Near Cattleack Barbeque, in a nondescript row of warehouses in North Dallas, you’ll find a tranquil oasis at The Cultured Cup. Stop in on a Saturday, and proprietor Kyle Stewart will unfurl descriptions of fragrant dried leaves as he opens white, green, black, oolong, and fermented pu-erhs that come in bricks or disks. He will pull down selections from a wall of canisters with natural aromas of apricot, lychee, or white peach, and explain the differences between Golden Tips, with their twisted bronze-colored ends, and the tightly curled “buds” of Jasmine Pearl. He may pour you a sample of Taiwanese cream oolong, with its buttered popcorn notes; Black Magnolia, from a tea plantation he knows in Mississippi; or a fine Japanese sencha tea that brews a savory, grassy broth.
Stewart was the first certified tea specialist in Texas, and he has presented on the mythology of tea at the Crow Museum of Asian Art, delivered a TEDxSMU talk on the beauty of handmade Japanese tea bowls and the aesthetic of wabi-sabi, and spoken on the liaison between the Ming dynasty and Louis XIV’s France through the tea trade. But tasting is at the core of his education mission. For this convert, it’s all about the experience, the calm energy, and the sensory awakening.
Stewart remembers the moment when the world of tea opened up for him. A voice major, he studied at Tanglewood, the renowned summer camp, where he sang under the direction of Leonard Bernstein and brushed up with Aaron Copland. He would go on to teach voice and develop interrelated arts and humanities courses at Alverno College in Wisconsin.
His epiphany occurred when his graduate voice teacher at Northwestern University brewed and served him an oolong that left him amazed at the clarity and focus it brought. “It took me on a flavor journey,” he says. From there, a circuitous course eventually led him to open The Cultured Cup in 1995 with partner Phil Krampetz. The shop has existed in four locations, but it recently moved to Omega Road, where it revolves around a semicircular tasting counter where customers gather. This is where tea epiphanies happen for others now.
In the tea specialist certification classes he teaches in his shop for the Specialty Tea Institute, one of the country’s official bodies, Stewart leads students through the finer points of cultivars, growing environment, and processing. He explains the difference between sinensis, the small-leaf, colder-climate varietal of Darjeeling, and assamica, the tropical understory plant of Sri Lanka, Assam, and now Kenya. Students learn how firing an oolong gives it a toasty flavor, like roasted rice, and how mist and higher elevations create sweeter, more floral aromas.
It’s in the course of such a class that Stewart might perform gong fu cha, the ancient Chinese tea ceremony, its ritual and gestures dating back 5,000 years. Mental pictures arise of the peaks of China’s Wuyi Mountains, obscured by clouds (he’s been there), and agile pickers with their baskets.
Years ago, when he found himself in the headquarters of Mariage Frères in Paris, the celebrated tea seller’s walls covered with the proof of thousands of years of liquid fascination, Stewart knew he’d found a passion and a calling. “I saw the world of tea in front of me,” he says. “And I thought, This is what I want to bring to Dallas.”