The tea-making process itself is surprisingly a meditative process—a recent revelation I experienced through a private tasting at The Cultured Cup. Although we didn’t originally know each other, skilled instructor Kyle Stewart invited Doug and Karen Smith to join me in the session. As we sat at a beautiful wood-grain table designed by Marek—a wood table artist in Poland—we briefly shared what had brought us into the shop.
The table is a stunning blend of artistry and functionality. Its hues shift between mesmerizing brown tones and luscious caramel colors, with a waterproof resin coating that protects the wood from moisture. What truly captivated me were the intricate rings within the wood-grain, each one narrating the tree’s age and the hardships it weathered. The darkest circles represent the first year of the tree's life, while the light-colored rings indicate growth in the spring and early summer. Dark rings signify growth during late summer and fall. Some parts of the rings bear patterns of scarring, revealing the physical or chemical trauma the tree experienced. This connection to wabi sabi was not lost on me as I observed Kyle preparing the electric kettle.
Our conversation revolved around what had brought us to the shop. The Smiths came in to restock their tea collection and decided to purchase an artisan oolong tea called Dan Cong. Kyle had invited me to this tea tasting experience, and I was intrigued by the idea of a single tea transforming into three distinctive drinks.
We fell into a peaceful silence as Kyle passed around a small bowl containing the loose-leaf oolong tea. Darkly-colored tea leaves of various sizes and lengths exhibited the high quality that The Cultured Cup offers the community through its offerings. I silently handed the bowl to Karen, who did the same before passing it to her husband. After briefly sharing our impressions of the tea, Kyle placed it in the steeper strainer. His soothing voice encouraged us to be present and focus on our breathing in and breathing out.
Although I wouldn't consider myself skilled in meditation, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, slowly releasing it. With each breath, I felt my body relax, starting from my head and gradually flowing down. Though the bar was not far from where we sat, the conversations taking place there seemed distant and muted, as if my body had accepted the need to be still and disconnected from external demands. It was a comforting realization that I could simply exist and be without the pressure to always be “on” or react to every situation.
My attention was drawn back to the present by the soft clink of a ceramic cup placed before me. The teacup featured blue and white square patterns that reminded me of delftware, except the blue was much more vibrant. He poured from the kettle, and I could feel a gentle energy as the liquid flowed into the cup. Wrapping my hands around it, I felt the warmth spread through my palms, and I watched as steam evaporated into the air. The stress I had carried seemed to dissipate, as if the ceramic cup absorbed negative energy. Kyle instructed us to take our first sip, using a rinsing method to allow the liquid to touch all areas of our mouths before swallowing.
As I sipped leisurely, I noticed woodsy and earthy flavors with lingering hints of dark caramel. Karen detected a lighter, sweeter flavor with citrusy and floral notes. Doug mentioned tasting notes reminiscent of oak or whiskey. Kyle steeped the tea again, and we repeated the same steps as before when we felt ready to do so. Kyle poured generously and was unconcerned about tea that hadn’t managed to find its way into our cups. Karen found the second round of tea to be darker in flavor, while my taste buds picked up on the lighter notes she had mentioned earlier, along with a small hint of almond toward the finish. Doug’s impressions of the second steeping sparked a conversation about his first experiences with tea as a child. During our sipping session, there was always a period of brief silence until we felt ready as a group to converse. We took our time and conveyed our readiness through a brief nod or setting our cup down. I appreciated that there was this thoughtfulness in allowing us to have a separate experience as to the tasting aspect, but also a sense of unity when it came to conversation—despite the differences and similarities we each brought to the table. With Kyle as our host, the teaching qualities within his background really came out considering the circumstances. His method of guiding us through his ritualistic tea preparation was calming.
My session partners struck me with the overall friendliness they brought to the session. Neither one of us had meditated through tea before, and reflecting on this naturally led us to talk about our own experiences with wabi sabi. Stress and the ability to decompress were all important to us. Doug spoke about his time as a law librarian and shifted to other careers as he and Karen progressed through life as a married couple. Every so often, one spouse would say something that triggered the other’s memory, and details from the story being shared would grow richer. The conversation would gradually reach a lull, and Kyle was always ready to begin another steeping.
As we continued, the Smiths shared cherished memories of their child, whom Kyle knew well since the couple had been loyal customers for over 20 years. Their conversation naturally transitioned to The Cultured Cup’s humble beginnings, starting as a “speakeasy” in an office building, briefly relocating to University Park, and eventually finding a home in Farmers Branch.
The Smiths expressed deep gratitude for the personal touch that Kyle, Phil, and the entire staff bring to the store, forging genuine connections with customers. The shop’s journey was intertwined with the Smiths’ own. Wherever it went, they followed. Throughout our session, Kyle made sure to greet everyone who passed by, emphasizing the welcoming atmosphere. Patrons often ended up at the bar or stopped to admire the table. Karen and Doug fondly reminisced about bringing their daughter, who was then a toddler, with them to the shop. Now a young adult, she continues to enjoy tea with her friends.
Getting to experience three separate tea drinks from the same set of leaves was something we all reflected upon as our session ended. We each had unique sensitivities to different flavors, which were derived from our individual histories in developing a taste repertoire. Different preferences and perceptive abilities influenced the taste that every person had experienced. There was a strong individualistic aspect as to what each person got out of their respective cups, which showcased just how multidimensional we are as human beings.