Tea is one of those things that we often consider to be quintessentially British but it was not until the mid-1600s that drinking tea truly became popular in England. Its history dates back much further. Records suggest that the act of drinking tea can be dated back as far as 3000BC (in China) and, in Japan, to the 9th Century where its consumption was originally reserved for the religious classes.
Unsurprisingly, tea eventually found its way to the royal household and, with seeds being imported from Japan, the Emperor (Emperor Saga) actively encouraged the farming of tea in Japan. In true Japanese style, the drinking of tea was observed, understood, and turned into an art.
Not long after my fiancé and I returned from our trip to Japan, we found ourselves craving what we had encountered on our travels. Fortunately, we live in the centre of Manchester and just around the corner from what I can only describe as one of the most underestimated places to visit in the city.
I have been interest in Japanese culture for some time and I finally made the trip to Japan in the Summer of 2018. Spending time in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, I became very aware of how large a part respect has to play in Japanese culture. Tea is no different. Whilst tea has somewhat fallen out of fashion with younger generations in Japan, tea ceremonies (or chado, 茶道) still take place and the respect for the humble tea leaf has not diminished.
From the outside, it is hard to comprehend just exactly what Cha-ology is. It is minimalistic, with neutral colours, unstained wood, and few soft furnishing. Once you step inside, though, it becomes blatantly clear that you have stumbled upon something special. The seating area is raised from the ground (a common Japanese feature, usually indicating the need to remove one’s shoes.) Seating is traditional, meaning there are no chairs. Instead, you sit on the ground; a small cushion adding a touch of comfort. Meditative music plays in the background, only increasing the relaxing vibe that the tea house exudes. As an aside, there are two main postures for sitting: either in a kneeling position, seiza (正座), or cross-legged, agura (胡座).
Cha-ology is a modern approach to an age-old tradition. Booking online is essential. Takeout orders can be placed but be prepared to wait. The focus is one-hundred percent on the sit-in customers who have reserved their spot indoors… and for the right reasons! This is not a cafe or a tea shop, it is a small slice of Japan in the middle of the city centre. Each time slot is reserved for over an hour, meaning there is plenty of time to enjoy both the tea and the atmosphere. Cha-ology is a retreat; a place to hide from the rush of the city and to simply enjoy tea.
Talking of tea…
The selection on offer changes through the seasons but the quality is always spectacular. The matcha (抹茶) is real tea ceremony grade, the sencha (煎茶) varies from light to deep steamed, blends and single cultivars; then there is the houjicha (ほうじ茶) , the genmaicha (玄米茶)… and lots more. I have tried a few varieties over recent visits and I have yet to find one that wasn’t something special.
Once inside, you are called forward to the counter where the menu is etched into wooden tiles (to be replaced as the menu changes throughout the seasons). You’re taken through the tea selections: which varieties, their properties (bitter, sweet, umami), and where they are sourced. Once you pick your tea, if you chose matcha, you get to chose a chawan (茶碗) to drink from also.
Whilst Cha-ology is a tea house, and not a sweet house, there is a selection of homemade sweets on offer. On my last visit, I had the seasonal wagashi (和菓子) plate: a selection of rice-based sweets including mochi (餅) and daifuku (大福). There are also tea-flavoured gateau au chocolat, matcha pudding, as well as other seasonal treats.
Tea ceremony (chado, 茶道)
Once seated, there is time to simply relax as the sweets and tea are assembled (and as other guests are seated and served). The tea is then brought over and, if you have ordered anything other than matcha, you receive a detailed explanation of where the tea comes from, how each brewing will differ in taste (and why), as well as how long to wait when you serve yourself the second and third infusions. You are also given a little clipboard with instructions/information on.) If you ordered matcha, this is where the ceremony begins. Out of respect for the owners of Cha-ology, I won’t go through the ceremony step-by-step; II believe you should experience this first-hand, in any event. However, what I will say is: it is very relaxing to watch and you definitely get to appreciate tea as an art form.
Cha-ology is a not just a tea house, it is a retreat. A way to momentarily forget the hustle and bustle of daily life. The idea, like the decor, is simple yet appealing; and with nothing else like it in the City, I really hope that it continues to be a success. Cha-ology probably isn’t for everyone, though. If you are in a hurry, or you’re looking to socialise and talk over a hot drink, then look elsewhere or, at least, check out the tea house rules. Cha-ology is a place to enjoy the best that tea has to offer and the owners want nothing to detract from that (a good thing, in my book!) ★★★★★