Photos by Martin Cherry
I n today’s fast-paced world, coffee may keep us going, but tea, an ancient beverage enjoyed around the globe, encourages us to pause and savor the moment. In Middle Tennessee, a pair of tea shops are helping people slow down and connect with each other through this timeless tradition.
A trip to Burdett’s Tea Shop feels a bit like stepping into a different time. After all, it’s housed in a 1912 building on Main Street in Springfield, about 30 miles north of Nashville.
“We took ideas from the date of our building, stayed away from the frilly Victorian feel and went more with arts-and-crafts style and the look of British/European lunch places and tearooms,” says owner Sandy Ramsey. The result is a look she calls a cross between Southern hospitality and British charm: crocheted tablecloths, tea ware and art found at estate sales, bargain stores and a regional gift market.
Burdett’s opened 15 years ago with Twinings tea and “the perfect recipe” for made-from-scratch scones. “The tea shop was a fairly new idea for Springfield,” Sandy says. “It has taken time and some education, but the community as a whole has embraced and supported our shop.” She views sharing tea as a bond of friendship. “I have seen customers laugh, cry, smile, frown, ponder and pray at their table while sharing a pot of tea,” she says. “A cup of tea is warm to the touch and also warming to the soul.”
As the clientele grew accustomed to hot tea, Burdett’s transitioned to loose leaf. One of those customers was Hilly Wyne-Smith, a Black Hawk pilot-turned-producer of loose-leaf blends who became a business partner. “Her Rosehaven Gourmet loose tea became the only tea we used in our kitchen,” Sandy says.
Sandy’s daughter Erin Ramsey Binkley, who helped open Burdett’s in 2001, took over Hilly’s business when she retired, renaming it Blue Roses Tea. “We want customers to be able to rely on the high quality of our tea, which is sourced from all over the world,” Sandy says.
Burdett’s also sells teapots and accoutrements, and teaches novices how to brew their own perfect pot. “We have turned a number of folks into tea lovers,” she says.
Sandy’s go-to is stout black tea such as Russian Caravan or Borengajuli, but she also enjoys fruit infusions like Ipanema Clementine that consist of only fruit, herbs and spices. “It is delicious hot or cold—as are many of our teas,” Sandy says. “Most can be successfully brewed, cooled and served iced.”
The inclusion of cold tea helps draw local customers who may only be familiar with iced or sweet. So does the menu, with made-from-scratch tearoom fare such as chicken salad, quiche, soup and those ever-popular scones.
“A customer who travels miles to get to the shop says we have ‘the best scones this side of the pond,’” Sandy says. The daily baker’s choice scone often uses fresh fruit from local farms. She also sources honey from Robertson County, bread from Schlabach’s Amish Bakery in nearby Guthrie, Kentucky, and cheese from Sweetwater Valley Farm near Knoxville.
It may not be comfort food in the traditional sense, but it has the same effect. “Customers tell us that coming to the tea shop feels like coming home,” Sandy says. “That feeling of home is what Erin and I were striving for from the very beginning.”
Photo by Martin Cherry
You’ll also find a welcoming environment at High Garden in East Nashville, where owners Leah and Joel Larabell personally greet almost everyone who walks in.
Leah initially wanted to open an herbal shop, after seeing how herbs made a difference in her life and how she felt. “You realize you can just make a delicious tea out of herbs and then get these benefits you’re seeking,” she says.
Her husband, Joel, came to tea from a different perspective. He had traveled the globe doing humanitarian work and found tea as a way of connecting with people around the world. “Tea was a drink that everybody could enjoy together,” he says. “Even if you can’t speak the same language, you can communicate.”
The Larabells have crafted a setting encouraging classic methods of communication. No one is typing on a laptop, as there’s no wireless Internet. “People thought we were crazy for not having Wi-Fi,” Leah says. “But if you go in that room right now, you’re going to see people reading, talking, drawing, playing games together—eye contact. What we’re about in here is community.”
The East Nashville community welcomed High Garden almost immediately. It first opened in 2012 in the Shoppes at Fatherland, filling orders for tea sold through local businesses like Wild Cow and Frothy Monkey. The Larabells soon transitioned into a bigger spot on Fatherland and began testing tea service. In July, they moved down the road to a new, much larger space on Woodland.
“This shop wanted to be in this town,” Leah says. “It wanted to be in existence, and I’ve been so lucky to be its caretaker.”
Photo by Martin Cherry
With the new location come some new offerings. The apothecary-style tearoom remains in the front, but in the back, an area called the Root Cellar provides on-tap kombucha and fermented foods. They also now have a small, seasonal menu sourced entirely from local businesses such as Sugar Camp Farm in Bon Aqua and a number of East Nashville mainstays.
In the main tearoom, the soothing aroma from natural teas, herbs and spices permeates the air. Foraged flowers and herbs hang from the ceiling, a spray-foam surface painted brown to emulate dirt. Natural bark and wood are everywhere. “It’s our little hobbit hole,” jokes Leah. A lot came from fallen trees on their property in Joelton. “We tried for as few things to die to create this space,” she says. “And that’s how it is with everything. Every one of these plants were happy.” She points to the dozens upon dozens of glass jars with handwritten labels lining the wall behind her. “They have to be happy plants if they’re going to make you a happy cup,” she says.
To avoid being overwhelmed by all the choices, the Larabells help guide their customers, even if they’re new to tea. The first question: Caffeinated or not? “If they say no caffeine, we know we’re in the herb world,” Leah says, noting they don’t allow any chemicals in their products, such as the process of decaffeinating tea, nor any flavoring. “Everything has to be the plant in its form.”
For the herbal side of tea, they offer “purpose-forward, flavor second,” which may boost the immune system or digestive support, and “flavor-forward teas,” whole herbs and spices with no added flavoring.
“They’re like an easily absorbed multivitamin,” Leah says. “That is why our tea bags are so big, because we don’t do flavoring. Our herbs have to be so good that you actually taste them.” She has about 10 different suppliers who grow the herbs, much of which she dries herself. “Over the years, I have found who has the best lavender, who has the best chamomile.”
In Joel’s realm, all tea belongs to the same plant species—camellia sinensis. He sources directly from tea farmers in places such as China, Taiwan and Japan. Unlike with herbs, Tennessee’s climate doesn’t lend itself to growing tea. “It needs the perfect blend of not too hot, not freezing, enough sunlight and well-drained soil,” Joel says. “It grows well on high mountainsides, with the cloud mist and a lot of sunlight.” The best tea leaves are still picked and processed by hand, a skill perfected over generations.
Though all tea is one plant, High Garden offers scores of varieties, such as jasmine pearl, green jade and dragon eyes. “Think of it like apples,” Joel explains. “You have a lot of different varieties, but they’re all apples.”
He favors a Japanese green tea, gyokuro, but works closely with customers to figure out their palate. “Tea is the perfect blend of flavor and intent,” Joel says. “It’s restorative, but you’re also supposed to enjoy it.”
Their education efforts are working. Leah mentions a woman who had been having kidney issues and requested more stinging nettle seed. “She knew what she needed because she’d learned that plant and what had worked for her,” she says.
Though a trained herbalist, Leah doesn’t seek to be anyone’s expert. “I’m a bridge between the person and their plant. But it’s about establishing their relationship,” she says. “Joel’s the same way with the tea. The ceremony of tea is ancient for a reason. It takes out the hustle and bustle of the day. It drops into the simplicity of this cup, yet the complexity of nature—all within that cup.”