"This is Houjicha," says Mei Lee, pouring me a steaming cup of Japanese green tea. "It has a very high umami taste."
She explains that Houjicha is roasted in a porcelain pot over charcoal, which is what gives it a smoky flavour. We discuss the differences between the meaty, robust profiles of Japanese teas and the bitterness usually associated with English tea.
You might assume that Lee and I are talking tea in a serene Japanese garden—maybe a chashitsu in the shadow of Mount Fuji. We're not. We're in Manchester, where Lee has just opened Cha-ology, the city's first and only tea bar.
"I was worried how people would respond to something so different," she says. "Perhaps people might be receptive to this in London. But in Manchester? I wasn't sure."
A traditional Japanese tea ceremony involves the preparation and drinking of loose leaf tea or matcha, sometimes alongside small sweets. It can last for up to four hours. At Cha-ology, Lee makes all tea in front of her guest and talks them through the brewing process.
"What people perhaps don't understand about Japanese tea," she says, "is that it is not just about putting a tea bag in hot water. It's about temperature control, roasting the tea leaves, measurement, and tempering the water."
Before opening Cha-ology, Lee received training in Tokyo on how to correctly perform a formal tea ceremony. This included mastering specific ways of walking and turning when serving tea, studying ikebana flower arrangement and calligraphy, and learning about the many varieties of Japanese tea leaves.
The concept of ichigoichie was also central to Lee's training, and something she hopes to introduce her Manchester customers to. The term can be translated as "for this time only and never again" and involves being present in the moment. You must drink your tea and cherish the experience, knowing that it cannot be repeated.
At Cha-ology, it's not hard to enjoy the moment. The bar sits in a busy building of modern apartments and restaurants, but Lee keeps the colour scheme neutral to promote a calming vibe. The bar only seats 12 and there is minimal furniture.
"I was going to have a huge wooden table installed at the centre but the shipment was delayed," she says. "But the longer we had all this open space, the more I wanted to keep it like this. So I cancelled the table."
When customers arrive at Cha-ology, they must remove their shoes and place them in a box. Lee serves tea on a small wooden table and if there is a queue, you must wait outside. This keeps the bar quiet and peaceful, and stops it from becoming overcrowded
"I do get people complaining about waiting outside, and the waiting time can be long," Lee admits. "But I'm doing my best."
But waiting is all part of the Japanese tea ceremony—you must commit a length of time to relaxing and enjoying the present moment. Lee uses matcha tea as an example of the sort of experience you might expect. The tea is served in a handmade bowl called a chawan, and the matcha sieved and whipped into water or milk at your table.
"Matcha is not just a beverage," she says. "It is a time to relax. You drink your tea in three sips, leaving gaps to reflect between the sips. You appreciate the chawan then finish with a slurp."
While matcha tea is Lee's favourite, she admits that for some, it is an acquired taste.
"Matcha is like wine, there are so many variations," she says. "You have more expensive, more refined types of matcha, and then cheaper, more bitter, strains."
Another tea Cha-ology specialises in is gyokoru: a delicate type of green tea. The leaves are brewed at a low temperature, which is then increased to achieve different levels of infusion. Once the tea has been consumed, the leaves are poured out and eaten with soy sauce.
After finishing our tea, Lee tells me about the cakes and desserts she serves. I try the red bean soup with mochi, which she makes by boiling down azuki beans to a soft paste, then sweetening with cane sugar. It is served with toasted mochi, a crisp, and glutinous rice bread.
"I want to do small things," Lee tells me. "And do them properly."
If you ask me, I think she's nailed it.