O5 Rare Tea Bar wants to help tea culture grow in Vancouver

A few minutes spent inside the recently opened O5 Rare Tea Bar (2208 West 4th Avenue), and it’s clear that what I’m about to experience is like no other. That’s because tea culture in Vancouver is highly underdeveloped, co-owner and tea hunter Pedro Villalon says from behind the long wooden bar covered with handmade clay kettles, a stone matcha grinder, wooden spoons, and various tea drinking vessels. Here on the West Coast, we’ve become experts—snobs even—on certain beverages like coffee and wine, but when it comes to tea, many of us are guilty of simply dunking an elusive teabag into boiling water, not knowing what exactly it is we’re drinking. Villalon, co-owner Brian Noble, and the staff at O5 Rare Tea Bar are hoping to change that.

Tools for making the perfect cup of tea at O5 Rare Tea Bar.

At a media event on November 28, I perched myself atop a high metal stool—a bit awkwardly at first since the stools are backless and taller than the table. Villalon explains that in most countries in Asia, tea is typically consumed while sitting on the floor. To mimic that practice, backless stools require customers to sit up a little taller and truly experience the multisensory effects of drinking tea. Villalon has no formal training in tea. After obtaining a chemical engineering degree in Mexico and working for 10 years in the advertising industry, he found himself in remote mountaintop villages in China, talking to tea farmers and learning about Chinese-grown cha. Additional travels in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan educated him further about all the different varieties of tea leaves and flowers.

O5 Rare Tea Bar makes it a point to work only with small, independent tea farms around the world and carries close to 20 different types of tea in the shop at any given time. Villalon has met with the majority of tea growers that O5 sources from, and in Vancouver, works with Lauren Mote and Jonathan Chovancek of Kale & Nori and Bittered Sling for handcrafted bitter extracts that O5 infuses in some teas.

Along with tea, customers can order light tapas dishes, including goat brie served with ratatouille, rosemary, olives, and crackers.

During the media preview, we get a chance to sample several types of tea: a bright and fragrant pink tisane made from a hibiscus flower grown in the desert mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico; a sweet and gentle tea from Taiwan called the Oriental Beauty, whose leaves must be bitten by a bug in order for its composition to change; and a dark and comforting semi-oxidized oolong tea from Korea called Balhyocha Noeul, which Villalon tells us is good for digestion and aiding hangovers. During a typical tea service ($7), an O5 staff member will help customers select a tea that’s right for them; water is boiled in a clay pot on an induction oven at the bar; and the tea is served in ceramic bowls. Customers feeling a bit peckish can order from a few tapas-size dishes ($5 to 7), including goat brie, olives, and tea-infused quinoa.

There’s nothing typical about the experience at O5 Tea Bar, from the all-natural wood-based décor complete with photos from Villalon’s travels projected on one wall, to the highly personalized service. Everything in the room has a distinct purpose and meaning behind it, and Villalon hopes that its these details that will entice more Vancouverites to stop in and enjoy a hot cup of tea.

You can follow Michelle da Silva on Twitter at twitter.com/michdas.

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