A New Leaf on Life

A little shop with big ambitions is reintroducing tea as an affordable luxury with many dimensions.

Customers at Cha Ma Gu Dao.
Photos: Rebecca McAlpin

Robert Scott accepts you no matter where you are on your tea journey. So if you want to put loads of milk and honey in your tea, he’s cool with that. Really. No matter that he opened Cha Ma Gu Dao, a Zen beauty of a tea shop in downtown Montclair, perhaps the most serious tea shrine you’ve ever seen. Scott is not the evangelical type.

More likely, he’ll simply suggest a cup of something great, such as, say, Singbulli—a single-estate Darjeeling grown in the foothills of the Himalayas. It will be “first flush,” which means first harvest of the season, after spring rains. 

Your Singbulli arrives in a small, gleaming, white pot—steeped exactly two and a half minutes in 175-degree water. When you pour, a clear golden blush fills the cup, along with a bare whiff of flower. You sip. Amber, glowing light seems to flow over your palate and radiate through your body. Honey and milk?

Not a chance.

“There are many misconceptions about tea,” says Scott. “Some people think tea is weak, like Grandma’s watery Lipton. Or that it’s bitter. Actually, tea has a huge range of flavor, more than any other beverage. Only wine is comparable.” Scott, who by day is a chief information officer for a national Internet service provider, got interested in tea back in the ’80s when he was in the U.S. Air Force, stationed in rural Japan as a communications officer. Since then, he has traveled extensively in Asia and Europe building his tea knowledge.

About 280 varieties of tea line the walls of Cha Ma Gu Dao, with names that sound like poetry: Ceylon Lover’s Leap, Secret Garden, White Pearls, Hurricane, and April in Paris. More are on the way, including teas from 300-year-old trees in the Southwest Chinese mountains.

Another misconception: “People think that green tea, oolongs, black teas, and white teas are different teas. But they’re all from the same plant,” says Scott, explaining the continuum of processing. The more vegetal teas, like green teas, come from leaves that have been withered and dried. Oolongs are the same leaves but subjected to further stages of cooking, bruising, and leaf-darkening oxygenation. Black teas, rosy and dark, are the most fully fermented and robust of all (and yes, the type that goes best with honey and milk).

The menu at Cha Ma Gu Dao includes them all, as well as fruit and herb teas (which are not true teas but infusions) and blends such as Earl Grey and chai, flavored with flowers and spices. Many are premium grade, which means the tea was harvested from only the bud and the first two leaves at the tip of the stem. (The rest of the leaves further down the branch, along with any broken leaves, stems, and fannings—a fancy word for tea dust—go to the tea-bag and bottled-tea market.)

Two urns at Cha Ma Gu Dao keep water at steady temperatures ranging from a gentle 145 degrees for high-end Japanese teas to a 205-degree urn for blacks, fruit infusions, herbals, and oolongs. Steeping times vary from one to ten minutes.

Despite the ancient nature of tea itself, not to mention the shop’s exotic name, which refers to a 1,000-year-old tea and horse trade road (chosen by Scott against a lot of advice), Cha Ma Gu Dao is modern design all the way—uncluttered and spare. A polished bamboo floor shines. Gorgeous teapots and canisters serve as decoration and merchandise. Photos of Asia fill the space, including a selection in the back by Scott himself.

“From the beginning, I liked the concept of the Chinese tea house,” says Scott. “It was a community place where people came and gathered, exchanged news, sang, and even brought their birds in cages on Sunday mornings.”

One warning: Don’t come hungry hoping for a sandwich. Tea and tea alone is the star. However, you can order a plate of small sweets and esoteric cookies in tea-complementing flavors like chai almond, lemongrass ginger, and espresso dark chocolate.

Tea prices range from $4 to $6 for a small pot. Tea also can be purchased by weight at various prices. A fine Darjeeling like Singbulli is $23.60 for 3∂ ounces, yielding 40 6-ounce cups. That puts the cost at about 50 to 60 cents a cup. Knowledgeable staff will help you learn and choose. Popular tasting events are offered monthly for $12 and are often sold out.

Cha Ma Gu Dao, 212 Glenridge Ave, Montclair (973-746-0975; southsilkroad.com). Monday through Saturday, 10 am to 7 pm; Sunday, noon to 5 pm. All major credit cards are accepted.


How Much Kick?  

Tea is a source of pleasure and antioxidants, but also of caffeine. The actual amount of caffeine varies depending on the kind of tea and how long you steep it. Here are loose averages of caffeine content per 8-ounce cup.  

Coffee        100-190 mg
Black tea    40 mg
Oolong       30 mg
Green tea   20 mg
White tea    20 mg
Decaf tea    2-4 mg
Herbal tea   0

Sources:  the Tea Association of the U.S.;  the American Beverage Association. 

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