Quebec’s Camellia Sinensis took home two World Tea Awards at the World Tea Expo in Las Vegas in June. The 20-year-old Canadian business was named Best Retail Tea Shop, Café, Bar and also won Best E-commerce Tea Website.
Helmed by four business partners with interests in different aspects of tea, Camellia Sinensis has grown from a single teahouse into a conglomerate of tea-focused entities. These include three tea stores, two teahouses, two tea schools, a wholesale operation and an experimental tea factory—all of which engage, enrich and educate their communities.
Partner Kevin Gascoyne shares what makes Camellia Sinensis so special: “The culture of our company is very much based on respect—respect to the client, respect to the staff and respect to the producers we buy from.”
The original Camellia Sinensis teahouse was founded in Montreal’s Latin Quarter in 1998 by Hugo Americi, who had drawn inspiration from his travels through Europe, specifically from the Dobra teahouses in Prague. He made sure his teahouse had the relaxed ambience of a bohemian lounge complete with live gypsy-style music playing into the night.
Before long, Jasmin Desharnais and François Marchand joined Amirici as business partners. The fourth partner, Gascoyne, first came into the picture as a tea importer who’d bring in tasting kits and slide presentations of his international travels. Then in 2004, Gacoyne combined his company with Camellia Sinensis, and the four men officially became a team.
“We’re almost like family,” Gascoyne says. “Each of us has a very different skillset, and we all take care of different parts of the business. We are all tea tasters and buyers, and we each specialize in a different geographical region.”
According to Gascoyne, Americi’s original bohemian den gradually transformed into a showroom designed for focused tastings of the “leafy delights” the partners were selecting in Asia. Nowadays, “the Mother Ship,” as they call it, has a modern, wood interior with Asian references, although it is not defined by a single country. A Camellia Sinensis teahouse fills a separate space next door, and it’s “No Techno Zone,” meaning there is no Wi-Fi connection and cell phones must be set to silent.
Camellia Sinensis’s other two tea stores each have their own unique character. The one in Montreal’s Little Italy district on Marché Jean-Talon is the company’s smallest outpost at about 400 square feet. It features dark wood decor and three walls wrapped in teas. The third location, in Quebec City, was designed by an architectural firm, so its look is more modern, with clean lines and a teahouse connected to the front.
Besides being beautiful spaces, the Camellia Sinensis tea stores and teahouses are known for their extensive catalogues of teas, 85 percent to 90 percent of which are single origin, seasonal, hand-selected onsite and purchased directly from the producer. The comprehensive selections cover most growing regions, Gascoyne says, and many of the teas are organic. Each year, the company runs its teas through a testing protocol for pesticides and other chemicals. Good flavor is always the utmost priority, which suits the visceral sensibilities of the Quebecois.
Camellia Sinensis is also prized for its exceptional customer service and tea knowledge, serving as an educational resource for its communities. The company’s two tea schools offer 21 workshops (most taught in French) covering topics such as the discovery of tea and pairing tea with chocolate, cheese and scotch. Additionally, Gascoyne leads a popular summer school in English. This full weekend of classes features four workshops and two comparative tastings, covering 60 teas total. Classes will also be offered at the company’s tea factory in India, the Tea Studio, for people who want to learn about tea production and to teach people about specialty tea.
On the technical end, this year marks the third time Camellia Sinensis’s website has won a World Tea Award. A comprehensive resource for any type of tea customer, the website features an online tea store, information about the three teahouses and workshops, analyses of tea’s properties, recipes and more. And yet, always striving to better serve its clientele, the company will launch a new and improved website later this year.
The company also fosters community online but especially within its tea store and teahouse walls. The Tea Club meets once a month to swap stories and chat with a tea expert. The After Hours Club, usually comprised of international visitors, meets monthly as well.
Perhaps Gascoyne’s philosophy as a tea business owner sums up Camellia Sinensis best: “Always approach a client on their level; communicate in their language with generosity and an inclusive message. Tea is a democratic product; it’s the leaf of the people. Offer a good product and empower the client to feel that they are welcome.”