By the time Simon Parish graduated from NYU in 2019, his dreams of becoming a best-selling author had dimmed and all but disappeared. In fact, the history major had no idea what he wanted to do after moving back to Minneapolis.
At least at first. When his parents asked where he really wanted to work, Parish knew the answer immediately: a cafe built around the bold, Eastern-style teas he’d learned to love during school.
Six months and one gut renovation later, Parish is milling fresh matcha and leading gongfu ceremonies at Northeast Tea House—a cafe that stands in stark contrast with the country’s many third-wave coffee shops.
“We’ve tried to build a space that is calming through and through,” explains Parish. “A total sensory experience conducive to getting the most out of your tea consumption. And that’s really a guiding principle here: How can we geek [and] encourage everyone to dive deeply into tea culture while still keeping things accessible?”
It’s working on several levels so far. Although the tea house is doing takeout only for now, its layout suits pandemic times: a socially distanced smattering of traditional seating and one long, floor-level table, partly separated by a placid fish tank. Once the place opens back up, you should consider leaving the laptop at home. Or as Parish says, “Tea’s otherworldly effects occur when it’s just you. No screens, no books—nothing. If you want the full effect, that’s the only way. You have to taste your tea!”
He continues, “You don’t need fancy tasting skills or notes either, because it’s really the effort that counts.” (Easy to do at home, too.)
To help newbies make the most out of Northeast Tea House, we asked Parish about everything from raw and ripe pu’er cakes to the joys of being “tea drunk.”
When did you first fall in love with tea and realize it’s more than just a drink—that it plays a pivotal role in so many different cultures and belief systems?
When I first recovered from depression a few years ago, I was rediscovering a lot of new things to appreciate in the world. I already knew I preferred the feeling of tea to coffee, so with my newfound curiosity, I did a little digging into why tea was different.
Well, the world of tea is infinitely deep, so a little digging turns into an endless dig—especially for someone like me, with a collector’s mindset, thinking, ‘I’ve got to taste them all!’
So that already had me intrigued, but it wasn’t until I tried gongfu brewing that I realized how incredible tea could taste and, even more so, how relaxing the whole process was. I started doing that each morning—really trying to experience each tea, tasting what I could but mostly letting it open up and reveal itself on its own.
That was a turning point for me, where I went from Life isn’t bad anymore, at least to Life is great! Well, I’m hardly the first person who’s experienced a shift like that thanks to tea, and it was a revelation to see why tea has been so revered by [certain] cultures and religions—specifically those that feature meditation as an essential part of practice.
Why do you think tea resonated with you on a deeper level? I assume it was a little bit of everything: the health benefits, the ceremonial aspect, the traditions?
Like I said, it was a strange and exciting time for me. I’d realized in the preceding months that I really didn’t know what it took to be happy. I think this left me receptive in a way I hadn’t been before—and tea, I think, rewards this.
Without trying to get anything out of it, or force some sort of meditative experience—when your only instructions are to taste the tea, and nothing more—calm just naturally descends. Even still, tea does that so long as I’m willing to put the book and phone away and just taste the tea.
So that was the biggest draw. And as my tongue and appreciation of tea has developed, the flavors have become an increasing draw as well. Actually, those two aspects—the calm and the taste—are about equally enticing to me now.
You worked at a Brooklyn shop before opening your own tea house. What was it called, and what crucial life and business lessons did you learn from it?
It was called Pu’er Brooklyn.
Some crucial lessons…. A few things come to mind. For one, I shared gongfu tea with my friends and saw other people doing the same there, and realized that tea wasn’t just relaxing, but a remarkable medium for connection. Up to that point I’d viewed tea as only a solo activity.
And, two, I remember working there in the middle of winter, when the sun would set early, and realizing that, for the first time in memory, I really didn’t mind it. There was always a tea that was appropriate for cold, dark days that made it all seem thematic and right, in a way. I learned a lesson from tea in that way: There are no bad days, just different ones.
On a more practical level, Pu’er Brooklyn was the only place I knew of that let you do the gongfu brewing for yourself, rather than simply drinking what someone else brewed for you. I thought that was a really special thing, which is why I highlight it so much at Northeast Tea House.
How did you weave meditation and tea into your daily life while you were in NYC?
I meditated daily—30 minutes to an hour. I also did a gongfu session whenever I had time and tried to share that with my friends as often as possible.
What roles do tea and meditation play in your life now? Are there any specific routines you try to follow regularly?
The tea obsession grows and grows, especially since I’m surrounded by kilos of it every day; it is hard not to over-caffeinate.
Meditation, meanwhile, has played an increasingly major role in my day-to-day life, especially since COVID hit. In the months before opening, I was managing to do three to four hours of meditation a day, with seven-hour retreat days once a week. I still am trying to get in those longer retreat days when I can on my days off, since I really came to love them.
Specific routines? I’ve been sampling many different methods recently, but the basic mindfulness of breathing and loving-kindness meditation are the backbone of what I’m doing.
Beyond that, I’m getting increasingly drawn towards “do-nothing” meditations, or “non-meditation.” The concept here is that the fundamental assumption of our lives is that there is [always] something to be achieved, gained, or changed, and meditation can just further this neurotic [mindset] if we’re not careful.
So you sit starting from a different perspective: already there, already perfect, trying not to try not trying and getting caught up in knots until you just have to laugh and leave it all aside again, and come back to that perfection.
This, I think, is the philosophy of tea, too. It’s why you focus on the taste, not on the calm you hope it will induce. When you do that, all this endless seeking just vanishes!
My apologies if I talk and talk with these topics—this is why I wish I’d majored in religious studies instead of minored! Truthfully, if I didn’t have this tea house now, I think I’d be seriously considering at least a brief stay at a Buddhist monastery!
Can you talk about how you’d like Northeast Tea House to be a much-needed break from everything that is wrong with the modern condition—the doom scrolling, the negativity, and our relative inability to slow down and read, listen, talk to one another, etc.?
Yes, I think the bombardment of troubling news and stimuli is quite a drain on people, and that’s largely why I’m not trying to copy coffee shops that encourage laptops and working.
I think, though, that if I were to diagnose the modern condition, the problem is really how violent we are toward ourselves. We grow up with a steady diet of ideals against which we compare ourselves, and our default operating principle is that whatever we do or are is never good enough. So, I am careful to avoid that.
“You shouldn’t be so negative,” “you should slow down,” etc.; beneficial as these practices may be, I don’t see them addressing the real wounds so many experience. Perhaps imposing them only continues that habit of thinking “never enough, never enough!”
I’ve seen plenty of calming places where people start to whisper and act proper and well-behaved, but that’s not relaxation because people still don’t feel they can just be as they are…. It is true, though, that the otherworldly calming effects of tea occur when it’s just you, the tea, and nothing else. No screens, no books—nothing. No matter what, tea is relaxing, but if you want the full effect, that’s the only way. You have to taste your tea!
I read recently that there are two common statements in Zen Buddhism: “have a cup of tea” and “taste the tea.” You can surround yourself with wisdom and learning, but ultimately, your true nature, the nature of reality, and the peace that you seek has to be directly experienced, and on one else can do it for you. Peace and freedom is right under your nose!
Big talk for a little tea house, I guess, but I think it’s true.
What about the tea house’s role from an educational standpoint? While we have a very strong food scene here, and many restaurants specialize in East Asian food, this is definitely more than a coffee town outside of a few specialty cafes and shops. The same could be said for most of the country, actually.
Yes, a lot of education inevitably needs to happen. Principally, I don’t think people really know what tea can taste like, and all the flavors that are possible.
Beyond that, of course, the way gongfu brewing works and traditional tea culture in general—that all needs to be taught. And the lingering assumptions about tea we have from British tea culture need to be shed.
Thankfully, people seem to catch on pretty quickly! And just by trying more new teas, you learn and learn more. And I think many people are ready for it, even if you just look at one thing: anxiety. A lot of people have it, coffee can make it worse, tea can make it better, and I think that’s a big reason why people are starting to show a greater interest in tea.
Can you explain what sets freshly milled matcha apart from the trendy matcha drinks and desserts that have popped up everywhere from Starbucks to Trader Joe’s?
The main difference is that a powder will degrade faster than a whole, unbroken tea leaf. Pretty much all the matcha you can find has been sitting in powdered form for several months, whereas ours is stored as tencha, the leaf that gets milled only when we need it.
So that’s the main difference between us and even the other high-end matcha companies, let alone these chains you mentioned. Other than that, the quality of the tencha (tea that gets ground into matcha) is very important as well—real tencha is shaded for 40 days at the end of its growing cycle, and the high-quality stuff will be from the first picking of spring. Ours is all from this first flush, and in fact from an area called Uji near Kyoto, which is considered the best place for tea in Japan. It is hard to know if the mass-chain matcha is even tencha or just normal green tea.
It’s kind of a moot point though, because the taste and texture is enough to judge. There’s a reason it’s almost always mixed with milk: On its own, this lower quality matcha is bitter, astringent, and gritty. It shouldn’t really be that way, where it tastes purely medicinal. Ours, on the other hand, is creamy and smooth, and very savory. It’s still not to everyone’s liking, because it is very vegetal, but that’s just a matter of taste.
When I stopped by a few weeks ago, I believe you said that your mother makes a lot of your sweet and savory snacks. Was she a major driving force in wanting to pursue this full-time, and does she help out on a day-to-day basis?
Yes, both she and my dad have been essential to getting this tea house going. They are co-owners and do help out regularly. From the outset, the tea house wouldn’t have happened without their support.
Actually, they were asking me, as I was looking for a job after college, what my dream job was. I said it’d be having a tea house, but I kind of dismissed it as unrealistic, until they said, “Why not go for it?” So really, this place wouldn’t be here—not even close—without them.
What are some of the food items you’ve offered so far? Do you have a lot of seasonal food specials planned for the winter, next spring, and beyond?
On a daily basis, we have the little cookies my mom makes along with mochi and, more substantially, our Asian-fusion avocado toast and matcha cheesecake.
Beyond that, we’re still figuring out the role food will play here. We’ve done a few brunches, which have been fun and worthwhile, but so far, it has been very much dependent on what my mom feels like baking! I’d love to experiment with more traditional tea snacks—perhaps even making some—but beyond that we haven’t planned far ahead in terms of food items. Tea is very much the focus, and I think, ultimately, the rest of the menu will revolve around the seasonal teas.
What are some of your favorite teas on the menu right now and why?
I am going through a pu’er phase for sure. Pu’er is a type of tea that is sun-dried, which leaves some microbial activity going on over time, slowly fermenting the tea and making it more complex with age. So I’ve been getting hooked on aged pu’er, both for the complexity and the way it makes you feel “tea drunk.” It’s actually a real thing, where good pu’er will make you feel a little euphoric! And we’ve just started stocking those types of tea to have a special “tea drunk” menu.
I also love how minimal the processing is for pu’er—very little interference from the producer means the differences in taste from one pu’er to the next are primarily due to the environment. This means, with pu’er, you don’t just talk about specific mountains it comes from, but sometimes even specific trees. Then you add the other variable of specific years and their effects on the taste, so you’re tasting space and time in a way!
How would you describe the gongfu experience to someone who hasn’t heard of it before?
Gongfu brewing is a method of re-brewing the same tea leaves by using a higher leaf-to-water ratio and shorter brew times. Using something like a gaiwan—or lidded bowl—or a mini teapot, you can brew roughly five grams of tea per 150ml of water, and keep rebrewing that same tea. With each new infusion, the flavors change somewhat, and so when you’re really involved in trying to taste your tea, it never becomes boring; the flavor is always changing. This way, you’re also getting much more tea out of the leaves and, consequently, more caffeine, more antioxidants, and more whatever it is that makes you feel tea drunk.
Can you discuss some of the other tea experiences you offer, from team-building Zoom sessions to thematic flights on the weekend?
The intention was always to have an educational component in our shop. It’s largely why we built a huge community table—so we could have classes and tastings. That’s not really doable with COVID, so we’re trying to find ways to adapt. One way we’ve been doing that is by curating weekly tea flights, so people can taste the subtle differences between teas that share important similarities otherwise. Ultimately, I think that’s more instructive than any information I could give in a class.
Beyond that, we’ve been sending out gongfu sets or matcha bowls and whisks to people and setting up Zoom events where I teach people how to use it all. That way, the social power of sharing tea can still be experienced, and people are also set up to explore the world of tea at home. Being able to brew tea that way at home makes it so much easier to sample everything. That premise makes me feel like a kid in a candy store!
What have been your best sellers so far?
Most people who stop by are new to the world of tea, so it’s largely based off of what we recommend. For loose-leaf tea, we probably end up recommending the Laoshan Black tea the most. I think it’s the most approachable and always good, since it’s incredibly sweet and chocolatey. Otherwise, people are definitely getting hooked on the matcha, and if people have heard about us before it’s most likely from hearing about our matcha. And then, for food, everyone loves the mochi—surprisingly, they sell more than any of the more Western style snacks we have.
How about a few of your favorite things that have been a hard sell so far?
What’s really nice is nothing has been such a hard sell so far. People are very much inclined to go off our recommendations. The thing I was most worried about was whether people would insist on sugar or honey, or insist on milk in their matcha. A few people have asked, but so far almost no one has seemed to care very much. Others have told me more than a few times, “This is Minnesota, so you can’t expect people to be too adventurous”—basically to express the point that we need to keep a foot in Western tea tastes to have a wider appeal.
Evidently, we sell ourselves short—Minnesotans have had a pretty open mind, and most have ended up enjoying our teas even without sweeteners and milk! And when people try the tea flights, the majority of them come away having a favorite, having been able to taste the differences clearly enough to make a decision. I think that’s very encouraging, too!
How long did it take you to demo the space and build everything out?
From the end of February right up to when we opened on August 24. It definitely took a while but we ended up changing pretty much everything except for the exposed brick.
The layout is pretty unique, and includes both contemporary and traditional seating. Was that really important to you—striking a balance between how cafes are viewed here in the U.S. (a “Western” approach to tea) and how tea houses present a completely different experience in other countries?
Yes, it was important to strike some sort of balance; not so much between Western and Eastern, however. I’m pretty eager to distance ourselves from Western tea culture and prioritize authentic traditional, East Asian tea culture. The difference between the seating styles was more because not everyone is comfortable sitting on the ground.
The balance we did try to achieve is something I think I alluded to earlier—forced quietude versus genuine relaxation. I’ve seen enough examples of very neat and orderly, ceremonial tea service, and that’s nice every so often, but I don’t think it’s really conducive to a genuine sense of ease. So, creating a place that was authentic and relaxing without imposing some sort of demand for strict adherence to traditions with which the average Westerner is unfamiliar—that is the balance we’’e going for here. And of course, you could make that balance sound poetic by pointing out that the majority of traditional sources on tea emphasize its humble nature: the everyday moments, the normal cup of tea, nothing special at all. That is in fact where you will find the so-called sacred.
How have you faced some of the challenges surrounding COVID-19 head-on, and created an atmosphere that helps people feel as comfortable and safe as possible?
Thankfully, our business model has always been about letting people linger, rather than achieving quick table turnover, so this has made distancing feel quite natural. Beyond that we’ve got plexiglass barriers up on the counter, sanitize and wash everything like crazy, and we’ve also installed a special air filter that, though not tested on this particular strain of COVID-19, has been shown to effectively neutralize previous coronavirus strains. It’s not a guarantee of anything, but that certainly provides another layer of peace of mind.
What are some of your plans moving forward? Are you going to do any other programs like your matcha club? Maybe a pu’er one? It seems like that may be the next trend here if we’re lucky!
At the moment, we are waiting on a shipment of custom-pressed tea cakes—one pu’er and one purple leaf black tea. I’m really excited about anything that involves creating our own tea—tea you can’t get anywhere else—so if this first batch works out I could see getting really into custom-blending different batches of pu’er.
Also, just within the past few days I’ve had success milling white tea with our matcha mill. This was actually the traditional form of tea during the Song Dynasty. It’s basically matcha, but with white tea powder. I’m really happy with how it turned out and can see diving deep into reviving this medieval tea style, possibly with different types of white tea to choose from, just like with our matcha!
Subscriptions with all of this stuff would be really exciting, and I think it would be pretty incredible if pu’er started receiving more attention here in Minnesota. At any rate, like I’ve said, the world of tea is infinite, so I’m always keeping an eye out for new things to explore. Meanwhile, by the time I’ve explored a few of them, the new harvest is out, and the horizons expand again!