAKU (the “Sa” is for Sandra and the “Ku” for Kuros) celebrated Persian New Year in March with the traditional Iranian brewing process. They have since combined the renaissance of time honored tea traditions with their own modern twist.
The couple spends ample time concocting blends that speak to a variety of tea aficionados. “He’s a tea god,” Laurie Dawson joked from behind the bar. “He’s kind of up there with Lu Yu,” she elaborated. This ancient Chinese sage of tea was most well known for his definitive book on drinking, brewing and cultivating tea. The comparison is well deserved. As innovators of latte drinks that nourish the body with ingredients such as cacao, matcha and turmeric, Zahedi and Loeffelmann have begun to sell their blends to select retailers. The latte blends at SAKU are now available in bulk at the Community Food Co-op.
In their own household, Zahedi and Loeffelmann began drinking spiced turmeric milk for its health benefits, which led them to create their first blend, “Golden Chai.” “We knew it would be difficult to be commercially viable only serving traditional, high end, teas,” Zahedi says. In the coffee dominated culture of the west coast, they understood they needed a niche that could appeal to a broader demographic of palates. After months of testing, they’ve perfected six blends that are as unique and healthful as they are delicious.
The feeling of intimate connection at SAKU is evident in the easy conversation, refined decor and the loyalty of repeat customers. “In a year of being open, only three people have ever asked for Wi-Fi,” Loeffelmann attests. At SAKU, people seem compelled to interact with one another and share in their complete tea experience.
Many people are inspired to create meditative works of art while basking in the elegance of the windows facing North State Street. Behind the bar hangs watercolor paintings of past patrons. Zahedi and Loeffelmann use recycled tea leaves to create water-based paste. By boiling down spent tea leaves and then straining them to make the paste, SAKU provides the ink with fine brushes and paper on elegant wooden trays.
Laurie Dawson and her family have been devoted customers. She now occasionally helps out behind the bar. Dawson and her husband are in the class of “tea sommelier” or tea masters. “We’ve been in the tea industry for fifteen years and we do a lot of tea education. Sandra and Kuros make this place what it is,” she says as she pours another Bellingham Gold and Ruby Ginger Beet Latte. As founders of the Whatcom Tea Enthusiasts Association, the Dawson’s have lent their full support. They have hosted several events at SAKU to bring even more tea drinkers into the fold.
The “terroir” of tea, the complete environment in which it is grown, speaks volumes to any tea enthusiast. At SAKU, a cup of tea is ritual, an artful pause, where the depth and complexity of the leaves or the varying ways of preparation cause a bloom of mind and body. From the color, aroma and rainbow of flavors, to the art of tea drinking itself, a specific leaf is as fascinating as the people who grow, gather and drink it.
For more information on SAKU Tea, visit their website or check out their Kickstarter campaign here. The project can be previewed now but will go live on Friday, April 28 and will run through the month of May.