While the Northwest is known as the country’s coffee consumption capital, tea still takes the cake globally. Worldwide, it’s the second most consumed beverage second only to water, and nationally we’re quickly catching on – the tea market has skyrocketed in the past 20 years, growing more than 6 times in value, according to the U.S. Tea Association. If you’re looking to add tea to your daily routine or learn more about this time-honored beverage, let Tea Madame be your guide.
Tea Madame focuses on gourmet loose leaf teas, which come to their store from over 20 different sources. With two locations in Sumner and Lakewood, they offer an impressive selection of teas and herbal blends. Many of their teas – like the Madame Mango, a mango, pineapple, orange, and strawberry green tea that is one of their most popular – are blended exclusively for them. The shop also carries everything you need to steep and serve tea, from to teapots to strainers. Different blends and varieties cover the better part of two walls, available for customers to see and smell. The shop also hosts tea classes where you can learn about the history and artisanal processes around tea, as well as taste a variety of them.
In the 13 years since LaDonna Olmstead purchased Tea Madame, she has become a resident expert on all things tea. One of a handful of certified Level 3 tea educators through the Specialty Tea Institute in Washington State, she hosts classes with the hope that she can demystify tea and make it more accessible to all. LaDonna wasn’t always a tea guru – in fact, that knowledge was hard won. Prior to purchasing Tea Madame in 2006, she spent 20 years in the food and beverage industry, doing everything from bartending to running corporate trainings. When the opportunity to buy the shop came around, she was working as a fine dining server and toying with the idea of becoming a sommelier.
“I was fascinated by wine and wanting to learn more,” LaDonna remembers. But she also had the sense that she eventually wanted to go into business for herself.
When she and her husband got word of the opportunity to purchase Tea Madame, the idea stuck with her. “I could do that,” she remembers thinking. They decided to take the leap and within months, she and her husband had a tea shop on their hands. There was just one little wrinkle. LaDonna shares, “I didn’t know anything about tea.”
As she took over the tea business, LaDonna set out to educate herself by reading anything she could get her hands on. “I just started reading books,” she said. “I had to wade through a lot of information, and demystify a lot of things that were out there.” What she found were plenty of parallels between her background in wine and her studies about tea. “There’s a lot of connection between wine and tea, and coffee and chocolate,” says LaDonna. All have terroir, as well as a host of history, and artisanal processes that contribute to their flavor and character.
Eventually, her studies lead her to pursue certification through the Specialty Tea Institute. Taking classes among a host of growers, processers, importers, exporters, scientists and others in the industry helped her connect more of the dots and cement her interest in the subject. The classes at Tea Madame are a way for her to share some of the knowledge she’s accumulated over the years with customers so that they can have a richer experience when they’re enjoying a cup of tea.
“The most important thing we do, to me, are the tea tasting classes,” LaDonna says. Held at their flagship store in Sumner, the classes cost just $5, which is by design. LaDonna aims to create an informative but accessible experience for people that serves as an introduction to the world of tea. “We try to cover as much territory as possible,” says LaDonna. “You get to learn the history of the teas and where they come from, and the artisanship that goes behind producing those teas.”
While there is lots of background information to share, the central aspect of each class is the tasting. “We start from the lightest body to the darkest body – kind of like wine. We do a traditional taste of each type, and then try a flavored counterpart,” LaDonna explains. In a two-hour class, participants sample up to 15 flavors of tea.
LaDonna hopes classes help participants connect the dots between how certain types of tea are sourced and prepared and why they do or don’t like them. “The point isn’t to like it all,” she says. Rather, by laying out aspects of the process, the history, and the qualities of each tea, as well as a tactile experience and group discussion, she hopes people can refine their understanding of what works for them and why.
While the classes don’t have a fixed schedule, LaDonna says the best way to sign up is to drop into a Tea Madame store or give them a call. Tea Madame typically hosts 12 to 15 classes per year.
Tea Madame has two locations – you can visit them in Sumner at 16009 60th Street E and at 5939 Steilacoom Boulevard SW in Lakewood. They also participate in a number of fairs and special events around Pierce County, from the Puyallup Farmer’s Market to the Tacoma Holiday Food and Gift Festival. For more information, head to their website or follow them on Facebook or Instagram.