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Tea Bar

Brews from Abroad

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It’s not always easy, it’s not always fun, but it’s always an adventure. We just roll with it and learn.

__Erica Indira Swanson

It would be difficult to overestimate the potential impact travel can wield in altering the course of a life. Whether it’s backpacking through Europe post-college, or vacationing on a remote island on the other side of the world, willfully disorienting your sense of time, place, and routine will undoubtedly yield a transformation of sorts. Exploration itself assumes a posture in which ties to a former life diminish, making way for whatever happens next – a swinging from one rope to the next in the wild unknown. Even the more tame, well-planned excursions cannot account for the tide of foreign surroundings. Their very normalcy baffles the voyager, a normalcy entirely not his own: a mildly askew custom here, an odd delicacy there, mystifying their surroundings. It is in stepping beyond this dreamlike confusion that the traveler is emboldened to embrace the adventures these peculiarities elicit.

Now let’s pretend that the traveler in question is only six years old. Because that’s when globetrotter Erica Indira started packing, and arguably never fully returned. Her teen summers spent abroad, Erica returned to her hometown of Portland, OR each year with memory-shaping souvenirs, the multitude of which she’s now formed into her very own business. Despite its global influence, Tea Bar offers its clientele an atmosphere of home, where connection and quality are paramount, both in the beverages it serves and the relationships it encourages.

To understand the impetus behind this particular tea shop, you must first understand Erica herself, as well as duly credit her travel companion: her father. “It’s just been me and my dad since I was three. Every summer I would get out of school and we would pack our bags and go, typically to a third world country, up until the day school started.” Whether it was living in Ecuador, biking from Paris to Toulouse, France with nothing but paneer packs, hiking Torres del Paine, or a near-death cruise through the Galapagos, the two were never far from the next unexpected twist of fate. To prepare Erica for the endless possibilities they might encounter, her father insisted she always be ready with the ultimate travel guide: communication. “My dad has been very avid about me learning languages, so when I was five he started me learning Spanish. I was in Spanish immersion. After that he had me learn French, and then after that he was like, ‘You gotta learn Mandarin. You’re movin’ to China.’”

Per her father’s wishes, Erica spent her early high school years in the Chinese school system, one of only three other foreign students in her school. It was during this time that tea would make a lasting impression.

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“I lived with a Chinese family and was very immersed in the culture there. I was in a school where there were only three other foreign students. It was very much just full-on immersion, and tea was a very large part of the culture there. We would have it at almost every meal. I then came back to Portland, and finished school. I decided to go back for another nine months to do Mandarin intensive study and travel around Southeast Asia”.

Immersing Erica in ways of communicating globally wasn’t just an educational mandate, but a value her father hoped to instill in her. It’s become a value that exerts a tremendous impact on TeaBar. Because of her ability to communicate with tea shops at the source of her inspiration in China, Tea Bar can come as close to traditional Chinese tea as the customer wants to get. Alternatively, Erica continues to experiment with new blends and expressions of these traditional elements. She’s taught herself how to mix and match flavors to create something entirely unique. She’s experimenting with matcha, hibiscus, and countless spices with a personal sensitivity to their properties and origin. This artistry and propensity for blending tradition with a modern twist, she’s learned from a multitude sources, but primarily from just diving in. “By doing it, reading.. traveling.”

So much of Tea Bar’s flavor is derived from Erica’s time spent in China, including the indelible work ethic driving it’s operations.“I had that just by watching my dad, but being in China and just seeing how hard everyone worked, and how persistent they were, just motivates me to work really hard. I never settle for mediocre and am always looking for ways to grow and improve what we do.”

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In a city that consumes far more coffee than it does fossil fuels, Tea Bar can’t help but stand out from the crowd of cafes and roasteries that Portland is known for. From the moment you step inside, a palette of white and wood expunge distraction or bias. From behind the counter you’re greeted with a calm, inviting smile and given a chance to tour the exotic menu before you. In each detail, everyone who enters is encouraged to create their own experience, defined by who or what they’ve brought in to enjoy alongside with their tea. “I’ve grown up here all my life and so I wanted a place where I could foster a really good sense of community; a place where everyone feels welcome and safe. And there’s no preconceived notion of how it is. You come in and you make of it what you want.”

The tea itself is only a symbol, a mediator of unity, as is Tea Bar itself. “It’s more of an experience, connecting with others over tea in a welcoming space.” Whether it’s blending up the newest experiment or hiring a team to best represent TeaBar, Erica leads with a voracious love of learning and perfecting. She relies on intuition she’s gained from a lifetime of improvisation, and a curiosity that can’t be taught. “Being curious is very important to me. I’ve hired a few people that have been regulars who sit and watch me and I’ll see them watch me and I say, “I know what you’re doing!”

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In opening TeaBar, Erica has faced joys and snags similar to those of her teenage years spent abroad. On the journey thus far, she’s experienced exhaustion and setbacks, but the rewards cannot be matched. “There are days where I’m exhausted, and tired, but when I’m in here, and I’m able to walk from table to table and I know everyone and can say hello..I love that.” Those neighborhood connections offer more than a cup of tea, but extend an invitation to experience the world in a way you may never have dreamt before. The influence of global friendship, admiration for a distant culture, and a receptivity to try, to keep learning and expanding what we know about the world and one another make Tea Bar much more than a beverage counter. When adversity inevitably arises, Erica instinctively hearkens back to an education in improvisation. “I feel like everything that’s happened I just had to learn along the way, and kind of roll with the punches, which I’ve been used to doing traveling. My dad always says, It’s not always easy, it’s not always fun, but it’s always an adventure. So I just roll with it and learn.”

 

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