What’s brewing in Baltimore’s quietly thriving tea scene

Published 3/15/2023 5:30 a.m. EDT, Updated 3/20/2023 10:49 a.m. EDT

Zena Lichter takes a customer's order at Pillion Tea in the Midtown neighborhood on March 7, 2023.

Growing up with a Kashmiri mother meant my mornings smelled like kahwa: saffron, cardamom and crushed almonds swirling in green tea. Ever since, I’ve been on an endless quest to find and relish places that treat tea as a craft and put loose leaf on the pedestal it deserves.

The Baltimore tea scene is unique, exciting and well connected with the wider culinary scene. Here are some spots that the tea-curious shouldn’t miss.

Pillion Tea is a place to connect with others or to find a quiet reprieve, says co-owner Zena Lichter.

Pillion Tea

There might be no other place in the world like Pillion Tea in Midtown-Belvedere, which mashes a punk motorcycle aesthetic with a clean and tranquil tea shop (a “pillion” is the seat for a second person on a motorcycle). Zena Lichter and her life partner Eric Mitchell painstakingly renovated the building in 2019: pulling up the floors, hand-cutting tin tiles for the ceiling and lugging in 500-pound oak pews for seating. They have no staff and do everything themselves.

Pillion specializes in single-origin teas, and Lichter works with dozens of families from across the globe to showcase almost 100 teas, including 20-30 rare and seasonal varieties. Their eclectic stock includes a rare yellow tea from Dongting Lake in China, purple teas from Kenya and fermented pu-erh tea, which smells like congealed rice.

Originally from Portland, the couple moved to Baltimore in 2017 and noticed a void; there were few places “for people to exist as themselves and meet other people,” Lichter said. They created Pillion to feel more like a community space than a business. “I personally know 90% of people who come in here by name.”

A pillion is the seat for a second person on a motorcycle. Pillion Tea occasionally organizes rides for local tea and motorcycle enthusiasts.

“Tea is like wine: the terroir, season, year and finishing changes so much of the profile of what you are going to get,” Lichter said. But it’s more than just flavors. “Around the world, tea is how you welcome people into your home. It’s how you perform religious ceremonies and wedding ceremonies. It’s something you gift to people — it’s very much about connection,” she said.

The teahouse also occasionally organizes rides for local tea and motorcycle enthusiasts — follow the business on social media to catch their next ride.

Brittany Wight and cashier Ariel complete an order at Wight Tea Co. in Whitehall Market on March 7, 2023.

Wight Tea Co.

Nestled in Whitehall Market, this cozy storefront stocks tantalizing blends from blueberry basil rooibos to “Baltimore breakfast” black tea. They even offer yaupon, a caffeinated holly leaf that grows in the South.

I tried the cinnamon walnut yaupon latte brewed with lapsang souchong, a black tea smoked over pinewood. “It tastes like you are taking a walk in the woods in the fall, and there’s a cabin in the distance with a fire going, and that’s where you’re headed,” said Brittany Wight, who founded Wight Tea Co. with her brother.

The origins of the company trace back to the 2008 recession when Wight, a recent college graduate, was struggling to find a job. Her tea-loving brother suggested working at a tea shop so he could get a family discount. Wight became “obsessed” and started taking teas home, “and then me and my brother became friends over tea,” she said. A few years later, the two started making their own tea blends to share with family and friends, which eventually culminated in them founding Wight Tea Co. in 2016 as a tea blending business, sourcing varieties from around the world and selling their blends to local businesses.

“Tea in Baltimore is growing and growing,” Wight said. “The tea community is truly supportive. We all want each other to do well.”

Sign Up for Alerts
Get notified of need-to-know
info from The Banner

She has one message for tea lovers in the DMV: don’t skip out on Charm City’s gems. “It bums me out that those people aren’t interested in coming and supporting a really good food scene,” she said.

A $16 tea pass from Wight Tea Co. buys four hours of all-you-can-drink tea — perfect for the coworking sessions at Whitehall. You can also pair your cup of tea with a scrumptious pastry or buy some leaves to brew at home.

"Our vision for Cuple's Tea House was always to be inclusive of good music, good food, books, literature, culture and tea being the foundation of it all," co-owner Lynnette Dodson said.

Cuples Tea House

Cuples Tea House fills yet another niche in the Baltimore tea ecosystem, providing an urban tea experience.

“It’s not your mama’s teahouse,” co-founder Lynnette Dodson said. “You won’t find lace and doilies here.”

Dodson, who grew up in Northwest Baltimore, met her husband at Morgan State University. They were inspired to create a business that could provide generational wealth for their family.

Their food brings an “urban flair,” Dodson said, highlighting their curried chicken sandwiches. And the tea titles have plenty of pizzaz: Afro BlueBerry Green Rooibos, Black is Beautiful Pure Ceylon Sonata and BMore Chai are just a few of their 50 teas. I tried the blueberry hibiscus tea, which tasted like a thousand tropical flowers blooming on my tongue.

Be sure to visit the other Black-owned health-focused businesses on the block called “Healthy Howard Row.”

Emma's Tea Spot brings an authentic British tea experience to Baltimore.

Emma’s Tea Spot

Venture to the Hamilton neighborhood and you’ll find a proper British tea experience at Emma’s: teapots with knit cozies, porcelain cups with saucers and counter service instead of waiters.

Emma Canoles founded the teahouse in 2017 to bring a slice of her homeland to Baltimore. Her neighbor and babysitter at the time, Lisa Eibner, pitched in by washing dishes — today, she is the manager.

The woman-owned business strives to empower both customers and the local economy by serving healthy food. “All of our stuff is from local farms. It’s all seasonal, organic and handmade from scratch. I think people forget how healing food and tea can be for us as a society,” Eibner said.

Emma's Tea House aspires to uplift Baltimore by cooperating with local businesses, manager Lisa Eibner said.

Emma’s also brews beans from Zeke’s Coffee, a local roaster, who in turn lend them coffee machines — just one example of how they collaborate with local businesses, Eibner said. “Emma really wanted to put something powerful in the city and start building it up,” she said. The owner is now moving toward franchising the British experience outside the city.

Pro tip: The gift wall in the back is perfect for the anglophile in your life.

Other spots

Teavolve in Fells Point offers loose leaf tea, coffee, smoothies and cocktails plus America eats!

Looking for a holistic medicinal tea? Check out Juniper Culinary Apothecary.

Charmington Holistics is a brick and mortar shop (no current website) that is run by herbalists who formulate on the spot, customized holistic medicinal teas. Visit them at 425 S Conkling Street.

New Secrets Tea in Pigtown has all things tea wellness, including herbal skin care and even shower steamers.

Do you have any other spots I should check out? Email me!