Ceremony Brings a Modern Tea House Experience to Providence
Owner Michelle Cheng and team serve loose leaf brewed teas, zero-proof cocktails, nitro matcha drinks and more on Thayer Street.
One of the best remedies for feeling physically or emotionally drained can be found in the bottom of a teacup. Ceremony is a new modern tea house and Providence’s first zero-proof bar, located on Thayer Street in the former Tealuxe space, which closed last summer after more than ten years in business.
The café opened in November after owner Michelle Cheng – who was born in China and came to live in the United States when she was thirteen – established her direct trade, ethically sourced loose leaf tea importing business, Leafy Green Tea. She initially launched Leafy Green in 2017 through Hope and Main in Warren, then wanted to open a brick and mortar space so her clients would have a place to pick up tea orders and do tastings. When the former Tealuxe space became available, she couldn’t think of a better location.
Cheng got the idea to start a loose leaf tea importing business in Rhode Island after she and her family could not find good quality teas in the United States. “The only tea we could find was what you can get at Stop and Shop and everything came in a tea bag,” she says. “It only tastes good if you put a ton of sugar and cream in it.”
They began drinking coffee instead, but missed the teas of their native homeland. Once Cheng started a job in textile importing in New York City, and began traveling back and forth to China, she started bringing home loose leaf tea from China for her family’s personal consumption.
“Every time I would go back to China, at my mom’s request, I would have to bring an empty suitcase, and that suitcase was dedicated to tea,” Cheng says. “Then I learned it was illegal to import that much tea without claiming for it.”
She eventually moved back to Rhode Island from New York City, and began looking into how to import tea as a business venture. After completing Hope and Main’s incubator program, she found a mentor in the owner of New Harvest Coffee Roasters out of Pawtucket, who allowed her to temporarily use their space for the production of nitro tea, which is supplied to area universities, including Rhode Island School of Design, Brown University and Roger Williams University. That gave her a base to jumpstart a brick and mortar shop.
Her goal is to fill a tea void in Rhode Island. “I realized there was a missing link here,” she says. “People were becoming more aware of direct sourcing for their coffee and chocolate, and tracing back to where their meat is coming from, but no one was paying attention to tea. What boggled my mind is that tea is the most popular drink in the world other than water.”
When she was ready to open a storefront, the Tealuxe space coincidentally came on the market. Thayer Street Merchants’ Association put Cheng in touch with the former owners. “I respect what they did, and how they brought the community together,” she says. “When I first started Leafy Green, everyone always asked me, if you could open up a storefront, where would it be? I always said Tealuxe, because it’s the best location, and I want to impact the community starting with a younger generation so they can make this a part of their daily ritual.”
Cheng is renting the Tealuxe space from the former owners, and she changed the decor to reflect her style and current trends. The interior is contemporary with a clean, white aesthetic. “Everything is minimalist, and then the pops of color come from our tea and drinks,” she says, adding that she travels to China twice each year to stay on top of trends and meet with tea growers.
Ceremony is a great spot to grab a cup of tea to go, or to stay and study and work over tea. For a bite to eat, Chinese pastries are available from Sino Box, an Asian bakery that also recently launched out of Hope and Main. Guests can also sit at the bar and learn all about the ancient drink during a tea ceremony. Tea apprentices will take you through the various steeps of loose leaf tea, so you can experience the ritual and taste the flavors that develop at various intervals. It’s also a bonding experience.
“When you’re sharing a tea ceremony with someone, that’s an intimate connection in itself; tasting and experiencing the same feelings in the same environment, and that really brings people together,” says Ceremony tea apprentice Bee Berks.
Adds Cheng, “There’s a saying in China that you could be perfect strangers and sit together and by the end of a tea ceremony, everyone is best friends.”
I did a tea ceremony with the Taiwanese rose oolong, and I made some new friends along the thirty-minute journey.
First, guests should rethink American and British customs when it comes to drinking tea. The teas at Ceremony should not be mixed with milk and sugar; they should be appreciated for their natural flavors. “The rose oolong is from Taiwan, and it’s hand-picked and hand-produced from a family that’s been doing this for four going on five generations,” Cheng says. “They don’t roast the rose and the tea leaves together, because it’s so hard to control the temperature that way. He ages them together and roasts separately, then blends them back in together.”
Cheng prepares the tea in a traditional gaiwan, a bowl-like porcelain cup with a lid, which has already been warmed up. She adds the tea and hot water to the cup, and I sniff it as it brews to detect the sweet aroma of rose petals. She pours the liquid through a filter and the “first rinse” is discarded.
“Traditionally, the reason for this is because, back then, people didn’t have quality control, so dust may have settled on the tea. You rinse it off, but now it’s part of the ritual,” she says. “You shock the tea with a rinse so the first steep comes out infused with flavor.”
Before serving the first of three tastes of the tea, the drinking cups are also rinsed for purification, then warmed with hot water. Inside the gaiwan, the leaves are steeped six times in three, two-steep intervals, so guests can experience the changes in flavor.
“You want to slurp it and swish it around your whole tongue, and hold it,” Cheng says, while pouring my first taste. “The tea can hit all the different parts of your flavor palate, so you can get all the different notes.”
After the sixth steep, the tea has expanded to five times its initial size, and the leaves nearly fill the whole cup. The sixth steep is not as strong as the first and second tastes, but it has a soft flavor that leaves a clean tingle in the back of my throat.
Ceremony not only conducts tea ceremonies, but it’s also a great place to go for zero-proof cocktails (Happy hour is from 5 to 7 p.m.) These drinks do not contain alcohol, but they have fun flavor profiles using teas, including oolong, matcha, lapsang, black tea and more mixed with ingredients like pickled plum, simple syrup, rice wine, coconut milk, lime juice, yuzu and much more. The ice for the drinks is handcut and each cocktail looks too pretty to drink, accented with flower petals. They also serve cold brew teas as zero-proof wine, including red, white and rose versions in wine glasses.
There’s a Chinese New Year special right now, called the Adzuki Matcha Latte. It’s a beautiful layered drink, with sweet adzuki red beans on the bottom, mixed with matcha and soy milk. It’ll give you that caffeine buzz without the headache. Perhaps that’s what keeps students coming back repeatedly, besides Ceremony being a great place to study and reconnect with friends.
Cheng is surprised that students show up right before closing time for tea drinks. “I find that our students don’t care what time of day it is. We have a Dirty Matcha with a shot of New Harvest nitro coffee. Students come in right before we close at 10 p.m. and get them,” she says. “I was worried how we would sell the tea in the evening, so this is good!”
231 Thayer St., Providence, ceremonypvd.com