Tea is not just for two

Chilmark library hosts a monthly Tea Club, building on knowledge from varieties all over the world.


While “Let’s meet for coffee” might be a familiar refrain, globally, tea is the second most consumed beverage after water. So Tracy Thorpe, programs coordinator at the Chilmark library, discovered she was on to something when she started the Tea Club two years ago.

Thorpe was initially inspired by the Spice Clubs that the Vineyard Haven library and others on the Cape were doing, and considered focusing a group on coffee. “Then I thought, ‘Wait, in my family, we’re huge tea drinkers,’ and I felt it would be so cool to do a tea club, because so many cultures use the Camellia sinensis leaf in many ways to make all different drinks.

“Of course, we started with China, because people think of China when they think of tea. The Camellia sinensis sinensis variety has a small leaf, and is more tolerant of cold weather. The second variety, Camellia sinensis assamica, is native to the Assam region in India. We are mainly tasting Camellia sinensis in its different forms — white, yellow, black, green, oolong, pu-erh — and have also done holy basil or tulsi, and chai. Tea in all its different forms.”

The library’s club has also covered Africa and India. This autumn, they went further afield when one of the people in the Tea Club told Thorpe that she was friends with Eloina Telho, a tea columnist and sensorial instructor at the Brazilian Tea School. “She joined our meeting, sent me a bunch of samples of tea grown around Brazil, and talked to us. I had no idea they were cultivating tea there,” Thorpe explains.

The group of some 30 to 40 participants has been meeting via Zoom. Thorpe orders the teas beforehand, and ensures everyone gets their sample, either picking it up from the Chilmark or Vineyard Haven library in person, or through the mail. She prepares for the meeting, studying the region and taking pictures of where the tea comes from to share during the session. At the meeting, participants — with a cup in hand or having sipped prior to the session — talk about that month’s sample, discussing its origin, history, and what they did or didn’t like about it. Thorpe adds, “Also, what were the flavor notes? What would the tea go well with for something to eat? How did you brew it — for two minutes or 30 seconds? Sometimes we talk about books we’ve read about tea, and I try to get people to come in and talk about it.”

Their first speaker was Max Falkowitz (maxfalkowitz.nyc/tea), a tea expert whose website states that he “has traveled to China, Japan, Taiwan, and Sri Lanka in search of wisdom and experience straight from the source.” Falkowitz has commented on the culture and business of tea on “Splendid Table,” NPR’s “The Salt,” and in the San Francisco Chronicle.

For the Oct. 25 meeting, Thorpe learned that Lisa See, who wrote “The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane,” would be available to discuss two teas she has recommended — Silver Needles Jasmine and Green Mandarin Stuffed Pu-erh — and to discuss her books and the tea research she has done for them.

December will be something a little different, with a hybrid meeting centering around the Boston Tea Party. Norah Van Riper, a living history educator, will dress up as Mrs. Sarah (Chase Daggett) Allen, who ran a tavern in Holmes Hole (now Vineyard Haven) in 1773. Mrs. Allen will host an 18th-century tea at the library, where she will discuss the events surrounding one of the most notorious episodes of Revolutionary War history on the 250th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party. Bohea, the tea from China that was dumped into Boston Harbor, will be served in 1773 style.

Since it’s on Zoom, club members are from all over. “It’s a multifaceted group,” says Thorpe. Her sister has joined from Alaska, for instance. She adds, “One member, Ruby Silvious, is a teabag artist, and is famous for doing tiny paintings on teabags. (See rubysilvious.com/tea-bag-art) She has shown in museums all around the world. I couldn’t believe anyone could make such a tiny artform and be so popular.”

Thorpe says, “I am trying to give people as wide a flavor experience as I can come up with. Different countries have different terroirs, and we’re trying to explore that. What’s surprising to me is the range of different flavors one plant can have. Also, this one plant is loved throughout the world. The whole world drinks tea!”

Call 508-645-3360 or email tthorpe@clamsnet.org to sign up, receive your tea, and get the Zoom invite.