The vibe at Dobra Tea is slower, contemplative, spiritual
Tourists and other passersby hurry down Exchange Street in Portland on a January afternoon, some with coffee cups in hand, some with cell phones to their ears. Inside Dobrá Tea, however, the atmosphere stands in sharp contrast to the bustle outside.
The lighting is soft and warm, the music instrumental and upbeat. Beaded curtains set off two small, raised “tea houses” from the two main sitting rooms, where tea drinkers sit at tables or on couches, some writing in notebooks, others conversing quietly as they wait for their tea.
As beverages go, coffee symbolizes our revved-up, stressful, everyday lives. Tea, on the other hand, is emblematic of the wish to be more in the moment and contemplative. Legends have it that either a Chinese emperor or a Buddhist monk discovered tea when leaves from an overhanging tree fell into a pot of boiling water. Either way, the experience was an enlightening one – and tea has been associated with spiritual awakening ever since.
The Dobrá Tea shop in Portland will celebrate its fifth anniversary this April, and its success shows the desire people have to carve out a more relaxing space in their days than the drive-through at the local doughnut shop or the assembly line at a gourmet coffee shop provides.
Ellen Kanner and her husband, Ray Marcotte, came up with the idea to open a tea shop after stopping into a Dobrá Tea in Burlington, Vt., seven years ago. Dobrá Tea is actually a franchise operation, the first of which opened in Prague in 1993. Dobra means “good” in Czech.
In 2009, Kanner, who spent 10 years as a content producer for MaineToday.com during the 1990s, was working at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., while Marcotte worked a couple hours away in Webster, Mass. They had dreamed about moving back to Portland and opening up a cafe of some sort. When they walked into the Burlington Dobrá Tea, they felt they’d found what they were looking for.
“The vibe is unique,” she says of the atmosphere in a Dobrá Tea shop, and something Portland seemed to need. “It was undeniable that we’d be successful.”
Within five months, Kanner and Marcotte had traveled to Prague to work out the details of acquiring a franchise. Kanner describes the business arrangement as more of a collective than a chain. She and Marcotte have been on “tea journeys” to China and Korea to meet local farmers and producers. They will be going to Thailand later this year.
“We shop for tea together, but otherwise it is very hands off,” says Kanner of the franchise structure. “It’s the only chain I could ever be involved with.”
Besides the opportunity to explore tea regions together, the chain provides the menus and the education to help Kanner and her employees become knowledgeable about all the teas available to their customers. From the map on the wall showing where each tea originated, to the 63 wooden drawers full of bulk teas on the wall beside the checkout counter, to the thick, leather-bound menus, which describe the available teas with flowery descriptions of taste, aroma and origin, it’s easy to see why it takes employees two to three months to get up to speed on all the teas served at Dobrá Tea.
“They need to learn the types, classes, history and proper brewing technique for all the teas,” says Kanner. “When they are trained, they become a ‘devotee’ and get a tea name and a certificate.”
The need to contemplate your choice of tea is one of the things that creates the slower-paced vibe at Dobrá Tea. For instance, even if you decide before sitting down that you want to try a green tea, you must then decide which of the 29 offerings to choose. As the menu advises, the source of the tea determines how it is processed and, therefore, whether it will taste grassy, nutty, vegetal or sweet. Green teas come from either China or Japan, with one offering each from Korea and Vietnam. The Japanese often skip the withering of freshly havested leaves and quickly steam them, while leaves are often pan-fried in China.
I chose Dian Lu Eshan (also called “Remembering the Tea King”) from the Chinese tea province of Yunnan. According to the menu, “it is cultivated at a high altitude, with long, silver, downy-tipped leaves firmly rolled lengthwise.” The menu also says it promotes health and has a euphoric effect. The liquid was nearly clear after steeping it for a minute, and the taste was mild, fresh and clean.
Many customers, Kanner says, avail themselves of their server’s knowledge and spend time reading the detailed menu descriptions, seeking to learn about the different types and classes. Others may be daunted by the menu choices and end up ordering chai tea, which is familiar to anyone who has visited an Indian restaurant. Chai, Kanner says, is definitely the most popular choice at their shop. They mix their own blend of spices to flavor the chai.
“We have a lot of regulars who drink the same tea over and over again,” Kanner says. “But a lot come in to try different teas. That’s why we’re here. We want to educate people about tea.”
Dobrá Tea also offers small plates of food or treats, such things as hummus, cucumber salad or lemon bars. Dobrá is definitely a place you would go for a snack, as opposed to a meal.
There are several other tea shops in Portland, including Homegrown Herb and Tea, located halfway up Munjoy Hill on Congress Street. But Kanner and Marcotte seem to have carved out a successful niche at the top of the Old Port, not easy to sustain in such a crowded restaurant, cafe and bar scene.
Their Facebook page has more than 2,000 likes and Trip Advisor travelers – who are notorious for negative reviews – only seem to find fault with the size of the menu. Describing the atmosphere, their reviewers use words such as “cozy, eclectic, quirky, inviting, relaxing, and amazing.”
“If it makes you feel comfortable, that’s good,” says Kanner. “That’s what tea is for: to comfort the soul.”