Profiles: Stone Leaf Tea House in Middlebury
MIDDLEBURY — Nestled in the Marble Works complex in Middlebury, the Stone Leaf Teahouse is a surprisingly large shop with light-gold, wooden floors and walls lined with tins labeled “Darjeeling first-flush” and “Wen Shan Bao Zhong.” Along with sustainably produced teas, the shop also sells teacups, sweets and snacks, and even traditional Indian tikas. Guests sit at low benches lined with silken pillows and are surrounded by hanging tapestries and chimes, and instead of a typical front door the entrance features two hanging pieces of cloth that ripple in the wind.
For owners John and Samantha Wetzel, the Stone Leaf Teahouse is more than a business — it’s a way to share their travels and to teach the art of making tea. And as they teach others in their tea workshops and training sessions, there’s more to tea than simply dumping leaves into hot water.
That’s because as well as importing the teas they sell, they also travel to where the teas are grown and harvested, speaking personally with growers and forging personal bonds that prove immensely useful as the business grows.
The Wetzels had long dreamed of operating an importing and wholesale tea business, so when in 2008 they visited a friend living and teaching in Taiwan they kept their eyes open for an opportunity — and they found one.
“When we were there we were biking around and visiting different areas, and were fortunate to meet a gentleman who has become a supplier for the past six year, and for us he was an ideal person. When I came back that was the first major contact that we made,” John Wetzel said.
Stone Leaf sources its tea from China, Taiwan, India and Nepal, and as such the Wetzels are unable to visit every tea farm they’re interested in. The friends and business partners they meet along their travels will often buy and ship teas in their place, so that at any given moment the Stone Leaf Teahouse will sell teas that were personally selected for their shop.
“Every place is (about) learning tea culture, doing business in the way that they do business there,” Wetzel said. “So in one place we have someone that travels each season and buys tea for us, in other places it’s the garden that sends us samples. We try every way to get the best tea.”
The teahouse currently employs two people aside from the Wetzels, and while the shop may seem quiet when a visitor dropped in late in June, it was readying for its busiest weeks of the summer — the Middlebury College Language Schools often mean a boom in business.
But the teahouse is only one facet of the Stone Leaf enterprise: the Wetzels also provide wholesale teas, workshops and tea consulting throughout Vermont.
“The teashop and the wholesale — all of those have different rhythms,” Wetzel said. “The language schools are a fun time, to be here and to have five different languages being spoken and I’m the only one speaking English. Especially because I travel a lot, so I love hearing foreign languages.”
Most of the Wetzels’ wholesale tea goes to surrounding businesses such as the Vergennes Laundry and the Middlebury Natural Food Co-Op. Stone Leaf helps these businesses choose teas to match their menu, and conducts tea-making workshops to train businesses in how to make a perfect cup.
“It’s a very interactive wholesale,” Wetzel said with a laugh. “It’s more like tea consulting.”
Selling wholesale is more cost efficient than selling packaged teas, he explained. It also gives buyers like Vergennes Laundry more opportunity to interact with Stone Leaf than if they simply ordered packaged tea off of the Internet.
“A lot of it is teaching,” Wetzel said. “We find tea that’s very good, but everybody likes to make it different ways. So for us, it’s about helping people find the right tea and helping them make it the way they like it.”
Stone Leaf also offers something else unique to the area — tea-hikes. It is something the Wetzels came across in their travels throughout Taiwan, where a group hike in the mountains culminates in a tea break.
“They’re a lot of fun — you don’t need a lot to pack,” Wetzel said. “You hike to the top of Snake Mountain, or if you’re more ambitious, Mount Abe, or even just by the falls. It’s awesome — it’s like this very simple little thing and it just gets you to think about tea wherever you are.”
Stone Leaf Teahouse is open Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m., and is located in Middlebury’s Marble Works.