WATERTOWN — At the MEM Tea Imports warehouse, Suanne Scalise is pouring tea into thin porcelain cups that offer just a few sips. Tasting the brew is staff from Flour Bakery + Cafe, who are learning the characteristics of teas they serve and some they don’t know. Most of the bakery crew work front-of-house jobs at various Flour locations, and since early morning they have been tasting at stops around town. This late-afternoon seminar is their last, and probably most relaxing, spot. They have brought a large platter of cookies, which sit untouched. Where they work, there are always plenty of cookies.
One tea is pu-erh, highly prized, expensive fermented leaves from the southwest China region of Yunnan. “It was originally used as currency,” explains Scalise, director of education. “You could use it to get a meal.” Pu-erh is also a medicinal cure-all. It is oxidized and smells like mushrooms, and can sit in a cellar for a century. The tea expert has stories, lore, history, and National Geographic-style slides on her subject.
Later this spring, MEM will launch a training center in Davis Square, Somerville, for its wholesale accounts, which number more than 650, including Row 34, Uni, Rialto, and Quebrada Baking Co. The new location, across from Italian restaurant Posto, will also be a retail store, where customers can taste teas and buy them by the ounce, but not by the brewed cup. “It will not be a cafe,” says owner Gilbert Tsang, 38. Instead, the tea experts will tell customers where in the region their brews are served. The shop will have an area with modular office tables on wheels, so the tea staff can maneuver them to make big and small areas for restaurant staff. “At one point,” says MEM founder Mark Mooradian, 64, “we had trained every waitperson in town.” They cringe now when they hear how their teas are sometimes served, when the basket inside a pot is so full that leaves can’t possibly steep properly, or when the tea arrives too strong to drink.
They’re also ready to build the brand. In the last dozen years, specialty tea sales have jumped dramatically — from less than $2 billion to more than $11 billion estimated for 2015, according to the trade group Tea Association of the U.S.A. Inc. A large part is what the industry calls RTD (ready-to-drink, mostly bottled teas) and premium brews, which young, educated consumers are buying. “Specialty teas play into the whole millennial thing of trying new things, grazing, flavor experience,” says the organization’s president, Peter Goggi. Millennials engage in their products and enjoy learning where they’re from, he says. Tea fits right in to that.
But MEM’s warehouse is on a side street across from a Target, and there is only a small sign on the door announcing what’s inside. Few know they can buy fine tea here. Tsang understands that “there’s a disconnect between the user and the company,” and now wants restaurants to say what tea they’re pouring, the way they might tell you what chicken they’re roasting or which farmer grew the carrots. “We’re trying to build a better identity,” he says. They also hope to capture more of the millennials’ business, because they drink as much tea as coffee right now.
MEM buys some teas in China, directly from manufacturers and gardens. In some regions, there are agents on the ground, in places like Crete, where the Mediterranean Mint tea comes from. Other teas are sourced by In Pursuit of Tea, run by Sebastian Beckwith, who supplies top New York restaurants. Tsang has an interest in Beckwith’s company, warehouses teas for him, and fulfills its orders.
To decide which tea to buy, Tsang, Mooradian, operations manager Meg Tartasky, and others blind sip 15 to 20 lot-specific samples. When they finally narrow it down and order a tea, they’re sent a “ship sample” and they taste again to see if it matches the first one. If that’s OK, when the tea arrives, they choose three random spots in the container to see if those match what was first tasted. About twice a year, says Tsang, it’s not the same tea, but that’s out of 150 products. “We spend hours and hours checking everything,” says Mooradian.
They seem to enjoy their reputation as picky. “We’re very fussy,” says Mooradian. “But if we have a great lot of Assam, sales will go up.”
Restaurateur Jason Bond serves the teas at Bondir in Cambridge and Bondir Concord. “I love how much attention they put into their blends,” says the chef.
Tzurit Or, who owns five Tatte Bakery & Cafe locations, buys the teas because the warehouse is local and “it is also a company that puts a great deal of thought and care in their tea.” She thinks they pair well with her confections.
MEM was founded in 1999 by Mooradian (his middle initial is “E”). He had sold coffee for years under the label Espresso Express. Tsang and his younger brother, Alvin, were distributing coffee, then opened Cafenation in Brighton Center, which Alvin now runs. Mooradian and Gilbert began brainstorming six years ago about combining the tea and coffee companies. Eventually Tsang bought MEM in 2009, and now Mooradian consults to the company; he also grows elderflower and chamomile tea on Karnak Farm in Saco, Maine.
Tea bags are a fraction of their business. Most commercial bags contain what the industry calls CTC, which stands for “crush, tear, curl” and is not up to MEM standards. But some circumstances call for a bag (a small kitchen, perhaps, like the one at Mike & Patty’s in Bay Village), so the company uses its own large, triangular pouches, and fills them with loose leaves; they take time to steep and have room to expand.
Counter workers like the Flour staff fulfill orders by putting loose leaves into a tea-filter bag and typically draping it over the side of the cup, so the drinker can lift it out.
The pu-erh is the eighth caffeinated pour in the tasting, followed by half a dozen herbal teas and lattes. This 2005 harvest costs $200 for a 13-ounce compressed cake (pu-erh prices go up to $100,000). Scalise agrees that with its strong mothball aroma and burnt flavor — she describes it enticingly as burnt caramel — pu-erh is an acquired taste.
In his Cambridge restaurant, says Bond, more diners are ordering pu-erh, “which makes me happy because I like to drink it. It’s got a lot of depth,” he says, and goes with his food.
Sampling teas is a little like sampling wines. The Flour group gets giddier as the pours continue. When they leave, every worker tucked away in a corner of the warehouse appears and descends on the cookies, which disappear in minutes.
MEM employees have access to all the tea they could ever hope for. But cookies are different. Perhaps more prized than tea.
MEM Tea Imports are sold at the warehouse at 49 Elm St., Watertown, 617-627-9500; City Feed & Supply, 672 Centre St., Jamaica Plain, 617-524-1700; Dave’s Fresh Pasta, 81 Holland St., Somerville, 617-623-0867; Debra’s Natural Gourmet, 98 Commonwealth Ave., Concord, 978-371-7573; The Cheese Shop of Salem, 45 Lafayette St., Salem, 978-498-4820, and more. Go to www.memteaimports.com for a complete list.Sheryl Julian can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @sheryljulian.