Words by Cassandra Landry | Photos by Aaron Shinn
1.7.2015 | Issue #8
“Taste and smell have always been my obsession,” says Gina Zupsich, the co-founder and creative lead of August Uncommon Tea. Her voice is low and clear on the phone, cutting easily through the white noise of the rain currently beating the shit out of my windows. She’s in her apartment in Los Angeles—a loft built into the bones of an old factory in the Arts District, looking out onto a hidden courtyard of fig and lemon trees—a balmy 380 miles south of stormy San Francisco.
Zupsich is an army brat, and as well-traveled as the term suggests. This is important, because it’s her fine-tuned sense of place (along with the wanderlust ingrained in her since childhood) coupled with her husband and co-founder Aaron Shinn’s eye for design that’s led to the creation of something entirely novel in the beverage world—tea blends designed around distinct sensory experiences. What it feels like to walk through woods in the wintertime, or stand in a rippling field of chest-high wheat. An attempt to capture the essence of a piece of well-worn mahogany, or the reeling satisfaction of biting into a crusty heel of fresh-baked anything.
“I’ve always been interested in anything that’s pleasurable to the senses,” she explains. An inaugural trip to Paris at 16 swept her off her feet, which led to an eventual PhD in French Literature. Olfactory obsession, for the time being, would have to be weekend fodder, but it never entirely left her radar. “While I was spending so much time in Paris working on totally un-sensual things in my academic career, I realized how much attention there is to everything. Particularly things that were not attended to in American culture.”
Specifically, tea. For most of us, tea is either a stale bag of Earl Grey that lives in our cupboard for months at a time, or a sort of quaint occasion we seek out when we’re feeling puffed up and fancy, with twee china cups and finger sandwiches at the ready. Dolls, the ultimate refined beings, have whole parties devoted to the stuff. The elegance and luxury of tea in Paris, however—more so than even it’s corner café staple, the thimble of paint-peeling espresso—is integral to the culinary experience. It swirls around the annals of France’s high gastronomic art, rubbing elbows with the Robuchons and Passards and Bocuses. Like anyone would when faced with such a swathe of permissive indulgence, Zupsich gave herself over. A modern Alice floating calmly down the rabbit hole. Tea became a part of her day-to-day ritual, and began to quietly, gently, restructure her life.
It was only ever when she came back home, emerging from the bubble of luxury, into the stark absence of that totally integrated art and food experience, that she noticed something was missing.
“It was really beyond the tea itself,” she recalls, though she mentions her dwindling supply of her favorite blend acted as a red flag. “What was obvious to me was that the sensorial delight was missing. I couldn’t replicate it. What I loved so much about that particular tea was that it was the gateway to being in Paris itself.”
The idea of flavor as time travel is one that’s easy to get behind. It’s an accessible, everyday magic brought on by sense memory and nostalgia, and we do it constantly. What if, Zupsich thought, she could craft her own portal, from scratch? What if, instead of just Paris, she could go places that didn’t even exist outside her own mind? What if, rather than choosing your beverage to correct your current state—I’m exhausted, I need coffee; I’m too wound up, I need a glass of wine—you chose based on the mood you wanted to be in?
This is the aim of August Uncommon Tea: change the way we perceive tea’s role in our culinary landscape. Enhance it. Bolster it. The best way to do this, it seems, is to give us the go-ahead to daydream.
“I think Americans are reluctant to give themselves over to something as frivolous as culinary pleasure, at least en masse,” she says. “The one thing that we keep coming back to, over and over, is that tea is slow. The experience and consumption of tea should be one of slowness. You don’t shoot little cups of tea. It’s about having a moment, and paying attention.”
A little piece in The Economist recently pointed out that before Starbucks was an institution on every city block, when it was just that joint down in Pike’s Place in 1971, it was known as “Starbucks Coffee, Tea and Spice.” Tea had it’s own venerable slot on the menu because an astounding 27 different kinds of loose-leaf teas could be found behind its counter. But, as we all know by now, tea is not what rocketed Starbucks to its place in the modern pantheon of mega-chains. Tea, when wrangled into a fast-paced aesthetic, does not work—unless you enjoy scorching your mouth little by little over an hour-long period. Its subtlety, when exhibited alongside the dangerously enjoyable caramel Frappucino, for example, is laughable.
And even though tea is widely accepted as the second most popular beverage in the world after water, we Yankees still consider it something you drink iced at a power lunch. Maybe cut with lemonade. Generally speaking, we’re not the best with subtlety, which is why if a Boston Tea Party-level shenanigan were to be as successful today, someone would have to destroy all of the coffee. Imagine the caffeine headaches and mass road rage! Tea? We’d probably survive, but we weren’t always so blasé about the stuff. Even tea bags are an American invention, showing up on the market around 1904—which kind of makes sense, when you consider the gradual sterilization of tea culture in this country.
“The more we do this, the more we realize that we’re trying to shift tea into a new tea culture,” Zupsich says. “What I love so much about French culture, and Paris in particular, is that it is a place where experiencing pleasure is something that you do in public. It’s a total abandon to hedonism, which I think is the opposite of what we experience in this country.”
More to the point, August Uncommon Tea is joining the movement to carve out a new place for tea in our general conscious, eclipsing even larger tea houses like Teavana—now owned by Starbucks in response to the resurging interest in the stuff—in their attempt to art-direct pleasure. “Tea is not a substitute for something else,” she continues. “We repeatedly get people asking us about caffeine. Stimulation from tea shouldn’t have much to do with caffeine. It’s the mood we’re interested in.”
It’s one thing to come up with a scene, adding dashes of color and sensory ephemera, but it’s quite another to physically replicate all those things using actual ingredients. They found a company based in Germany (they prefer not to reveal who, exactly; the tea world is a small and competitive one) that could jive with both the pair’s imagination and address the American fondness for intensity of flavor in an elegant way. The company both sources the product and fine-tunes the blending process, allowing Zupsich and Shinn to focus on implementation back in the States.
“High quality is not enough anymore. High quality product is the first step,” Zupsich says, explaining her reasons for seeking blending prowess. “After that, it’s creating a moment in time.”
It’s a truth that could be applied to any facet of the industry. As general standards continue to rise, creativity becomes the only thing that will set you apart. When you can count on a solid Sazerac in every bar, you begin to define the bar’s character by its inventions instead. We expect, as Zupsich mentions in her bio, a collision of chef, perfumer, chemist, and novelist in our culinary experiences. When eating great food is par for the course, we want to be transported somehow. So it should be, as Zupsich argues, with tea.
Ironically, the duo’s homebase in the Arts District is fast becoming the “coffee roasting gulch” of downtown L.A. When they first arrived in 2013, Handsome Roasters was the lone coffee house. These days, both Stumptown and Blue Bottle—who purchased Handsome in mid-2014—have moved in. “Tea in America is really under-explored territory, in every way," she says. "In terms of culinary exploration, in terms of design... I think we could be busy for a few decades.”