Lemon Lily Tea
Lemon Lily Tea, a Toronto-based organic tea company, has made the leap from stocking the city's cafes to opening one of their very own. After supplying businesses around the country - and a few local ones, including Rise Espresso , Von , Social Gardener and Byblos - with their looseleaf blends for about two years, owner Jason Johnston said the time was right for a retail store and cafe.
They opened up last week in a converted house in Regent Park, where a massive window looks out onto Dundas East and original details like stained glass and a fireplace (in what's soon to be the cafe area) abound.
UPDATE: As of Fall 2015 Lemon Lily has closed the Regent Park location and has relocated to 184 Davenport Road in Yorkville.
The seating area and cafe portion of Lemon Lily is still in the works, but what they do have right now is a wide-open front retail component stocked with tea. Lots of it - they offer over 150 different blends, all available either in take-home packages (100g for $12, 50g for $7, or small trial bags of $3) or steeped for you by Johnston in takeaway cups for $2.
In addition to classic faves like genmaicha, jasmine and lemon, there are tons of creative proprietary blends. Wandering past the aisles, a few names leap out: Strawberry Milkshake, Canadian Maple, Vanilla Noire. Johnston singles out their coffee-oriented teas, Toasted Coffee Almond (coffee beans, black tea, house-toasted almonds, cherry flavour) or Cafe Caramel Pu'erh (fermented black tea with palm sugar and organic espresso beans).
The store's shelves are handily divided into zones - black, chai, green and white teas, as well as "herbal" and "wellness" areas. If you prefer to let your nose decide, there are handy samples all together for speedy sniff-tests in a "sensory wall" at the front of the shop.
"Most of these taste like they smell, because it's all-natural ingredients," he says. "A lot of other teas ... they may smell and look very nice, but they don't necessarily have the taste that goes with that. With these, because we're actually using the actual ingredients, whether it's a Valhrona dark chocolate, or apple, or cinnamon - it's the real ingredient, so it has a tendency to taste much better.
'Real flavours, as a lot of people kind of say. People say 'Wow, this actually tastes like apple, or chocolate, or whatever it it.' I'm like 'Yes, because it actually is!'"
To keep things fresh, Johnston explains that small batches are blended on-site as they need them - particularly for direct orders for different teas from customers, which they take through the store or via their website . (Not all of their blends are available on store shelves all the time, but they can whip up a batch of whatever you'd like within a few hours.)
"We have 175 base ingredients in our blending area in the back - everything's done on site. We blend everything as per their order, that day from our base ingredients, so everything is delivered fresh to them - it doesn't sit in a package for a year or two."
I'm drawn in by the Chocolate Monkey, which features dried banana chunks, cacao and chocolate in a rooibos base. Johnston gets it steeping, then tells me to wait at least four minutes before drinking it (which, given the fantastic chocolate-banana smell, is difficult). He adds that if folks are new to the store, he'll take a moment to walk them through how much tea to brew for how long and at what temperature.
"We definitely consider ourselves experts in hand-blending organic tea, but people come in and they want to be educated about the process of how to make their tea. Some people are more intimidated by looseleaf tea, because they don't understand the process." For that reason, they also offer all the necessary gear to get you started, from mugs with built-in infusers ($10) to expensive tea sets.
When my tea's ready, the first thing I taste is the rooibos, followed by a hint of banana; Johnston warns me that the more this one sits, the stronger the flavour gets. Sure enough, the banana comes out more and more, and the tea takes on a lovely, rich look with a hint of sediment, thanks to the traces of melted chocolate (though it never gets overtly sweet).
Renovations are still underway to turn the shop's back room into a cafe, which will featuring tea-infused scones, macarons and other treats. Even though they're still getting the seating area sorted, it hasn't deterred tea-loving locals from making multiple stops for fresh cups.
"I know we're only a week in, but we've got a few regulars already."
Photos by James C. Lee.