It's another frigid day in Lawrenceville, and a big guy — shaved head, tattoos — blows into Gryphon's Tea Shop, a tiny, two-seat Butler Street emporium.
"What do you have," he shivers, "for a cold day?"
"Mint?" proprietor Diana Stoughton offers.
He shakes his head.
"Chamomile?" she suggests, yanking down a jar of the sweet, yellow herbal blend.
"Just right," he says.
While it's not a cafe per se, Gryphon's — named for Stoughton's son and chief tea blender — boasts some 120 different teas, plus another 120 culinary herbs and spices. At a Lilliputian 11 feet 6 inches wide — 400 square feet in all — with the right wall dedicated to local arts posters, Stoughton's crusade is not only to purvey the world's oldest and most popular caffeinated beverage, but also to promote tea as a viable Pennsylvania agricultural crop.
Certainly, the latter effort seems counterintuitive to those who believe that tea is strictly a tropical plant. Not so, Stoughton says.
While tea originated in India and China, it has literally been transplanted all over the world. With hearty strains able to withstand winter, these days tea sprouts all over North America, Quebec to California. Just not in Western Pennsylvania.
Stoughton intends to change that. "There's no reason we can't grow and process it here," she says. "Except that we haven't tried. It is not impossible."
With 100 climate-appropriate seeds in hand, she will first soak them, nurture them, get them ready to grow — a painstaking process that will take some three years. Once fully matured, the plants will go in the ground, most likely in a plot she's got near Wexford.
Presuming that initial crop bears leaves, Stoughton hopes to expand to about 10,000 plants over the next decade — a reasonable time for such a tiny tea plantation. Her goal: processing some 500 pounds of highly unique, highly personalized tea every month.
"Tea differs because of soil, temperature, sun and climate," she says. "Then there's processing. Like wine, everything affects tea."
Like wine, tea also differs through handling. White, green, black, fermented, smoked — all teas come from the same plants. The final product, aged anywhere from six hours to six months, depends largely on who works it — and how. In these days of personalized products, the more unique, the better. "We're talking boutique tea," Stoughton says. "Part of the attraction is demand."
Demand is clearly the operative word. One Michigan outfit, for example, peddles its product at a jaw-dropping $120 per ounce. Topping the domestic charts: one Hawaiian blend goes for $150 an ounce. "Those teas have panache," she says. "There's a desire to own something that nobody else has."
To create her own bevy of beverages, Stoughton, a food-service and film-production veteran, began pouring her own teas at the Pittsburgh Public Market back in late 2011. Moving to Butler Street two years ago, she's been ably assisted by her son. These days, their main business is selling the stuff dry, not wet. With roughly 200 regular customers stopping in for their monthly half-pound fixes, Stoughton also supplies regional restaurants and cafes. The McGinnis Sisters feature Gryphon Teas, as do select farmers markets. While growth has been slow, incremental, Stoughton's pleased with it. "We're showing a small profit," she says. "We're comfortable with that, two years in."
She does expect it to grow. "Younger, hipper people are gravitating toward tea for a number of reasons," Stoughton says. "It's healthier than coffee. It's not their parents' drink. And they can get exactly what they want — specific items made just for them."
With Gryphon — an American Tea Association-certified blender — working up his own chai, herbals and tea concoctions, Stoughton has branched out into giving classes, cooking with tea, and creating alcohol infusions. Like chai with rum? For a sweeter sip, add cream and simple syrup. How about an oolong-rum punch? Smoky lapsang souchong-based potato-lentil soup? Jasmine tea chicken marinade? "We're definitely part of the foodie movement," she says.
A lanky woman comes in from the cold. Dressed in what for all the world seems to be padded slipcovers, she asks about hanging a poster for upcoming yoga classes. Of course, Stoughton nods, then chats the woman up about tea.
Offered a cup of Wild Mountain Thyme, the woman nods, sips, wants to pay. Stoughton shakes her head, refuses. "It's just hot water and leaves," she smiles.
As the woman smiles her appreciation, Stoughton adds, "I'm a pusher."