Posted by: ben | April 16, 2009

aye tea part one: glasgow

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Ben: My lovely girlfriend and I spent a few days in Scotland earlier this month. I went to university in Glasgow and hadn’t managed to get back for a few years, and as one of my close friends was leaving at the end of the week (and offering us free accomodation on her living room floor), we took the opportunity to have a mini break before I started a new job.

(At the risk of mentioning it too much, I also took the opportunity to ask my lovely girlfriend to become my lovely fiance. But that’s a story for another blog).

Whilst in both Glasgow and Edinburgh, we were fortunate enough to visit a few cafes which deal pretty much exclusively in looseleaf tea. Some of these we purposefully made plans to visit, others we just happened to stumble over. Dan and I both live in Berkshire where there’s a serious lack of places interested in serving proper tea so the fiance and I took every opportunity we could to sample some teas served with love.

I’d like to share these cafes with you, humble blog reader, in the hope that you might visit them too. First up in this three-part series: Glasgow

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Tchai Ovna. Otago Lane, Glasgow West End.

Tchai Ovna was the only tea place we visited that I was formerly aware of. During my student days I would happily spend dreamy afternoons lurking in its darkened interior whilst poring over some academic novel I was required to read three days previously. Whilst all the places we visited are unique, Tchai Ovna is especially so. Imagine a little disused room in an old theatre or village hall, where all the wood is exposed, lots of old cushions are scattered about and someone’s found an old lamp to illuminate the space with. It’s a bit dusty and run down where no-one’s really decorated or cleaned when it was first taken over. That’s pretty much Tchai Ovna to a tee.

The self-styled teahouse is hidden down a deserted lane in Glasgow’s west end. The discrete wooden signposts leading interested parties in the right direction are all made from salvaged wood, the house itself has a rambling, delapidated garden outside, the door leading inside is old and ricketty and the interior feels like a seventies hippy commune. It is like nothing you will ever, ever see anywhere else.

There’s little in the way of formal seating arrangements. There’s a few wooden seats and tables dotted about and a few partitioned rooms at the back where customers are asked to sit on cushions on the floor. Everything’s a little ramshackle, including the varying designs of cups, saucers and teapots they serve the tea in. To order, you look at the menu, walk over to the little kitchen and wait ten or fifteen minutes for the member or two of staff to get round to it.

With all the Starbucks and Costas dotted around towns nowadays, it is totally refreshing to have something like Tchai Ovna. It’s the ultimate rebellion against American customer culture, where tea will be served eventually. There’s no power points for laptops and no wifi but there are chess sets free to use, hookahs to hire to smoke flavoured tobaccos and a few dusty books asking to be read. They offer all sorts of vegetarian foods and offer suggestions on particular things to complement each tea.

And the tea! It’s very extensive. As well as offering the normal range of oolongs, blacks, greens etc, they also make their own bespoke mixes. One of my favourites is a chocolate mint tea, made using some black chocolate tea, mint leaves fresh from the garden and a little cinnamon. They will very proudly tell you this when they bring the teapot over to you, encouraging you to make it at home if you have the means. Everything tastes fresh, apparently made with the utmost passion.

Tchai Ovna will not be to everyone’s taste. It is a little rough and ready in there at times – if you’re not in touch with your peace-and-love side, you’ll probably find it too dusty or dark to get on with. If you do get fed up with the ubiquity of Starbucks and desperately long for something else then this place is definitely for you

More information about Tchai Ovna is available on their website: http://www.tchaiovna.com/

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Brewhaha. Buchanan Galleries, Glasgow town centre.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, Brewhaha is located slap-bang in the middle of the city’s retail area. It’s the newest of the teahouses we visited too – according to the Buchanan Gallery’s website, the place was opened a few short months ago. It’s a big, open kinda cafe, with bright colours everywhere, popart on the walls and quirky fifties styling in every conceivable place. It’s very big, it’s very brash, it’s very bright and it’s very keen to appear warm and friendly.

brewhahalogosBrewhaha is a call back to the sort of cafes your Mum might have gone to when formica was still acceptable. The teapots are proper old-fashioned teapots, each one emblazoned with the corporate logo. The cupcakes are those big, fluffy things covered in icing you can imagine in farmhouse kitchens, though they probably had less glittery decoration. The girls behind the counter (they were all girls behind the counter) wore matching outfits, not the loose polonecks you’d expect at most chains but lovely, fitted things. Everything was clean, unmarked and unchipped.

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Inside the 'Tea-cher' menu. Click for legible version.

Brewhaha does a lot of things right. They scored highly with me on one particular issue: on every table was a little cleverly-designed ‘tea-cher’, a menu which clearly described each tea they had for sale. Not only did they go into specifics about different flavours but they uncondescendingly explained each type of tea. This seems so basic to most people reading this that it’ll pass without a second thought, but for the average shopper in Glasgow on a Tuesday afternoon this simple booklet is what helps bring them in. To the uninitiated, the world of loose leaf tea can be hugely daunting and bewildering – a white tea is a PG Tips with milk, right? – and having this little guide explaining the most basic differences is a very clever way to get people interested and maybe make them try something a little exotic.

I loved that guide so much, I stole one. Sorry, guys.tea-cher-menu

There are a few drawbacks to the service as it is at present. The water for every brew, as far as I could tell, came from QuickCup taps. These are fine for getting hottish water quickly (and are environmentally friendly, too) but different teas require different heats and it would appear that this wasn’t considered. Further, the teapots were brought to us with the infusers still in the pot and no indication of how long they’d been in, making it very difficult to guage when a tea was fully brewed. Yes, they had nice little dishes to put the damp infusers in (with the corporate logo on the side, natch) but my ceylon was borderline ruined by the leaves being brewed for way too long.

These are only little matters though and could be easily fixed. It would be easy to see Brewhaha becoming a fully fledged brand and for branches to be in high streets all over the country. It’s wonderful to see tea being drunk by twenty or thirty people in the middle of Scotland’s busiest shopping centre and I hope the company is emboldened enough to expand elsewhere.

More information on Brewhaha will soon be coming to their website: http://www.brewhahatea.co.uk/

EDIT: Since writing this post, Joanne from Brewhaha got in touch. She writes:

Just one wee thing that I picked up, the water tep, we actually have two taps one 98 and the other at 85 so we do look after our teas well.

I am, of course, happy to point out this correction.

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And that was Glasgow! We went to lots of other places in Glasgow during our visit (I still have a weakness for the Tinderbox coffee shop on Byres Road though they don’t make their giant pretzels any more). Crucially, we also visited other cities. Coming shortly will be part two: tea in Edinburgh. The capital’s got a lot to live up to…

Many thanks to Flickr user kmnder‘s kind permission in using some of the Brewhaha pictures.

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Responses

  1. Brewhaha sounds brilliant! Fitted polo-shirts leave me saddened that such a nice place feels compelled to have uniforms. You’d hope for a dresscode rather than a uniform. Just casual clothing… like a tea shop should.

    • There’s a particular place in Edinburgh I’ll be talking about with regards to uniforms. Hold tight!

  2. *holding*


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