Much like the rest of the country, Little Rock isn’t exactly a tea city. For centuries, coffee has been preferred to tea, going back all the way to the Revolutionary War and a certain tea party in Boston Harbor. In the minds of the colonists, tea became representative of Great Britain, so naturally coffee became the preferred caffeinated beverage. And while coffee is a marvelous drink with plenty of room for roasters and cuppers to display their talents, it’s still a shame that tea has been so overlooked. Tea is, in my mind, more versatile and approachable than coffee, with a wide range of flavors for newcomers and tea specialists to enjoy.
If tea is to ever make a comeback here in Arkansas, it will almost certainly happen first with a business like Abbi’s Teas and Things in Hillcrest. The cozy tea shop opened up in 2018 and quickly gained a loyal following of tea lovers desperate to find a dedicated tea house and expert blender. Owner Abbi Siler now has more than a year of business experience under her belt and is showing her talent and ambition with innovative products and a delicate sensibility for aromas and flavors. Her new fall menu is a beautiful expression of the season that combines traditional ideas and some adventure with wonderful balance.
“I do all my blending here in house,” said Siler. “A lot of these took two or three months for me to get them exactly right. I usually experiment at the cup level with raw ingredients and seeing what comes out, then scale the recipe out by the pound. With these, we went for teas that would work in colder weather, hoping to get out of the Arkansas heat for a while.”
The cold is definitely here, and Abbi’s Spiced Orange is an excellent way to beat the chill back. Spiced Orange is a traditional black Ceylon tea blended with orange peel, cinnamon bark and clove for a simple, warming sip. This is a wonderful introduction to hot tea, with just enough spice to make an impact but not so much that it scares new tea drinkers away. For those wanting more adventure, there’s the Drowsy Poet, which has been Abbi’s autumn best seller so far. Yerba Mate tea from Argentina, Rooibos from South Africa and a packed bouquet of aromatics are evident from the nose to the sip. Mango, lemongrass, clove, ginger and so much more create a smoky, acidic tea that wakes you up with both caffeine and intense flavors.
Of course, fall’s most well-known holiday is Thanksgiving, and two new teas in particular inspire thoughts of food, family and friends. My favorite on the menu is the Banana Nut Roo, which recalled for me childhood memories of cool mornings and oven-fresh banana bread. Rooibos tea, dried banana, apple, spice and almond waft from the surface, spelling out the homey flavors before you can get the cup to your lips. Abbi’s recommends milk and honey with this one, and I wholeheartedly agree. But if banana nut muffins aren’t your thing, you could enjoy the flavors of the Thanksgiving table with the Sassy Sage. This one is a hibiscus tea made with white sage, cranberry, orange peel and lemon that stands out as the strongest flavor blend of the new menu. But with all that’s going on, Sassy Sage never goes too far in one direction, balancing sharp flavors with a soft, warm mouth feel.
“There are lots of health benefits with that one [the Sassy Sage],” said Siler. “There’s no caffeine, hibiscus can help with blood sugar levels, cinnamon helps with digestion and bacteria, and sage can help your body detox.”
The latte crowd also has a new drink to enjoy with the Chamomile Cardamom Chai, a chai latte-inspired blend that substitutes chamomile for the Rooibos tea. The result is a more floral drink that helps frame the cardamom notes with a bit of sweetness. It’s by far the lightest-tasting drink on the new menu, and it’s naturally caffeine-free to boot.
All of these teas are available by the cup, but you can also get the blends to go. However, my preference is to order one at the counter, sit in the beautiful tearoom, enjoy the natural light and sip quietly. And, to me, that’s what tea is about. It’s about the whole experience, and that’s something Abbi’s Teas and Things understands and treasures. Here’s hoping Little Rock comes around to tea soon and finds this excellent tea house to help them discover new and exciting flavors.