Quality Establishments // Portsmouth, Nh.
In a world of smug overstimulation, White Heron is the perfect place to warm up.
It takes a while inside White Heron before you can identify what's missing: that thick, dirty fug native to coffee shops. Despite the weather outside--clear and cold as a chilled bottle--you don't miss it. Wintry sunlight, the color of well-washed linen, falls in blocks on the blonde hardwood floor.
I have a cat-like weakness for these blocks of sunlight; I'd move to sit in one, but that would mean moving closer to the guy working with a hammer on the metal base of the front door. He swings his hammer with the gusto of John Henry, but the airy space absorbs the obtrusive sound, floats it up to the lofty white ceiling, where red and yellow crepe paper globes hang.
The expansive picture windows yield a glimpse of the building's bright turquoise exterior, saving the space from a touch of Scandinavian austerity. The color limns the room with a sense of humor, along with the early Johnny Cash tunes playing over the stereo...and, of course, the all-important ambient flavor of the patrons themselves. The ladies sitting beside me take aggressive care of each other--"You tell me when ... You need a little milk?"
Jonathan stands behind the counter, dispensing water into a rust-orange ceramic teapot. He wafts his hand over it and his head twitches slightly, inhaling the steam judiciously. Then he fills up the rest of it and brings it over to the counter, for me to see.
"This isn't technically an oolong tea.It's a Pouchong style, that's more on the green side. This tea will take a few minutes for the leaves to unfold. So this wants pretty hot water. That's a lot of it...thinking about what does the tea want, to bring out the best flavor? Each one is an individual leaf. It smells great. Each leaf will open up, and that's where the flavor comes from."
Teapot, and two handleless cups that are about the size of egg-cups, are placed on an oblong block of polished wood. He carries it to our table, assesses the leaves' progress, and replaces the lid, suddenly apologetic.
"I'm not trying to be fussy about it. I just like to know what I'm drinking."
Jonathan was 19 when he chose the Coast Guard over college. He acquitted himself well enough in boot camp that he had options for his first station assignment--passing on assignments in California and Hawaii, he ended up in Tokachibuto, a remote Japanese fishing village 45 minutes away from the nearest small city you can find on a map.
"I think National Geographic had something to do with that."
He says this as if admitting a joke at his own expense.
The world opened up to him in that village, starting with its nearness to the ocean. Jonathan was born in Portsmouth and had grown up in coastal towns (Northhampton, Nh. and South Berwick, Me.), but he'd never lived so close to the water.
"Here in New England, you go out to the coast and it's all these big houses. But there, you're looking for miles and you're seeing no houses on the water. It's just nature, and these glass fishing balls washed up on the beach."
"Something about the whole culture sort of hooked me. I learned to speak Japanese, I had a Japanese girlfriend..."
I interrupt him to clarify--he learned to speak Japanese in a year?
"Well, not fluently."
While he explored the cities and learned through conversation with locals, Jonathan didn't actually frequent many tea houses. He did, however, buy his first Japanese teapot, the kind with the single handle, along with measures of Sencha and Genmaicha. The act felt special, moved by a tide of nostalgia for the occasions when he got to make cups of tea to share with his grandmother. It wasn't fancy tea, but the small aspects of it--the colorful illustrations on the Celestial Seasonings box, the patience and care that went into a ritual as simple as boiling water--made it a departure from the everyday.
That departure took on new significance in Japan:
"I think the tea thing started for me because I started karate."
As the ennui of military life set in, Jonathan was advised by his commanding officer to look up a gentleman in town named Dr. Hanashi.
"We would go and train one-on-one with this very, very nice man, and his wife would bring out coffee or tea, and little cakes, or things like that. It was this nice, quiet setting, and then we'd go back and practice karate."
He pronounces the word in a way I'm prone to make fun of. The reason it sounds affected, he explains, is because it's correct. "Karate" is actually a combination of two words for "empty" and "hand." The American pronunciation drains the word of its poetry.
After two years in the coast guard, Jonathan moved to the west coast, intending to study Japenese language and culture at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. The complications with being an American student at a Canadian university quashed that idea, and he settled in Seattle for the next five years. It just happened that there was a teahouse right around the corner from where he lived. He found himself there almost every day, and ended up exploring the many other places of its kind around the city.
From there, he moved to Portland, Or. (specification unsolicited, as New Englanders always do) and found the Tao of Tea, another tea house run by a native of New Delhi. After getting to know it as a customer, he ended up leaving a well-paying waiter position at a high-end restaurant to take over a teahouse kitchen position from a friend who was leaving town.
"At one point, it just took over. I stepped into the world of tea and have yet to escape!"
As one might imagine, coffee and tea are pretty well polarized in this lumbering, lobstering part of the world. Coffee is the bracing stimulant of choice, while tea is typically relegated to English-style tea rooms with stacked silver trays.
Fussy, in other words. Which may be why Jonathan feels the need to explain that that's not what he's about. That doesn't mean he's above the idea of a tea room--folks have asked him about it.
"We might do it. But we'll do it our way. And I don't even know what that means yet."
He envisions a step out of the expected tea experience, where the intensity is something to have fun with, rather than get over-serious (fussy?) about.
Jonathan concedes that peddling tea is a more delicate business than coffee. Leaving aside the perception of it as a thing that requires attentive appreciation, there's the greater yield that a pound of tea offers, compared to a pound of coffee. The turnover is slower. And frankly, most people are afraid of it.
"Somebody walked up to me at a market one time and said 'Oh, where do I get an egg timer for my tea?' "I said 'Why do you need an egg timer?' "They said 'Oh, I went to a shop, and they said I needed to time my tea.'
"I said 'How do they know how you like your tea?'"
Jonathan has never been to a Teavana shop; he sounds half apologetic about it, and half relieved. Certainly, he has enough to do running his own concern, to keep him from worrying about how the competition runs theirs. As engaged as he is in our conversation, his eyes flick regularly toward the counter, like a mother watching her child in a playpen. Not so much out of worry, but out of care. He says he's entirely used to coming in for office hours, only to jump behind the counter and help serve customers, find that they are running low on soup, and end up putting in a full day in the kitchen instead.
"There are a few people I know here and there that talk about working for themselves. Working for yourself, for someone else--anything is hard work. But if somebody really wants to do something, it's doable. It's just a matter of whether you are willing to do what's necessary to get there? To make it work.
"I think sometimes the difference between people that succeed at things, and people that stop short, is the former sometimes just have no fear. Even when they should.
"I wouldn't necessarily say I have no fear. I don't know...I'm stubborn?"
He laughs self-deprecatingly.
"I remember even my dad at first was saying, 'I don't know...it's kind of risky.' I said 'Well, dad, I'm going to do it, so... why don't you just wish me luck?' I just decided that failure was not an option.
"I guess I'm stubborn in that sense, if I want to do something, and believe it can be done."
Jonathan says, without any irony, that the ever-changing demands of his business are one of the things that makes life interesting for him. Interesting--that's really the only word for whatever entices us away from perfectly stable jobs to juggle the elements of our desire in a state of hot, chaotic urgency, like Jonathan had to when he left his upscale server job to hustle in the kitchen at the Tao of Tea.
"It was me and Dorji, from Nepal, to do all the food for the whole week. It was crazy because we only had a three-burner electric stove. We'd be making big five-gallon pots of chana masala, also aloo burata, aloo gobi, 20 orders for chai..."
These, he says, were each made individual in their own little pot, customized to the taste of each individual order--more ginger, less cinnamon. So it was a little..."
He smiles tolerantly.
"Frustrating. However, a good exercise in..."
I suggest "making it work" as a end to his sentence, referencing his remark from a moment ago.
We're drinking a tea grown in Guatemala, a country known better for its coffee. This is the only certified organic tea grown there, Jonathan tells me. It has a milder taste than I'm used to, in black tea. He shows me the inside of the canister--it's fine as glitter, with a dull, tarnished golden sheen where the light hits it.
This tea, he tells me, doesn't need too much time to brew, on account of its fine cut. And the cut can vary from fine to coarse, to leaves rolled into little buds or allowed to dry into crinkly curls like wood shavings.
"The cut basically relates to the quality of the tea. Tea bag cut, or fannings, are kind of the lowest grade and cheapest teas. You can range from fannings or broken orange pekoe, to elegant long-leaf tea. The grade has a large bearing on cost but, more importantly, on flavor."
This occasions a brief side trail to correct a common misconception--one that, I imagine, he hears a lot. Orange pekoe, he tells me, refers not to the taste of the tea--"that's one of those great American myths"--but to the golden tips on the tea leaves.
The proper name of a tea is usually coded in a longish acronym, each letter referring to another layer of quality.
"Like our Nepali Black Gold is a S...SF..."
He pauses for a moment; then, like a child reciting his address to a police officer, it just rolls off his tongue:
"Super Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe Grade One."
This, he acknowledges, is what makes tea a more delicate business than coffee. Roasting coffee is variations on the same spectrum--someone can walk in, ask for the darkest or lightest or what have you, and leave happy. Tea has not only much greater diversity, but also has a specificity; consumers know which ones they like and if you don't have, for example, the smoky lapsang souchong they're searching for, they'll just leave with a polite thank-you.
Tea, Jonathan says, is more like a relationship. One moment, Jonathan compares it to his years as a waiter ("when you're waiting tables, you talk to different parties in a different way"), then to family ("you probably don't talk to your mom the way you talk to your sister").
"Two different teas, you can treat them the same way, you can use the same temperature water, you can brew them the same amount of time, and you can probably get a decent cup of tea.
"But if you want to take the time to get to know the tea, and just experiment with it, you can find a way to bring out... let's just say jasmine green tea. Some people don't like it because they say jasmine tea is bitter."
"The question is," Jonathan says, "is jasmine tea bitter?"
He looks at me hintingly.
"I could brew some."
The first thing Jonathan does, after spooning the silvery buds into the filter basket, is hold the pot under the sink and run cold water over it. He waits ten seconds, maybe fifteen, then pours it out and follows it with steaming water, directly on top of the tea leaves. This is something I've always heard you're not supposed to do--according to advice I've always ignored, green tea should be gently introduced into the hot water, rather than poured directly onto.
"I don't do that with all teas, but I do that with green tea. All I did was just a short, cold soak. The rest of it will be up to the hot water and the brewing. I wasn't even fussy about measurement."
"A lot of guides might say all green teas should be brewed for 2-3 minutes, or they might say 3-4 minutes. They might say '1 teaspoon of tea is good for 8-10 ounces of water, to be brewed for 3-4 minutes.' But one of these would be way too strong; one might not taste like anything. I think that's what makes it kind of fun."
He compares the tea we're brewing, Jasmine Green, to another, called Jade Peaks Green. He has me smell it--it's sweet, like the first time you cut your grass in spring. Another, from the Makaibari tea estate (the last independently owned one in Darjeeling), shows little bits of green and gold and silver among its fluffy leaves.
"So it's a higher grade tea. It'll take a little bit more of this tea to make a stronger cup. Gunpowder, the same dry measurement, would bring completely different results."
He pours a drop from the teapot into each of our cups. It tastes like warm water, if you sipped it in a ladies' lounge.
The highest grade jasmine tea, he explains, is usually not made by putting dried flowers in with the tea...though that is sometimes done, and you can see the white tips rolled in among the pearls. Rather, they lay the fresh tea leaves out to dry over a blanket of blossoms, so that they absorb the fragrance as they cure.
It may be this account that changes the experience for me, as we take another sip. This time, I'm not looking for that hearty sucker-punch of earthy sourness, that heavy weight on my tongue that guarantees brighter eyes and better digestion are soon to come. It's my nose, instead, that comes alive. The sip is as much an experience of smell as of taste.
"Tea can be as simple or as complicated as you'd like. That's where the fun is for me."
He adds, again,
"It's nothing to be afraid of."
After seven years in the northwest, Jonathan wanted to be near family, and he still wasn't interested in going to school to sniff out a possible career. He left Portland, Oregon with the money from the sale of his house and a plan to start his own business in tea, to keep doing what he loved doing.
"My only qualification for it was I know how to work hard, and I had a little bit of money to start up with, and I knew what I wanted to do. That's all I really had to start with."
Tea was a specialty business even on the west coast; in New England, he estimates, coffee drinkers outnumber tea drinkers about twenty to one.
"Here, in 2005, it felt like tea drinkers are few and far between!"
There's not a trace of weariness or cynicism in Jonathan's voice as he claims,
"It's a lot of work...but!"
He straightens his already perfect posture.
"I'm always good for a challenge."
He laughs, remembering how his ambitious opening line of 24 different teas felt doable, in comparison to other tea houses he'd visited.
"At the Tao of Tea, we had 200 varieities. I knew that was a little much for New England. But in terms of what people are looking for, I'd rather say yes to more people."
He took his teas to Scott Nelson at Portsmouth Health Food, a friend since Jonathan was a teen trying out vegetarianism.
"I didn't know anything about doing wholesale--it was just kind of well, make it happen, right? So I asked if he'd be interested in trying White Heron Tea and he said, 'Sure, how many varieties do you have?' I said '24...?'"
His voice squeaks, even in recounting the conversation.
"And he said 'Okay, I'll take all of them.' He took all the Republic of Tea cans that were on a fixture, put them somewhere else, and he put me on their fixture. A good guy."
Jonathan did a lot of demos, both at the store and eventually at the Portsmouth farmers' market. He'd heard that they needed a beverage vendor; nevertheless, tea was a hard sell at first.
"It was hard just to get people to come over to my booth. I started doing some tea tasting and samples, I started selling tea by the cup, and then selling our chai by the cup, and then our iced teas, later some food, things like that."
Whatever misgiving Jonathan felt about his business acumen, in those early years, it was anchored by what he'd learned from a brief stint working for Patagonia in the early '90s: that high-end stuff will sell when people see that it's built to last.
And the restaurants he appreciated most, both as a customer and as an employee, were those that thrived on creativity, and embraced movement and change with their local environment. Contrarily, this is the very thing that he saw kept them anchored in their neighborhood. And it was in that spirit that Jonathan finally branched into coffee.
"It started with friends, and couples--one person would want a cup of chai or tea and a breakfast wrap, the other person would just want a cup of coffee. So I thought, 'Oh, well, for the farmers' markets, it would be fun to start roasting a little coffee.'
"Now I think of us more as an equal opportunity caffeine experience. I feel like if we have the ability to make great stuff across the board, let's do it."
After their first two years next door to the broadcasting station for Portsmouth Community Radio (a lively location that sometimes drowned out customers' orders with live in-house performances), White Heron moved down the street into their current location. When Jonathan describes it as a melting pot, he's not necessarily talking about the clientele. The building's vast airiness shrinks in the perspective of all that's done there, beyond the mere hosting of customers--blending tea, roasting coffee, storing product, cooking soup, and baking everything from sandwich foccaccias to the English muffins they just began offering. These are in an entirely different category from the six-to-a-package ones I remember from childhood. They are walnut-brown and have a surprising heft, not to mention a distinctive taste that makes them more than a vehicle for butter--sort of nutty, with a salty-sweet thing that makes you more perceptive of the tea you drink alongside.
Other, larger innovations include customer tutorials on how to blend their own tea--plans are already underway to renovate the counter space, to accommodate it. Jonathan would like to have special after-hours events, "something to really connect with people, and find out what they're looking for.
"Everybody thinks they know what they know about something. Which is fine. But a lot of people are curious about other things. We can teach ourselves to make a perfect, more personal cup just by making small adjustments. In the end, it's all about what you like.
"I want fun and creativity to be an element in everything we're doing here. I like to think of the possibilities."
Perhaps that's where the White Heron comes by its rare amalgam of industry and serenity. It doesn't have the frantic intensity of a Starbucks or the highbrow aloofness of an Intelligentsia; it doesn't have the Zen abstruseness or the dogged folksy vibe that exist at either end of the "tea bar" spectrum. It has a little of all of these, and something else--a sense of belonging to its place in the world, while standing out in it.
Part of the traveling life is always looking for the perfect place to get my work done. I think I may have found it.
There are people chatting with each other, people reading, and people meditatively stirring and sipping in measured time. Additionally, there are people running out, as quickly as they came in, with recyclable paper cups in their hands.
"Granted, a business needs customers," says Jonathan, "but I like the feeling of thinking of..."
He pauses, whether to reflect or for emphasis, I'm not sure.
"...people coming in here. Not looking at everyone as a customer.
"It's more like, how can I meet this person where they'd like to be met?"
The guy working on the door stands up, and gives it a test swing.
"Well," he announces, "you guys can open your doors now!"