While visiting teahouses in Prague, Hugo Americi was inspired to open a small teahouse in Montreal’s Latin Quarter in 1998. He named it after the species of plant used to produce all tea, camellia sinensis. Hugo hired François Marchand and Jasmin Desharnais when they were UQAM students, but before long, these two became co-owners of the business. Shisha pipes, cozy lounging couches and late-night musical performances reigned back then. But gradually the new owners narrowed their focus to only tea, ditching the shisha pipes and swapping the bohemian look for something more sophisticated.
“We had the good fortune to open when tea wasn’t known here and to develop that market,” says François. In addition to the original teahouse, Camellia Sinensis now has three boutiques and a tea training centre. It offers an extensive selection of black, white, yellow, green, aged, scented and herbal teas. It also sells a variety of items related to tea including teapots, teacups and books — in fact, the store has put out two books of its own.
The owners expanded their tea horizons by travelling widely, particularly in Asia where they met small producers they wanted to work with. “Travelling really guided our selection,” says François. “At the beginning it was really the classics — Chinese, Taiwanese and Japanese. Now we really go by the producers who have the same values as us in terms of the environment, work conditions and so on.” If they have to choose between two teas, they’ll choose the producer with whom they feel the strongest connection.
François and his colleagues aim to cultivate a balance between knowledge and simplicity. “We’re rigorous in the knowledge we want to have and in the information we give to clients, but at the same time, we don’t want to be tea geeks.”
When they import tea, François and his partners ship it by plane and store it in a cool, vacuum-sealed environment to maintain maximum freshness. Unlike wine, tea has to be drunk as soon as possible, meaning it has a limited shelf life. Ideally, it should be drunk within a year. The longer it’s kept, the more it loses its aroma and freshness.
Their tea is offered in a variety of restaurants across Quebec and is slowly becoming available in Toronto. Famed Montreal restaurant Toqué was one of their first clients. Since restaurants don’t usually want to deal with the hassle of loose tea, Camellia Sinensis designed its own pyramid sachets for restaurant use.
Camellia Sinensis also offers a host of workshops and training sessions, with everything from tea 101 to pairing tea with scotch to a seminar on rare teas from special vintages. Most classes are held in French, with some in English. When asked about his favourite tea travel destination, François waxes lyrical about the teas of China and is eager to show photos from Camellia Sinensis’s award-winning tea book. Luckily, he travels to China each year. “It inspires my way of being.”