Out tea blender Christopher Coccagna wants to share his passion for tea while maintaining a snarky attitude that demystifies the legendary beverage
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
When Rose Fitzgerald opened Plum Yoga along Lower Greenville Avenue last summer, she knew she wanted to create a studio and storefront that appealed to the serious-minded but also was equally accessible to newcomers.
“We wanted yoga to be approachable,” she says. And that philosophy spilled over into the retail portion of Plum Yoga, including its “artisanal tea lounge.”
“There’s a lot in tea culture that takes itself verrry seriously,” Fitzgerald says. “That’s what first attracted me to Chris’ teas.”
“Chris” is Christopher Coccagna, founder of San Francisco-based T-We Tea, which he runs with his longtime boyfriend. Coccagna is a certified tea specialist and “tea sommelier” (and protégé of Dallas tea guru Kyle Stewart) — hifalutin designations that go against his egalitarian approach to tea appreciation. “Quality” is his watchword … well, that and “snark.”
First is the quality. When Coccagna first began his interest in tea about a decade ago, he was surprised that his initial class in tea blending taught how to mask inferior teas with flavor extracts.
“While I do love that tea is a zero-waste industry, I wanted to create a handmade product of small-batch quality teas that brings the art back into the process. And blending is an art.”
That realization came fairly recently to Coccagna, who founded T-We in 2009 after living in New Zealand, which he describes as steeped (yuk-yuk) in “tea culture.” (“T-We” is a play on Kiwi, a nickname for native New Zealanders.)
“Our store in San Francisco is like Build-A-Bear for tea,” Coccagna jokes, but the truth is, blending is an arduous process, at least if you want to do it properly. He will play with flavor combinations from types of tea (black, white, green, etc.) to regions where it is sourced, as well as additions like dried fruits and herbs. He’ll brew at different temperatures (some teas take up to 210 degrees F, while others top out about 180°F to prevent bitterness) and vary concentrations.
He also concerns himself with esoterica such as whether the nuances of a single-source tea were being highlighted in a particular recipe, and if the mouth-feel is “soft and lovely” or something stronger. All of this effort goes into creating the ideal blend … and the perfect cup for his customers.
For Plum, which is the exclusive location in Dallas selling T-We Teas, Coccagna developed three exclusive blends … and that’s where you start to see the snark come in. In addition to T-We’s already-existing recipes with names like Sexpot (Chinese green tea with orange peel and elderflower blossom) Bicurious George (three black teas with coffee and cherry) and Gurrl Grey (Ceylon black with jasmine and bergamot), Plum sells Dallas-centric brews with names like Lakewood DILF.
The packaging is as whimsical and campy as he can make it without compromising his dedication to the product. “We take our art seriously, but not ourselves,” Coccagna says, whose trademark bow-tie-and-suspenders couture began, he says, “as hobo chic, but which I now call hipster fabulous.” (Hipsters in Wonderland is the name of another of his proprietary blends.)
“I was [originally] drawn to the cleverness of the descriptions of their products on the website before I had tasted them,” Fitzgerald adds. The both call some of the puns “Easter eggs for our customers to discover.”
But because Plum is also a yoga studio, they were looking for a synergy in attitude. Fitzgerald presented Coccagna with a medicine wheel — breaking down health into “body,” “mind,” “spirit” and “heart” — and converting those elements to the effects of tea on the system (“energy,” “creativity,” “calming” and “comfort”). It’s all intended to demystify the selection process and provide a beverage that complements the practice of yoga.
In addition, they worked together to create a set-up that was more than “a bag on a string thrown into hot water.” Taking a cue from the pour-over coffee trend, they built a system where loose-leaf tea steeps in transparent pots, waiting for the precise moment to release the liquid into one of the shop’s custom cups. Not only does the system allow the water to circulate freely (as opposed to the constrictions of a bag or tea ball) and release the full flavors of the tea, it allows more communication between server and customer.
“When you see the artisan making the tea, we are creating a community that elevates the connection,” Coccagna says. “Our entire mission statement at T-We is: Truth, beauty, community. We like to bring elements of each into everything we do.”
T-We Teas are available exclusively in Dallas at Plum — A Yoga Community on Lower Greenville. PlumYogaDallas.com.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 12, 2016.