Indigo Tea Lounge

ANCHORAGE, Alaska

There’s nothing better on a chilly Alaskan day than a cup of hot tea. And, many Anchorage residents agree as they take up residence for an afternoon or evening at Indigo Tea Lounge, a community gathering spot and one of only two teahouses in the state’s largest city.

Indigo Tea Lounge

Coltman and Balean settled in Alaska in the late 80s and started up the presses for the town newspaper, The Anchorage Press. After selling that successful venture, they were traveling and discovered another business opportunity in furniture importing.  Indigo Design has proved profitable for the couple. When they purchased a 5,000 square-foot building in Anchorage’s commercial district, they had their eye on it for storage space, but these long-time tea lovers quickly zeroed in on one corner of the space that was calling out for a cafe. Today, about one-fifth of the floor space is devoted to the Indigo Tea Lounge, and the remaining area has morphed into a showroom for their contemporary pieces.

A non-descript exterior belies the inviting, contemporary space that Coltman and Balean have carefully cultivated. When customers enter the spacious and airy lounge, they get a glimpse of furniture posed for display in floor-to-ceiling cube shelving near the back of the building. White and charcoal-accented walls showcase local artists’ paintings. Customers sit on chairs and dine at tables handpicked from collections around the world. Asian touches abound with Buddha statues looking out over the customers. Decorative teapots, tea accoutrement, books and artwork fill the shelves (and walls) – all part of Indigo’s retail offerings.

Indigo bustles on the weekends, due in part to their afternoon tea service, an attractive three-tiered tray stocked with classic tea accompaniments updated to reflect modern tastes – scones, petit fours, truffles, fresh fruit and tea sandwiches. Customers choose from 12 hand-selected teas with a refillable pot for $20. High tea has proved popular enough to require reservations.

Coltman is proud of Indigo’s tea service, which was inspired by a 2004 trip to Taiwan where the hotel’s high tea service made a lasting impression. One half of the tea service was devoted to traditional English teas and the classic tea edibles – scones, clotted cream, and the like. The other half was a tribute to Asian tea culture with Chinese green teas and assorted Asian-inspired tea snacks, a marriage of the sweet and savory. “We were blown away,” recounts Coltman.

Indigo Tea LoungeThe couples’ enthusiasm for tea has not let up since. In addition to high tea, Indigo sells 150 loose-leaf teas, including blends that Balean dreams up. Top sellers include the classic Earl Grey, White Coconut Creme (Coltman thinks its due to beach-like scent that transports consumers), flavored teas, Bossa Nova oolong, green teas for the health-oriented crowd, and an Earl Grey pu-erh that is getting rave reviews. Pastry case offerings – scones, cookies, muffins – come straight out of Indigo’s kitchen, along with hearty soups and sandwiches.

People Power

The novelty of being a teahouse amidst the masses of coffee shops is only part of Indigo’s successful business equation. Coltman and Balean have, from the get-go, attracted customers by hosting a variety of community events. An active participant in First Fridays, Anchorage’s ambulatory celebration of art, Indigo Tea Lounge’s walls are hung with local artists’ pieces that art lovers can peruse while enjoying their evening tea. Monthly open mic nights draw in musicians ready for the spotlight, and Indigo’s stage is home to guest speakers as well. Recently, a mountain guide spoke to the teahouse crowd, sharing a slideshow of his historical exploits shepherding people up and around the Alaskan peaks. Entertainment abounds at Indigo, yet education remains a priority for Coltman and Balean, who offered a well-received Tea 101 class that they plan to bring back along with more tea-centric instruction.

With a full calendar of events drawing in crowds, growth has been robust, according to Coltman. He wrestles with the challenge of finding enough time to devote to the teahouse while operating the furniture import business. We’ve opened businesses before so, we understood going in that nothing is easy,” he adds. “We didn’t open it trying to make a lot of money. We knew it would be a lot of work.”

The longtime entrepreneur was happily surprised, however, by the enthusiastic response from the community. “People have been really excited and positive about our teahouse.” he shares. “People walk in and are surprised when met with a cozy and welcoming space.”

Coltman, like other tea entrepreneurs, faces the usual hurdles in the labor arena. “It’s tricky to work around our college students’ schedules and to keep employees for sustained periods. More importantly, it’s hard to find people that are passionate and knowledgeable about tea.”

Bringing Tea to the Masses

Coltman has found tea lovers in the coffee community that has helped expand Indigo’s wholesale business. One of the state’s biggest coffee roasters, Kaladi Brothers Coffee, sells Indigo teas in their 14 cafes. Steamdot, another area coffee distributor, also sells Indigo teas. Ginger, a downtown pan-Asian restaurant, offers 12 of Indigo’s blends to its diners. They confess to selling more tea than coffee, according to Coltman, notable in this decidedly coffee-strong town.

Balean is charged with most of the blending duties and continues to develop custom recipes for local restaurants and hair salons. Their wholesale package includes bagging and branding.

Expanding the wholesale operation is at the top of the couple’s future plans list. Coltman and Balean are confident in Anchorage’s capacity to take in more tea. Coltman has plans to refurbish the building’s exterior to better reflect Indigo’s attractive interior. He is also committed to offering additional tea classes, as he clearly sees his and Balean’s role as tea educators first and tea purveyors second. Looking further out Coltman thinks Anchorage would welcome another Indigo outpost in mid-town or South Anchorage.

Move over coffee. Tea has taken hold in the frontiers of Alaska.

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