Once a high-ranking national manager at a bank, Issaquah resident Roberta Fuhr took a bold step in 2008.
After watching her daughter graduate college and move to the East Coast for a job, Fuhr did some soul searching and decided to step down from her banking position.
“I was just really ready for a change — I was at that place where I needed a purpose,” she said.
After spending time exploring her interests, the recreational tea drinker started reading books about the intricacies of Camiella Sinensis — the species of plant whose buds are used to produce tea. She followed up by taking certification courses with the Specialty Tea Institute.
That’s when her idea was born.
“I started Googling tea classes because I thought, ‘Wow, I wonder if anybody teaches this,’” Fuhr said.
The answer to her question was a resounding ‘no.’
“What was frustrating to me as I was getting more into tea, is how bad our industry is in really teaching people what tea is,” she said.
She added that many specialty tea shops focus on things such as free WiFi, serving food and free shipping, while they keep their product behind counters.
Fuhr took a step towards changing that model in October 2011, when she opened Experience Tea on Issaquah’s Front Street. The business sells a large variety of specialty teas and tea accessories, but its uniqueness lies within its open tea studio concept.
Fuhr, who runs Experience Tea on her own, holds a variety of tea discovery classes and tastings throughout the week. She teaches customers everything from the history of tea to how oxidation can make a difference in flavor, to the importance of steeping temperatures and times.
“The way I look at it, I start them on a tea journey because it really is a journey,” said Fuhr, comparing the tea experience to that of wine and wine tasting.
In a basic tea-tasting class, Fuhr has customers sample the whole spectrum of teas. They start with one white, one green, two oolongs, two blacks and one pu’erh — an aged tea from southern China. In order to maintain an authentic experience, teas are served in a traditional gaiwan bowl on a gongfu serving table. Fuhr makes sure to use teas that are single origin in flavor so people experience the true taste.
“By the time people leave here they’re just excited,” Fuhr said. “It’s cool to learn something new. I think they have a real appreciation for the complexity of it and there’s so much more that they want to know.”
There are a large variety of other classes and workshops, which range from $20-$25.
According to Fuhr, business continues to gain momentum, largely by word of mouth.
“I walked out of there feeling more knowledgable and actually excited about tea,” Sammamish resident Jenny Schmidt said. “This is one of those rare places I couldn’t wait to tell friends about.”
Local customers make up a large portion of the clientele, but people have come from as far away as Gig Harbor to take classes.
“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” said Fuhr, who has lived in Issaquah for more than 22 years. “I just had this strong feeling that Issaquah is where it would be best.”
Experience Tea is located at 195 Front Street in Studio C. Retail hours are from noon to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. Call 206-406-9838 for more information on classes.