Canadian Sommelier Opened The Tea Lounge

LONDON, Canada

What does it take to be a tea shop owner in Canada? It helps to know something about both the leaf and the retail business. Successful owners are typically enthusiastic and dauntless.

Michelle Pierce Hamilton is that and more. A Canadian certified tea sommelier and a registered nutritionist who founded beTeas, she has since expanded the online business into a bricks-and-mortar teahouse with a selection of 150 ethically sourced teas, many organic.

She sources direct from some gardens in Assam and Nepal with a preference for single-estate, artisanal teas.

This time last year Pierce Hamilton was ready to hang up her dreams of someday opening a teahouse. A former project manager in the corporate world, she had lost out on some prime locations, encountered issues with the city and was at the point her hopes of opening a tea shop grew faint. She figured she would have to be content with online sales and teaching tea sommelier classes at the local college.

Enter Yixing Tang, one of her sommelier students, a Hunan, China, native who moved to London, Ontario, to study at the University of Western Ontario. He was keen to open a tea shop in Montreal and, being well-versed in Chinese tea, he took a course taught by Pierce Hamilton to learn more about international tea.

Tang soon set aside his pursuit of a degree in chemical engineering: “It’s like, been there, done that. Let’s move on,” he said.

Tang was outside with a tray of samples greeting passersby when World Tea News dropped in for a chat.  Tang’s appearance is shockingly youthful, Pierce Hamilton is a veteran in tea who quotes a favored expression from Tang’s homeland, “Only fill the cup two-thirds full. Two-thirds for the tea and one-third for hospitality.”

Tang recalls the conversation that started it all. The two were on a tea tour. While sitting in a teahouse in Shanghai, Tang said: “You want to open a shop and I want to open a shop, why don’t we open one together?” Pierce Hamilton half-heartedly agreed, never thinking something could really happen. Meanwhile, halfway around the world a simple text began her transition to the life of a tea entrepreneur.

The text was from a property manager and friend who looked out the window from where she was seated and excitedly alerted Pierce Hamilton that she’d found the perfect place for teahouse. It was 1,200 square feet of retail space and former fitness center. The building was full of character and just a short walk from the bustle of the main drag, in the Piccadilly Promenade, a neighborhood of older houses that had been converted into businesses.

On returning to London, Ontario, a small city two hours west of Toronto, Pierce Hamilton visited the spot and when she did, that was it. She and Tang formed a partnership. He manages the store and she plans events and creates recipes and tea pairings. The sommelier-sourced and nutrition-based menu items satisfy the palate and meet modern dietary demands. Gluten free? Vegan options? No problem. Pierce Hamilton comes up with the ingredients, and Tang assembles and styles them.

On Nov. 7, 2016, The Tea Lounge became a reality with a soft opening and a two-day grand opening Dec. 9-10. Offering a wide selection of teas and food, various tea wares and tea-infused products (soaps, chocolates, etc.), all housed in an eclectic exotic environment with cozy and distinct seating areas.

The shop offers tea in various styles: A contemporary pot (with or without infuser), traditional style (Japanese, Chinese and English); a bowl of matcha, and Chinese “Grandpa” style where leaves can unfurl naturally in a mug without infuser. There are also “cups to go.”

In May, The Tea Lounge introduced afternoon tea.

The top seller, is a cinnamon orange spice rooibos that features natural sweetness from cinnamon oil making this a “gateway drug” for tea novices, says Pierce Hamilton. Herbals currently outsell conventional teas but as customers are exposed to her rich array that may change.

She relies on local restaurants and locally sourced farm suppliers for their food items including a daily soup and Sunday brunch items (parfait bowl, pop-eye toast and tuna on toast).

Other selections include:

  • Cheeseboards are a lunch size and reasonably priced. “All About Cheese Board” (uses local Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese, handmade tapenade, crackers and condiments).
  • Organic mason jar salads, layered salads made and served in jars, locally farmed, rotation of three everyday, with names like Sexi Mexi, Fruityoxidant and Kitchen Sink. Choice of sides include hemp hearts, pickled beets, kimchi, goji berries, etc.

Customers tend to be in their mid-20s to middle age. The shop attracts more university professors than students, but more students are coming in.

Pierce Hamilton has plans for many activities and events, including live music, yoga in the grass and this fall, a licensed tea cocktail evening possibly with tea-infused wine.

The Tea Lounge strives to be a true oasis for locals and tourists alike. The easy-going staff and beautiful period setting with patio seating, weather permitting, is ideal for stepping away from the bustle of workaday madness. “We live in a society that has forgotten the value of slowing down and taking time to just be,” says Pierce Hamilton.

Learn more:

Tea Lounge
268 Piccadilly St.
London, Ontario N6A 1S4
519-601-TEAS (8327)