Last month I discovered an amazing tea shop from Germany – Teabento. I’m fascinated to see that tea culture is spreading all over the world and even the Europeans have the opportunity to drink the best teas from around the world. Ning-Ning and Boris are the passionate and extremely approachable owners of Teabento, German loose leaf tea shop with unique concept and extraordinary teas. They are a tea addicts, and both ITMA Certified Tea Sommeliers. I decided to make an interview with them for a few simple reasons – it was a love at first sight, and after I received my teas, a love at first smell and sip.
Ning-Ning and Boris agreed to share their warm story and give an insight into their world of tea.
Tea Chronicles: Boris & Ning-Ning, tell us a bit about your shop, Teabento. Where did the concept came from? You are probably the most creative tea shop in the world, not only in Germany.
Boris: First, we want to thank you, Iva, for giving us the opportunity to give an interview about our shop. We are very pleased with the interest and in particular the praise, which we would never express on ourselves. But it is pleasant to us in any case.
Our shop had been laying as an idea in an drawer for a very long time, which Ning-Ning and I have opened and closed again and again in recent years. The idea was so persistent, so stubborn and always present that on a certain evening, when we discussed it together in the kitchen for the umpteenth time, we simply decided to bring it to life. We still did not know what our shop would look like. We had no vision at all, there was no concept and no name. But this exact state was simply wonderful! Anyone who has once created something out of the ground probably knows this uplifting feeling to have made a firm decision and to be about to create something for yourself. Even if it was only a small shop, we were standing in front of a white canvas and could let our creativity run wild.
Gradually, the idea took shape. We rejected many of the things that we previously thought were great ideas, e.g. the “bento configurator” (our customers should have the opportunity to put together a tea-bento, an individual box with teas in our shop). The romance, which is characteristic of every startup in the creative phase, soon gave way to the realisation that much of what we had rather easily imagined, in reality was very complex, time consuming or simply not suited to our target audience.
Especially with our target audience, it was difficult to get a denominator: we wanted to appeal to both tea beginners and tea experts, which is not as simple as it may seem at first, since both groups have completely different needs and must be addressed differently. We realized that we had to keep things very simple, even if we wouldn’t stand out of the masses.
But if you do not stand out against the more usual concepts on the web, failure is pre-programmed. So we put a lot of energy into the design of our shop, which should become our window to the outside world, in which we present our teas. The presentation of the teas had to be unconventional and we had a long time thought about how to do it. One day, when our son was sitting at the dining table and drawing a cat on a sheet of paper with a ball-point pen, it struck me suddenly like a bolt of lightning. This exact cat became our Silver Cat and many more tea-animals followed. Often I asked our kids: Do you know any other animals with fur? And then we all started to draw. It was really fun.
Tea Chronicles: Teabento has the most unique teas from over the world. It seems like every single one of them is very carefully selected. How do you choose your teas?
We love tea and have a lot of fun trying out lots of different teas of diverse varieties from distinct regions. We never get tired of sampling our way through the tea sample mountains we have at home, until we find a rockstar, and choose all teas together. If we are not in harmony with a tea, it is not included in our assortment. It sometimes happens that we can not choose between two similar teas. Then our son helps us. He has an incredibly sensitive taste, already with his seven years he helped us a few times out of trouble.
The direct comparison proved to be the best selection method for us. The teas get lined up in a row, prepared and sampled. Not every tea needs to be evaluated according to the same criteria. Some teas are suitable for the Gong-fu style and show their strengths only after several infusions, others are brilliant only with the first two infusions, but these are breathtaking! Sometimes we try the teas with different water. Some teas have a mineral character and do not develop in soft spring water as well as in filtered tap water.
However, our test sessions do not always have this lab-like design. Sometimes Ning-Ning serves me some tea, while I’m dealing with something completely different, and asks me like a quiz master: “What tea is this?” I then begin to guess and she just grins because she has a surprise for me. Usually it is a tea, which I had previously dismissed as flat and which now suddenly awakened at the seventh or so steeping, releasing surprisingly fruity honey notes and making me totally baffled. These experiences are very uplifting as you find something hidden, secret. At the same time, we know that not all of our customers cultivate such an intensive use of their tea. Therefore we try to offer teas which are easy to prepare and which are tolerant to flawy preparations or even suitable for different preparation methods.
Our teas are drawn from very different sources. Our favourite way to go is the direct contact to the tea farmers. The more personal, the better. Fortunately, Ning-Ning speaks Chinese, which makes it much easier for us to work with our partners in China and Taiwan. We pay close attention to the human factor and attach great importance to trustworthy and long-lasting partnership. That is why we take a lot of time to research, communicate and build each individual relationship with our partners.
Tea Chronicles: Europe is still searching for its taste in tea. It seems like flavored teas are being slowly forgotten and tea drinkers started to be more demanding and conscious about the quality. What are the tea drinking habits in Germany like?
Not long ago a friend had been watching me while preparing tea. She asked me if I had a cold. This question has a symbolic character for a large part of the Germans. Traditionally, especially herbal teas are drunk in Germany in addition to long-standing strong Ostfriesentees and the British classics, mostly of bags from the supermarket. These are often flavoured and contain one or the other fruit or fruit bowl for marketing purposes. Flavoured teas still have a firm and broad slump in Germany. Even in small independent tea shops, it often smells like in a drugstore and you get the feeling that the organic seal is more trusting than your own nose. Of course, there is also a core of tea connoisseurs, of which one can still learn a lot. However, the large tea trend wave is slow in coming. But it’s coming for sure!
At an event where I recently participated (it had nothing to do with tea), a game was played that involved grouping together in the room according to different criteria; by age, by place of birth, by the tendency to rice or pasta, and also by preference for coffee or tea. The result of the coffee vs. tea round resulted in a ratio of 3 to 2 for coffee. Interestingly, the tea group had several players with coffee cups in their hands. The interest in tea is there. However, the convenience culture in Germany is strongly developed. At the same time, the range of good teas or good suppliers is very limited, so that the obstacles to self-education in anything tea are very high.
We feel that the consumption of flavoured teas or drinks with tea additives rises more and more as the awareness of a healthy diet is there, but it is not easy to make a radical change, from the taste-intensive limos, to which one has become accustomed, to the high-quality teas with you’re not familiar with yet. In this aspect other countries are far ahead of Germany. Most orders received in our shop are international.
Tea Chronicles: Is extreme tea passion important to successfully run a tea shop and in choosing the best teas? When was your passion born?
Ning-Ning and I both come from quite different tea cultures, the Chinese and the Russian. For us both tea is and has always been part of family tradition and this fact act as mutual amplifier of our shared passion for tea. When our passion for tea was born, we can not say with the best will.
But what we can say for sure is that we would not have set our little startup without passion for tea. A passion for tea is the basic prerequisite for starting a tea business. In the beginning, in particular, one has to show a lot of perseverance and quickly accept that tea is only a part of the whole undertaking, while other parts are much less romantic. Although a while has passed since my last visit to the Perishable Center at Frankfurt Airport, I still feel the intense smell mix of fruit and fish in my nose. The passion for tea is everything here, it makes the work worthwhile. Anyone who does not have a passionate relationship with tea will not be motivated, will not be deeply concerned with tea, make bad selections and offer no good advice. It simply doesn’t work without passion.
Tea Chronicles:What are your favorite teas? What tea from Teabento shop you like the most and why?
Boris: What are our favourites? This is the hardest question so far! Of course, we love all our teas, otherwise we would not offer them. I just asked Ning-Ning about her favourite and had to stop her as she started listing our complete assortment. Before I could stop her, she has listed the following teas:
I myself would add the following:
But as I said, we love all our teas, and we recommend to anyone that you try them and meet your own individual choice of your favourite tea animals in our shop.
By the way: We also offer a Sample Bento : )
Tea Chronicles: I hope your Teabento tea animals find many passionate and loving owners. I know I enjoyed very very much. Thank you Boris & Ning-Ning for your time to share your tea passion with us.
Tea Chronicles Reviews: Teabento
Reviews can be seen here and there will be more coming soon. Boris & Ning-Ning gave a special discount Teabento to all Tea Chronicles readers. Type in „cajne“ during your tea check-out for a 10% off. Don’t know which one to choose? Take a look at sample teabento box – it includes eight Teabento teas and you can choose your own tea animals if you wish. Discount is valid until the end of October, so go ahead, adopt one. Teabento’s tea animals can offer a lot of love.