A cup to stay: Local enthusiasts seek to reinvent American tea culture

For everyday tea drinking, Olivia Oldaker of the White Lotus Tea Club uses a gaiwan—
a Chinese lidded bowl with a saucer—to infuse the leaves with gently boiled water. Photo: Nikita Pushkareva For everyday tea drinking, Olivia Oldaker of the White Lotus Tea Club uses a gaiwan— a Chinese lidded bowl with a saucer—to infuse the leaves with gently boiled water. Photo: Nikita Pushkareva

Close your eyes. Take a deep breath, and bring the tea cup to your lips. Allow the steeping leaves’ delicate, earthy aroma to quiet your surroundings. Gently slurp the first sip, letting the tea aerate and reach every part of your palate. What do you taste? Flower? Berries? Can you visualize the mountainside the tea leaves were plucked from? What is the piping hot cup in your hands telling you? Sit back, take another sip, and let the ancient, medicinal drink work its magic.

Back to reality. A scoop of chai-flavored powder dumped into a disposable cup with a splash of 2 percent milk and too much sugar, with a cardboard sleeve and ill-fitting plastic lid is hastily slid across the counter into your hands. You take your tea to-go and rush outside to continue going about your day.

Russian-born tea enthusiast Olivia Oldaker and her husband Donal want to reinvent the rushed culture surrounding the beverage in America, and through their wholesale, tasting, and events company, the White Lotus Tea Club, they’re encouraging tea-drinkers to take a moment to enjoy a cup to stay.

A jack of all trades, Oldaker has degrees in landscape architecture and sociology, and has worked in schools and as a yoga instructor.

“I always just kept coming back to tea,” she said.

What used to be a hobby has turned into her physical, mental, and financial sustenance. The couple began leading courses and workshops through the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar and local coffee shops when they arrived in Charlottesville in 2011, offering their expertise in the rich history and culture of tea and Chinese tea ceremonies. They spent months researching business models and studying the landscape of Charlottesville’s tea scene, and in the spring of this year, moved to Staunton to start a wholesale business that distributes handpicked loose tea leaves imported from top tier Chinese farms.

“Charlottesville has a pretty ingrained tea culture already, and we decided to put all that research and effort into wholesale,” Oldaker said.

Shortly after settling into a downtown space that doubles as the couple’s home and workspace, local tea lovers began knocking on their door.

“People wanted to come in,” Oldaker said. “So we opened up the tasting room, which allows us to be creative.”

The small tasting room, with its mint green walls, shelves lined with tea cannisters, and rustic wooden table handcrafted by Donal Oldaker, can accommodate about 10 people for a traditional Chinese tea ceremony. Any more than that, Oldaker said, and the serene, calming effect of a private tea ceremony is lost.

“You want to focus on the flavor and not take the focus away from the tea,” she said.

Oldaker and her husband are in the process of establishing a club membership aspect of the business. Soon, tea lovers may be able to receive monthly leaf shipments and have access to tastings, exclusive varieties like the now-rare wild-grown Chinese teas, and other special offers and events. They’re still working out the kinks of the membership setup, but the term “club” is not meant to be exclusive.

“If you love tea, you’re already part of our club,” Oldaker said.


Decaf debriefed

Tea leaves are naturally caffeinated, and a cup of black tea steeped for five minutes is believed to have about 40 to 50 milligrams of the stimulant. The leaves can be decaffeinated, but you won’t find any decaf tea at the White Lotus Tea Club. Oldaker said the “industrial methods” used to remove the natural pesticide destroys the plant’s positive chi energy and can even remove some of the flavors.
Herbal drinks like peppermint and chamomile are naturally caffeine-free, but contrary to their packaging, are not actually teas. They’re called tisanes, which are any infusion of herbs, spices, or other materials in hot water, and aren’t sold through White Lotus.


Which tea should I drink? 

Ancient Chinese culture says that tea is the end-all be-all, with healing qualities for just about every malady under the sun.

“I believe in that, and I follow it,” Olivia Oldaker said, adding that she will always reach for a cup of tea over a bottle of ibuprofen.

• For a headache or stomachache, the Oldakers recommend a cup of pu-erh, a fermented dark tea produced in the Yunnan province of China.

• After a big meal, bypass the coffee and reach for some black tea, which helps
with digestion.

• Green tea is said to be a more powerful antioxidant than Vitamins C and E, and Oldaker drinks the earthy, vaguely sweet tea as a form of vitamin supplement.