MEM Tea is practically ubiquitous in cafes around Somerville and its big storefront on Highland Ave. made its presence known to everyone in town. And while the burgeoning wholesale import tea business recently relocated to Watertown, it’s still a big part of the Somerville community.
“We tried to stay in Somerville, but we had seriously outgrown our space” said Meg Tartasky, MEM Tea’s client services manager. “We scouted a couple of locations, but they weren’t big enough, didn’t have enough amenities or enough parking. We just found a better space.”
A big part of Tartasky’s job is ensuring that those cafes prepare and serve the teas correctly, so she spends a lot of time out in the field visiting and training clients, doing tastings and checking on equipment.
“We provide tea trainings for all of our customers where we go into the restaurants and cafes and we teach them all about where tea comes from and why green tea is more difficult to brew than other teas,” Tartastky said.
This is all part of the wholesale import tea business that Mark Mooradian started in 1999 when he founded MEM Tea. Mooradian was working at a coffee company in Worcester when he decided he was more interested in tea and wanted to break into the wholesale business. MEM Tea sources its products from all over the world to provide high-quality teas at affordable prices to local cafes and restaurants.
“We definitely work worldwide. We try to source the best Chinese green or Japanese green or darjeeling or whatever from anywhere. As long as it tastes the best and it’s the right price, that’s what we’re going to go with,” Tartasky said.
While MEM Tea doesn’t have preferences in terms of regions in the world to source teas from, one area the company is particularly excited about right now is Kenya. Previously, most tea from Kenya was heavily processed, meaning it was only fit for a teabag, but more recently, the teas have been processed differently, allowing them to make their way into the speciality tea market.
“Kenya is kind of blowing up right now,” Tartasky said. “They managed to breed two different types of tea to come up with something new. Most of the time tea is pretty ancient, so it’s exciting when there is something new.”
Another tea that is sourced from Africa is rooibos, which only grows in a 50-square-mile plot of land. People have tried to transplant it, but tea plants are sensitive to weather and other factors, so it could not be cultivated elsewhere.
MEM Tea doesn’t just import high-quality tea, the company also has a big focus on creating unique tea blends. Some of the teas even include ingredients made by Somerville businesses like those created using Taza Chocolate.
“We don’t actively seek out local partnerships, but we’re always really excited to do them,” Tartasky said. “The Taza thing has worked out really nicely. We’re always excited to do special things with local people.”
To create the new tea blends, founder Mooradian mixes and matches until he’s ready to share with the MEM Tea staff. Then they all gather on Tuesday evenings for tastings that can last for five to six hours.
“Mark is the brains behind all of our blends, but we’re all involved in the process,” Tartasky said. “We work together to determine what we will be most palatable to the general market. There are lots of steps in mixing and tasting that we’re all involved in.”
All of the hard blending and tasting work paid off for MEM Tea when it won second place at the 2011 North American Tea Championship.
“That was the first time we’d ever entered anything like that and we only entered one tea and it won second place,” Tartasky said. “It’s become our more popular chai and it’s kind of our baby. In the future when we have more blends that we’re really excited about, we’ll be entering more things.”
MEM Tea might not have to wait long for that to happen, as it has three new tea latte blends coming out this fall. One is green tea based, one is rooibos based and the third is black tea based with a hint of red chilis, making it a little spicy, according to Tartasky.
Also in the works for MEM Tea is a new online store, which is expected to launch before the holiday season this year. And if you’re looking for the perfect tea to buy this winter, Tartasky recommends the chai made with Taza Chocolate.
“It’s like a grown-up hot chocolate,” Tartasky said.
In the meantime while the temperatures are still steamy, Tartasky recommends icing the Golden Green, Crimson Berry or Red Zen, which she likes mixed with half lemonade for an herbal Arnold Palmer.
“It’s super delicious,” Tartasky said.
Where to Buy: Christina’s in Inman Square or Cardullo’s in Harvard Square (among lots of other places, like City Feed and Supply in Jamaica Plain)
Where to Sip: Bloc 11, Sherman Cafe, 3 Little Figs and many other Somerville establishments
How to Brew: Green, white and oolong–brew at 180-185 degrees and steep for one-three minutes // Black and most herbal teas–boiling water is preferable and steep for four-seven minutes