Drinking tea in Tampa, FL
TeBella Tea Company on Davis Islands was a delightful find on my recent trip to Florida. My Mom had been telling me about the place for weeks because she knows I like a good cup of tea. I figured I’d like it, but didn’t anticipate that I’d fall in love with it. In fact, I became a little obsessed. I was impressed not only by the enormous selection of teas, but by the friendly and knowledgeable staff. If you like tea, but don’t know much about it, want to learn more about tea, or want to try a cup of loose leaf tea for the first time, this is the place to go. Within minutes of my first visit, I felt like part of the family.
It can be a little overwhelming to step into TeBella for the first time. Abigail offers over 100 flavors of tea served hot or iced, with or without milk and sugar, plus coffee, macarons, and biscotti. Plus, she sells cookbooks and tea accessories. Luckily, Abigail, her husband Hunter, and their staff are ready to break down the barriers to tea. Staring at the long wall of shelves filled with silver tea canisters for the first time, I almost ordered a cup of chamomile, not because that’s what I wanted, but because it was one of the few teas that I knew I liked. Abigail caught my cautious glance and furrowed eyebrows and stepped in to help.
“Can I help you with something?” she asks with a genuine smile.
For the bewildered and uninitiated tea drinker, Abigail begins by asking what kind of flavors one prefers: fruity? spicy? nutty? earthy? Being the definition of uninitiated and bewildered in that moment, all I could tell her was that I don’t like fruity teas and, since it was late in the day, I wanted something caffeine free. It wasn’t much for her to go on, but, as if guided by some sort of tea spirit, she went straight to the wall of teas and pulled down a canister labelled Lemon Rose – a mix of lemongrass and rose petals with cloves. It turned out to be perfect.
If you’ve never had loose leaf tea and don’t even have something to dislike, don’t panic, taste the Tea of the Day or take one of Abigail’s suggestions for a best seller. For those new to tea drinking, she recommends flavored teas like Mint Julep or her holiday special blend called Peppermint Bark to get used to the taste of tea before moving on to more complex and intense teas.
But perhaps you already have a sophisticated taste for tea? TeBella offers plenty of choices for you, too. Her Reserve Collection currently includes Silver Needle, a prized white tea, and a single estate, first flush Darjeeling. Recently, she also offered White Whisper, a rare tea from a one acre farm in Kenya.
Abigail tasted about 1500 teas to create her menu. Her goal: to offer the best tasting, sustainable teas across the broad spectrum of tea flavors. Her husband, Hunter, helped her taste these teas and Abigail is the first one to tell you he was essential to the menu creation process. He has a knack for picking out the subtle flavors of tea and judging them objectively.
“He has a true gift,” says Abigail, perched on a stool in her Davis Islands shop on a Tuesday morning. Wrapped in a light gray dress with a cup of tea in her hands, she is relaxed and excited to talk tea with me.
Before I’m all the way in the door to interview Abigail that morning, she offers me a cup of tea. I let her tastes guide me and, even though I’d only been in a few times, she knows I like floral, earthy teas and steers me towards one of her favorites: Earl Grey Lavender. It’s a careful mix of black tea, bergamot, lavender and jasmine that she blends herself.
Knowing her teas and her customers is one of the ingredients in the success of TeBella. The majority of her customers are repeat business. “On an average day,” she says, “we know about fifty percent of our customers by name and/or how they take their tea – or at least what kind of teas they like.”
Don’t like tea? She’s got coffee, too.
“When I was a little girl, my Dad used to take me to tea rooms when we traveled,” says Abigail. But her father doesn’t drink tea and few, if any, of the tea rooms they visited served coffee. While Abigail developed her taste for teas, her father sipped coffee from a to go cup he’d go get after finding yet another tea menu without coffee on it. “That’s why I sell coffee.”
Although Abigail has had a sophisticated preference for loose leaf tea since she was a young teenager, she knows a lot of people just don’t drink tea. So she keeps Buddy Brew, a locally roasted coffee, on hand. Her customers love it and she enjoyed tasting it even though she doesn’t drink it.
“I’ve probably had less than fifteen cups of coffee in my entire life,” smiles Abigail, “I’ve probably never finished a whole cup.”
Instead, she’s drunk thousands of cups of tea.
So what’s her favorite? It’s no surprise she can’t pick just one. Abigail prefers single estate black teas. On her menu, her current favorites are Earl Grey Lavender and Sucre. While the Sucre isn’t what she usually likes, it’s defined by butterscotch and cinnamon flavors, but she’s obsessed with it these days. She also has a private stash at home, which currently includes an autumnal Darjeeling and a Nepalese tea.
Today’s local ingredients:
Only one: Buddy Brew Coffee
Why not the tea?
There are only two tea gardens in the United States! One is in South Carolina and only does machine-picked bagged teas. The other, in Hawaii, offers exquisite tea that wholesales for $300/lb. Neither of them right for TeBella.
TeBella Tea Company sustainable practices: AWESOME.
Abigail’s teas are sourced from all over the world, but she carefully researches each tea garden before buying. It’s rare to find a tea garden that uses pesticides, so finding tea without chemicals and organic tea isn’t too tough, luckily. Abigail also prefers to buy from tea gardens that she knows treat their workers fairly and pay a living wage. You can read more about her sustainable choices on her website (where you can also buy her tea if you’re not lucky enough to be in Tampa and shop in person).