Dobra's closure points to changes in Madison's tea, State St. business culture | Arts & Culture
On Dobra Tea’s last day in business, owner Adam Ernst invited the community to come visit the State Street shop to drink tea and shatter teapots from around the world.
The gesture offered him an opportunity to share some of the philosophies surrounding tea culture and to gain a sense of closure as the tea shop closed its doors Feb. 9 after five years in downtown Madison.
“Tea in general encourages us to embrace the imperfection in life, the impermanence in life, and thus smashing teaware is a kind of symbol to communicate to people,” Ernst said. “We need that sort of catalytic breaking, smashing and severing of all contacts in order to see and reunite them. Simply as a symbol of impermanence it seemed very effective.”
As a teenager, Ernst, a Madison native, discovered a passion for tea far from Wisconsin during a visit to the East Coast.
“I was 16 years old, and I walked into a tea shop in Vermont, and I had a kind of life-changing experience of sipping a cup of loose-leaf tea that was nothing like anything I’d had before,” he said. “I was embracing and kind of submitting to a culture that I had no previous contact with or interest in. Once I made that step, it totally took over.”
After working with the Dobra Tea Co., an international tea company, for several years, Ernst decided to return to Wisconsin and share his passion for tea and tea culture by opening a branch in Madison.
For Ernst, tea culture stems from a respect for tradition and social ceremony. Ernst sourced authentic and high-quality loose-leaf tea from gardens in China, India, Japan and Taiwan, serving each brew in its culturally appropriate teaware.
Justin Manners, co-owner of Jade Mountain Tea Co., at 2611 E. Johnson St., sees tea culture a little differently, putting more emphasis on the social aspect of tea and focusing less on cultural continuity.
Manners takes a more commercial approach to the tea business, streamlining production and offering a high quality “grab-and-go” style of tea.
He explained that in Asia, generally, there are two models of teahouses. The first, more traditional teahouse, is focused on a ceremonial experience and is more “high-end.” The second, more modernized teahouse, is focused on “to-go” alternatives and high customer traffic rather than the quality of the in-house experience.
“I think Dobra was trying to go for the first model,” Manners said. “The problem is, on State Street, [businesses are] paying a premium. [Dobra seemed] geared toward quality and a higher end experience, but [its] location is geared toward quantity.”
With or without Dobra Tea on State Street, tea culture in Madison is gaining momentum, Manners said.
“If you look at the coffee market, it's kind of saturated, especially in a town like Madison,” Manners said. “Tea, on the other hand, is growing.”
Manners believes that although Dobra Tea wasn’t successful on State Street, there is a place for a high-quality tea experience in Madison and that tea culture will become more prevalent.
“It's going mainstream. It's not just tea shops here and there that are popping up. It's becoming a business model,” Manners said. “I think it'll grow. It's just getting it right, that's all.”
Haley Henschel, a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said she hopes another tea shop with a laid-back atmosphere will open near Dobra’s location.
“There’s no other place in Madison [besides Dobra] where you get that kind of atmosphere, where you can sit down and just drink tea and not feel the need to rush anywhere,” she said. “Everything else on State Street is like Starbucks or Espresso Royale -- super busy type of stuff … but there was nothing that was really like the ultimate chill place.”
Although Ernst is closing his business on State Street and ending his relationship with Dobra Tea, he plans to continue his work in Madison and follow his passion for tea.
“It's kind of just the beginning for me,” Ernst said. “It's been seven-plus years with this business, and I look forward to doing more on my own with the people that I've met in Madison.”