Calgary: Tea Trader & Lapsang Souchong

I can’t remember when I first discovered Lapsang Souchong tea, but probably at university (a lot of experimenting happened then), but I have continued to enjoy its smoky (or as someone likes to say “smelly socks”) essence ever since.  Over the years, I have purchased my tea from a variety of suppliers, but for the past few years my favourite supplier, hands down, has been Tea Trader in Inglewood. 

Tea Trader's entrance on 9th Ave SE, aka Atlantic Avenue, or Inglewood's Main Street. 

Tea Trader's entrance on 9th Ave SE, aka Atlantic Avenue, or Inglewood's Main Street. 

I love that the entrance is just a door on Atlantic Avenue which, upon entering, immediately leads you up a steep narrow stairway to the warehouse-like store.

Authenticity

When you arrive, you are immediately immersed in a world of tea – from the wall of tea tins to the burlap bags of tea piled up on the floor.  It feels authentic and like an oasis at the same time.  And the soft-spoken Kate, the store manager who always seems to be there when I go echoes the sense of tranquillity. 

Each time I go to get my little bag of Lapsang Souchong tea, I also get a little more of Tea Trader’s backstory. However on my most recent visit I asked Kate about other teas that I might like, and without hesitation and like an octopus, she enthusiastically started grabbing tins, while telling me about each of them, and inviting me to smell them. It was then that I realized Kate and my little tea shop was a pretty special Calgary business.

Kate loves to talk about the art and science of teas.

Backstory

Tea Trader, is owned by Ted and Colleen Jones, is located above Robinson’s Camera on 9th Avenue SE (formerly Atlantic Avenue) and has been in business since 1994 (It was the first tea only shop in Calgary).   I only found out recently that its current location is its fourth in Inglewood. It started directly across the street sharing space with one of the many, at the time, antique stores, then it moved two shops west sharing with a craft store, then for a few years it was east of the Blackfoot Truck stop until it settled in its present location for the last eight years.

Its roots lie in Ted’s working in London in the late ‘80s amongst a wide group of commodity traders coal, oil, and notably tea and coffee. Wanting his own business and liking the combination of tea, its customers and the buying/selling environment were key factors in the creation of Tea Trader.

The office/warehouse. 

Calgary Perfect

Ted a Brit, met Colleen from Ontario, while both were working in London and after three years in Cape Town, South Africa, they decided in 1990 that they wanted to live in the Western Canada. Even though they liked Vancouver, housing was too expensive even then. Calgary's lower cost of living, proximity to mountains and the fact they fell in love with Inglewood on their first visit to Cowtown made it a perfect place to start their new life and business.  

Over the years, Tea Trader has shipped tea to customers in Portugal, Britain, Japan, Australia, South Korea, Germany and Mexico, as well as all over North America. About 30% of their business is mail order and 60% is in-store.  Though, they couldn’t give me an exact volume of sales in pounds or kilograms, Kate did confirm “We sell tons of tea and at 3 grams a cup, that is a lot of tea!”

There is a small collection of vintage tea cups and pots. 

There is a small collection of vintage tea cups and pots. 

Alberta Clipper Tea

At any given time, they have 100 to 160 teas in stock. Because tea is a seasonal commodity, they have to buy enough tea for the whole year when it becomes available; otherwise they miss the boat.  The Jones buy from an assortment of suppliers in India, China, Sri Lanka and Taiwan – some are actual tea garden growers while others are tea agents for growers. 

The Jones create many of their own tea blends - customers’ favourites being Bow River Breakfast (a blend of Assam BOP and Darjeeling first flush black teas) and Alberta Clipper (a blend of Darjeeling, Assam and Yunnan second flush black teas).  blends. Eight Bells is one of their most popular teas - an Earl Grey combining vanilla and passion fruit petals.

Tea Trader was the first store in Calgary to offer non-tea infusions like rooibos, which brought a whole new clientele of South Africans to the shop. Today, hundreds of regulars for whom tea is part of their everyday life, come in like clockwork to buy  at Tea Trader. 

The wall of teas is impressive. 

Funny Stories

Ted was once stopped at Heathrow Airport in London when his bag had 3kg of tea in it.  The security guard, by the look on his face, thought he had the bust of a lifetime, though Ted said it was just tea.  He walked to his supervisor standing nearby and Ted watched patiently as he explained what he had found. The supervisor listened for a few minutes, looked over at Ted and without coming over to the table, waved Ted through.

Perhaps the strangest request they have had was an inquiry for tea to make a special paint for industrial use. The Jones put the prospective customer in touch with Twinings in South Carolina knowing they stocked large quantities of broken tea leaves, which would do the job, and have the specific skills for such a request.

There are lots of fun subliminal messages. 

There are lots of fun subliminal messages. 

Good Tea

Cooking & Baking

Kate informed me tea can be used in cooking and baking. For example, Matcha, a powdered green tea can be added to shortbread, macaroons and even ice cream. Adding my favourite Lapsang Souchong can impart its smoky flavour when roasting meats or fish.

Japanese green teas can be brewed and used to add a full, rich flavour to soup broth. Tea can also be fermented using a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast) to produce a drink called Kombucha.

Tea Trader offers a good selection of accessories.

Last Word

On my last visit, Kate informed me Lapsang Souchong is a pine-smoked variety of china black tea - the smoky flavour is not inherent to the tea leaf but rather the result of the smoke drying process. The story goes, the tea was created during the Qing dynasty (1644 to 1912) when the passage of armies delayed the annual drying of the tea leaves in the Wuyi Mountain in southeast China. Eager to satisfy demand, tea producers sped up the drying process by having their workers dry the tea leaves over fires made from local pine trees. It was Winston Churchill’s favourite tea; I heard he would also add a few drops of Lapsang Souchong tea to his scotch.

She also sent me home with a sample of a Keemun Mao Feng that she thought I might like (free taster bags, gotta like that). She was right!

Info:

  • Location: 1228A - 9th Avenue SE, 1-888-676-2939 / 403-264-0728
  • Open: Tuesday to Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm / Sunday, noon to 4 pm MST.
  • Website: teatrader.com
  • Email: shop@teatrader.com

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