Favorite Tea Places in the Twin Cities

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La Societe du The

I am a tea drinker. Perhaps in some minor, passive rebellion against my coffee drinking parents, I’ve really taken to tea as my beverage of choice. It may be that I drink too much of it. It may not have as much caffeine as coffee, but it does have enough, and it may be an issue for me if I don’t get my infusion in the morning. I’m not picky about the types; I enjoy green, black, oolong, all of them, provided they’re properly prepared, of course. See my entry on the TeaSource. Okay, okay, maybe I’m a bit of a snob, but it seems that a lot of people have been coming to tea themselves lately. In the past, I’ve often found American tea choices lacking; Christopher Hitchens may have been a bit of a blowhard, but his thoughts on American tea, traditionally, at Slate is spot on. As we slowly evolve ourselves into a society more aware and knowledgeable about the proper way to have tea, however, I’ve been finding more and more spots to enjoy some around the Twin Cities. Here are a few of my favorites places to stock up on some loose leaf teas. Especially as we’re starting to get into that cold season, I’ll definitely need to supplement my supplies to keep a warm mug constantly at the ready.

Of course, I’ve mentioned the TeaSource, which has been my go to standby for years now, so I’ll leave it at that for now. They’ve got locations in St. Paul, St. Anthony, and Eden Prairie. Each are recommended.

La Société du Thé on Lyndale in Minneapolis is another good place to browse tea selections, and the proprietor is extremely knowledgeable. With a cozy and elegant location, it is a wonderful place to sip some tea, in both European and Asian styles. I’ve gotten some great teas here, too.

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Northern Lights Tea Company

Hidden away in the Skyways of Downtown Minneapolis, I recently discovered Northern Lights Tea Company, which is a nice place to grab some tea before work, either a hot cup of it or some loose leaf varieties. I found a few interesting teas I hadn’t seen anywhere else here.

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Mrs. Kelly’s Tea

Mrs. Kelley’s Teas have been a long standing purveyor of tea in the Twin Cities, often present at the farmers markets. I believe it was Mrs. Kelley that introduced me to good loose leaf tea They seem to specialize in tisanes, herbal teas. On occasion, they have open houses in their cool warehouse in Northeast Minneapolis.

For traditional English style teas, including afternoon teas, cream teas, and all of those elegant little feasts involving piping hot pots of tea and tall racks of little sandwiches and desserts, I think the best is Lady Elegant’s Tea Room in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood of St. Paul, off of Como. It’s been a little while since I’ve been there, but that would be a great place to make a reservation for a birthday. Not the cheapest, but worth it!

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Chatime!

For a different style of tea, it’s worth checking out Chatime in Dinkytown, a Minnesota location of a Taiwanese chain specializing in boba tea, always refreshing on hot days like we’ve been having recently. There’s also one in the Mall of America, if you feel like subjecting yourself to that (if you have to, might as well have a treat while you’re there).

A few restaurants have great tea choices, too. Some of my recommendations are Namaste Cafe on Hennepin Avenue for its chai. Normally, I prefer to keep milk or dairy substitutes far away from my teas, but here, the blends are delicious. It’s also great that you can choose soy milk instead of diary!

Wally’s in Dinkytown has some great tea, as well, black tea infused with fresh sage, mint, or other herbs. Definitely goes down well with some falafel. The house blend at the Kyber Pass restaurant in St. Paul is also a favorite, a black tea with cardamon.

Of course, we can’t forget to mention St. Paul’s Russian Tea House on University Avenue, as I discussed last year, here. Their tea is piping hot, slightly sweet due to an infusion of saffron, and super cheap!

Happy sipping!

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Events at the Library!

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It may be a bit of busman’s holiday, but I often find myself going to the various branches of the Hennepin County Library system and other local systems, even when I’m not actually scheduled to work there. What can I do when the library offers so many different programs and events throughout the year, all for free! Often cooperating with groups and businesses in the metro, its a great way to learn some new things for a very low prices.

While I’ve mentioned my love of the library book sales, of course, and there are always book clubs, writing groups, author talks, and other bookish activities, there is also a surprising variety of interesting community programs. I took an awesome zine crafting session a few years ago at the Nokomis branch, for instance. Learned some innovative, simple, and cheap techniques. A couple of months ago, the Eden Prairie branch presented a very interesting seminar on tea, in conjunction with the Tea Source. A great introduction to what has been called the world’s most affordable luxury! And what goes better with tea than books?

It is still surprising to me how much tea culture has started to take off in the US. I recall being introduced to tea drinking by my sister, back when I was rebelling against our coffee drinking parents. The loose leaf teas we discovered introduced us to a whole new world of flavors, and the information provided by the Tea Source to library patrons was invaluable, and also fun. It was a great way to introduce friends and family less well versed in the tea techniques; my parents, for instance.

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Tea blending ingredients are set out.

Divided into groups, we were each given a job at our tables to begin to learn the ways of the tea, including a person to measure the loose leaf tea choices, prepare the water, and set up the timer. We sampled three different types of basic black teas, Assam, Grand Keemun, and Ceylon, learned about the origins and the biology of the camellia sinensis plant, the only plant from which real “tea” is derived, the production of tea. There are six main varieties of tea, white, yellow, green, oolong, black, and puerh or “dark” tea. We were given pointers on the proper temperatures and steeping times, and other essential pointers on making a proper cup of tea.

We then were given the opportunity to experiment with our own blend of tea, mixing the base black tea varieties other teas or herbs like lapsang souchong (the smoked tea that tastes like a campfire, an acquired taste I quite enjoy), dried mint, ginger, among others. I mixed my Keemun with a little dried ginger and some lapsang souchong.

It seems that there is always something happening. The next week, I happened to be working up at the Northeast branch, for an energetic and exciting family orientated Asian New Year event, featuring interactive drumming, dancing, and arts, and it proved popular with the local families. Today, working at the East Lake branch, I was lucky enough to see a local group teach Aztec dancing for the branch’s Dia de los Niños event, a vibrant and exciting program. I really like that our libraries are such great venues for such community learning opportunities and entertainment, and it always amusing to see passersby find themselves listening to musical performances in the library. So unexpectedly cool! Coming up are some interesting looking bike maintenance workshops and even some 3D printing classes that look interesting; check out the current schedule here!

Tea and Books

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Half Price Books, St. Paul location

This weekend, I indulged in a time honored personal tradition, one I have not had the pleasure of in too long. As I’m still getting settled into my apartment, I noticed I lacked a sufficient tea supply and still had too many books to fit on my shelves. In order to rectify this situation, I headed across the river into St. Paul to the Highland Park neighborhood, a place I frequented often when I was attending St. Catherine University, where I stopped by two of my favorite places; the TeaSource and Half Price Books. I still love going here on those cold Minnesota nights for some warming beverages and reading material, both essential to get through the winter for me!

Near the corner of Cleveland and Ford Parkway, these are my two favorite locations for each of these shops. The TeaSource is definitely my favorite place to buy tea in the Twin Cities, and the Highland Park location is my favorite of the three stores. There’s another one in St. Anthony and over in Eden Prairie as well, but the St. Paul store is the oldest and most established.

With prices averaging half of those of a certain tea seller found at the Mall of America and owned by Starbucks, TeaSource offers a far wider and higher quality selection as well, with rare varieties from China, Taiwan, India, Sri Lanka, and Japan you can’t find anywhere else in the states. I got some Empire Keemun, a great, inexpensive Chinese black tea, the tea that started the Opium War, specifically! In addition to selling a great variety of loose leaf teas, greens, blacks, yellows, oolongs, dark teas, from the most common, daily drinks to the rarest, seasonal varieties, the TeaSource also offers to go cups, or, even better, pots of any tea they stock. Tuesdays and Thursdays, in particular, are a great time to go, as they are Sample Days offering tasting flights of a five tea varieties, based on a particular theme. Today, for instance, is Chinese New Year Teas, all for only $3! Great for sharing, and a great way to ease into the world of tea. I’ll be writing more about the TeaSource, and Chinese New Year, later this week as well.

Less than a block from the TeaSource is my favorite Twin Cities location for that used book chain, Half Price Books. I could spend hours in there, it’s true. They always have an awesome stock of interesting texts, including comics, gaming products, cookbooks, vinyl records, just about anything you want to look for. The sale annex in the basement is also great, offering deals for a whole bunch of stuff you didn’t even know you wanted to read (and some you’d been searching for for ages) at prices beaten only by library book sales. This visit, though, I was attempting to get rid of some books, not gather more. I managed to make it out with only more new one, and I was able to dispense with a haul for $20. Nice! Usually, the prices I get for books means I just trade them in for a few new titles. Made it out pretty well this time!

Not really the most active things to do, but definitely a relaxing way to pass a cold evening after work, when I did not want to do anything else.

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TeaSource, and shops along Cleveland Avenue, Highland Park

Mill City Farmers Market

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Mill City Farmers Market crowd

I had a relaxing long weekend for Memorial Day, enjoying the nice weather. I did some kayaking and enjoyed some delicious treats made for my sister’s birthday, rhubarb upside down cake, after picking up ingredients at another great sign that summer is coming here in Minnesota.

It’s always more fun shopping for the week’s dinners at one of the state’s many great farmers markets. It seems that just about every town has them and they are great for picking up interesting local produce and crafts, along with some breakfast. The Twin Cities, in particular, have a lot of great choices. While nothing beats the venerable Minneapolis Farmers’ Market for variety, choice, and affordability, the newer Mill City Farmers Market offers a bit more of a compact setting and a very interesting location in the shadows of to other great Minneapolis institutions, the Guthrie Theater and the Mill City Museum (both worth checking out and either may well be the subject of a future entry at MSP Adventure Time). Since 2006, the market has offered sustainable, local food to the old Mill district.

Arriving in the mid morning, we found the market was crowded but not impossible to navigate, with people strolling about sampling food and examining the wears of a variety of stalls offering a variety of items. A young woman played the violin as the smell of crepes and coffee filled the air, it was a fun place to people watch on a fine Minneapolis morning. Occupying the alley between the Mill City Museum and Guthrie, looking up you find yourself directly under the Gold Medal Flour sign and can enjoy your street food looking over the Mississippi River. The stalls continue into the Washburn A. Mill building,  huddling nicely under the rusty girders of the old mill factory, highlighting this wonderful use of these urban ruins. Even it such a small space, I found myself overwhelmed by sights, smells, and sound.

It seems that the Mill City Market offers a lot less produce than many farmers market and focuses on gourmet (and delicious) street food and local crafts, including baskets, artisanal cheeses, honeys, wild rice, and other such things. You can choose fresh crepes from the Spoon River stand or something eggier from the Chef Shack.  Produce is not totally lacking, though, and we picked up some great, fresh stalks of spring rhubarb, my sister’s favorite, for $5 a bundle. I also got a few pounds of bulk mung beans for use in a few curries over the next few weeks.

Of course, my sister and I had to purchase some loose leaf tea, including some very nice blends from the diverse and affordable selection of Miss Kelley’s Tea, one of the Twin Cities local tea connoisseurs. We also purchased some more loose tea, and some lychee kombucha, from the newest tea merchant in town, Verdant Tea (the subject of an entry back in February), who also have a kiosk at the Mill City Market.

The kombucha, which Verdant offers in three flavors including lychee, is a frothy concoction brewed from fermented tea, known for boasting a lot of health benefits (as well as maybe killing you if made wrong). Verdant’s brew was, to me, quite refreshing, the best I’ve had. Slightly carbonated, cold, and tangy, it makes a nice summer beverage. My sister, though, has never really formed a taste for it, its smell being honestly a little vinegary. I guess it’s a bit of a love it or hate it thing. Still, this was far superior to the bottled stuff you can find in grocery stores, in my opinion. Verdant offers it in bottles which can be brought in for a refill.

I will definitely be back, as one can not experience everything here in one visit. The Market, which opened on May 10, will continue until October 25 on Saturdays from 8 to 1. Parking is quite plentiful in the area, with a ramp right across the street, but it is in such a picturesque area, biking is probably the best way to get there. Still plenty of time to check it out this season!

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Gold Medal Flour

Russia in Minnesota!

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Russian Tea House sign

Like a lot of people, I do not get to travel as much as I would like, but as in any city, the Twin Cities offer a variety of opportunities to experience some of the worlds culture and still get to work tomorrow morning.

Last week, I went on one of my favorite day trip “staycations,” taking in a couple of tastes of Russian culture in Minneapolis-St. Paul, the Russian Tea House and the Museum of Russian Art. Visiting both in an afternoon is a fun way to get to know a little more about the culture of a nation that has definitely been in the news lately, under more grave circumstances. It is definitely valuable, I feel, to learn more about the world through food and art, and these local spots have  a lot to offer.

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Russian Tea House, exterior

We began our afternoon with a spot of tea and so lunch at the Russian Tea House, on University in the Midway area of St. Paul. A cozy, casual restaurant tucked into an old Victorian house, I think it is one of the best deals for lunch in the cities. After ordering from the counter, take your lunch upstairs to the creaky upper floor dining room to enjoy the view of the bustle down on University and the Minneapolis skyline in the distance. Oftentimes, an accordionist will be in attendance, accompanying lunch with some traditional Slavic music. The Tea House offers a variety of delicious, hearty fare for extremely reasonable prices; the borscht is probably some of the best I’ve had, vegetarian, served with or without sour cream and full of beets, onions, beans, and dill. I also recommend the savory potato dumplings, verenyky, topped with sauteed onion. This is great comfort food, perfect for a winter evening (or a spring afternoon that feels a little wintery). If there is one thing that Minnesota and Russia have in common, it’s the stereotypical penchant for an icy climate.

Also, one cannot visit without having one of the awesome chocolate poppy seed rolls, washed down with the Russian Tea Houses’ tea, served steaming in a continuous flow from a large tureen, a rich black tea lightly sweetened with a hint of saffron. Definitely one of my favorite tea flavors around. With limited hours, open only for lunch on Fridays and Saturdays from 11:00 to 3:00, there may be a bit of a line, but any wait is well worth it. I also recommend picking some up borscht or Russian tea cookies for the road, keeping them around for dinner or lunch later.

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The Museum of Russian Art, exterior

After a filling, cheap, delicious lunch, it was time to make a trip across the river over into south Minneapolis to check out the Museum of Russian Art (TMORA). It is about a 1o mile drive from the Russian Tea House. Definitely one of the most interesting “hidden gem” museums in Minneapolis, TMORA is devoted to displaying art and artifacts from Russian history, the only such collection in North America. Housed in a historic building, the old Mayflower Congregational Church built in 1935 in the Spanish Colonial Revival style, an interesting setting for Russian Art and Minnesota. It makes for a very atmospheric setting for a museum.  A small museum, TMORA’s collections can be taken in in an hour or two, though like all art museums you can be sucked in by the artworks and it is easy to take your time examining the pieces which span the centuries, from medieval to modern. In addition,  The collection of Soviet art is particularly interesting. In addition, the museum hosts special exhibits on a regular basis.

Currently, the museum is featuring the atmospheric monochrome works of the artist Eva Levina-Rozengolts, painted during her exile in Siberia, which makes some very moving pieces. Also, the museum is showing an exhibit called “The Art of Collecting,” which explore the background and history of the museums collections, the largest collection of 20th century Russian art outside of Russia. A very good time to drop in for first time visitors, I think. In any case, I highly recommend checking it out sometime! Either of these places are a good place to get a little taste of Russian culture and history.

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The Museum of Russian Art, interior

Russian Tea House, Friday and Saturday 11:00-3:00, 1758 University Ave, St. Paul

The Museum of Russian Art, Monday-Friday 10:oo-5:00, Saturday 10:00-4:00, Sunday 1:00-5:00, Admission $9 Adults, Seniors $7, students $5, children free, 5500 Stevens Ave S, Minneapolis

Hot Tea and Cold Ice

There are very few things more Minnesotan than an ice house. When the lakes freeze solid enough to drive a pickup on, across the state  you can find small cabins popping up on the ice, solitary or in close groups. These are ice fishers, a particularly obsessive group of fishing aficionados, who drill holes in the ice to catch perch, walleyes, or even eelpout. Some are hardy enough simply squat on a bucket out on the lake, undefended from the driving wind or snow. Most, if they can manage it, prefer an ice house, from spare shacks to heated, opulent cabins complete with TVs . At least, so I’ve heard, I’ve never actually been. However, another group of people endemic to the Twin Cities has, for the last ten years or so, also been making the ice house their milieu; artists. The Art Shanty Projects has come to be one of the things I really look forward to in February.  Moving from its previous home on Medicine Lake in New Hope, this year the Art Shanty’s have set up on White Bear Lake.

February 1st, 2014 was a perfect day, at least for February in Minnesota. Temperatures approaching a balmy 20, sunny in that Minnesota midwinter way, glare off of the ground covered in snow. We have had our share of both cold and snow this year, which I guess I find comforting. What better way to celebrate the snow than with a hot cup of tea and hanging out in ice houses? I could not think of anything better, so I set out for Verdant Tea on Franklin Avenue and the Art Shanty Project 2014, currently camped on White Bear Lake.

I was visiting my parents and we decided to take advantage of the fact that everyone had Saturday off to head off to the Art Shanty Project’s current home at White Bear Lake. Just like childhood, my sister and my mother and father left their house on the far edge of the western suburbs and piled into the mini-Van for a day out. On the way to that far flung suburb, we started with breakfast and tea at Verdant Tea at 2111 East Franklin Avenue. In spite of Mom and Dad’s long time coffee addiction, both my sister and I rebelled by becoming total tea snobs.

We’d been meaning to check out Minneapolis’ newest tea venue, intrigued by  capitalizing on the local craze for craft beer by offering tasting flights of tea, and were not disappointed. I have been a loyal customer of the TeaSource (a later topic) for years,  but I think that Verdant Tea is a worthy addition to the Twin Cities tea scene. The “tasting room” offers some good food in addition to a wide variety of loose leaf tea varieties.  We were there for the “morning happy hour,” offered daily from 8-10 am, in which one can have a bowl of congee and a bottomless cup of hot tea, along with snacks, for less than $10 a person.  The congee, a satisfying rice porridge, was delicious. Both gluten free and vegan, it is offered in both a gingery, coconut infused sweet version and an equally good savory version with plenty of shiitake and green onions. The tea, though, that was great, a rich black Chinese variety which tend to be my favorites. They offer such a wide variety of teas that I only just scratched the surface of on this visit and I will definitely attend one of the tea tasting events in the future. The location was open, airy, and comfortable and it looks just perfect for a book or writing group.

I have lived in the West Metro for most of my life, so I have rarely made the trip out past St. Paul into the eastern suburb of White Bear Lake. I think I can recall visiting only once before, at least 20 years ago. It seems like a nice town (in my experience, a bit like Hopkins) with a historic downtown featuring various shops and restaurants. But we were here for the art shanties.

The Art Shanty Projects 2014 was, as expected, great. We visited it in its last two years, 2010 and 2012 at its last location on Medicine Lake; an outdoor art installation celebrating the joy that is Minnesota in the winter. I know, I know, right? It’s great! Each shanty is put together by a different group of artists or other creative types, with a different theme or activity attached, from the profound to the absurd. There is so much imagination on display, suspended above a lake on a shelf of ice. The best part, they are totally hands on, inviting the visitors to interact and create as well, leaving their own marks upon the snowy little village. Walking up the plowed road to the art shanty village, it was hard for us to decide which direction to take on the circle of little houses, each promising a different idea or activity. While we did not get a chance to visit each of them, we experienced a lot of fun and interesting ideas.

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This is a shanty on Medicine Lake, 2010. My phone sadly went dead this year.

At the Curling Clubhouse Ice Shanty, we tried our hands at some curling, first time I ever attempted this archetypal northern sport. I knew it involved pushing large, heavy rock like things across the ice, but I did not know how fun it is to do that. You wear a little slick shoe covering to make your foot slide on the ice even more smoothly, and then you launch yourself onto the ice in an attempt to hurl the weight towards a target, while another person attempts to smooth the ice with a little stick to quicken its journey. I am probably doing a bad job explaining this, but you can learn a lot more by trying it out here.  I actually enjoyed it a lot and may have been inspired to try out it more seriously in the future.

The Jigsaw Shanty was also really fun, featuring walls made out of huge, foam board puzzle pieces; inside the heated shanty, you can take a break from the chill by painting bizarre, whimsical scenes which will be the next day’s giant jig saw, which visitors can endeavor to piece together in the snow next to the shanty.

Like most years, the Dance Shanty is a great way to work off some of those winter blues, and they play some great music too, I heard some Air while I was there. It is also a great place to warm up as well, as a bunch of people jumping around in a small, enclosed space dressed in snowsuits and jackets heats the place up nicely. The Elevator Shanty was just fun, pure surreal weirdness. I particularly loved the little lobby set up in front of the shanty and the elevator attendant uniforms worn by the operators. My favorite was definitely Ice Ice Maybe shanty, a “boutique” offering a variety of random kitsch for “sale,” each frozen in a little block of ice, from plastic dinosaurs to a ninja throwing star. In order to purchase the merchandise, one must explain to the proprietor just how this piece fits into your life, and it is not a sure deal. I did manage to talk my way into a vintage Minnesota State Fish postcard, owing to my love of the state, travel, and bizarre desire to accumulate postcards as a kind of way to prove to myself I was really there.

I also enjoyed the Mailroom Shanty, a shiny cube that, when entered, reveals a charmingly tilted floor with a tiny desk at the back, which actually gives the illusion of walking down a long hallway. At the desk, visitors can write letters and stuff them into one of the many little shelves or read what others have already written.The Creep Shanty, developed by the same group who brings you the Soap Factory Haunted House every October (I will brave it this time, I swear!) looked really interesting as well, but unfortunately was still under construction while we were there. As we got ready to leave, the vibrant scene was capped off by a parade that was, to me, the very image of Minnesota creativity. While a wind band played ska-tunes, the many polar bear bycycle contraptions of Pedal Bear patrolled about the art shanties. It was a great last image of the festivities.

The Art Shanty Project 2014 will be staying around each weekend for the rest of the month, so check it out soon! It is located just off the shore from White Bear Lake County Park. I was told that they will be returning to a yearly schedule so that art shanties will be reappearing on a frozen Twin Cities lake next February and we will not have to wait until 2016 for more, which is a good thing. I highly recommend checking it out as soon as possible!