The proliferation of tea shops, matcha bars and simply cafes in New York might lead you to believe that opening such a business is a fairly simple proposal. But there’s the kind of place that serves you an insipid teabag and a pot of lukewarm water and sends you on your way, and then there’s Kettl — which is serving something so different it’s hard to believe both resulting beverages can be categorized as “tea.”
“This catalog is a representation of nine years of just relationship building,” Zach Mangan said of Kettl’s menu when HYPEBEAST paid a visit. He and his wife Minami opened the tiny Manhattan tea bar only this past January, but it’s been a long time in the making.
Though little more than a to-go window and a four-seater bar on the Bowery, Kettl offers a fully immersive experience. The catalog Mangan spent nearly a decade building has resulted in a menu of high-quality Japanese tea sourced from growers from Fukuoka to Nagano. The care taken in selecting and importing the tea extends throughout the whole process of Kettl’s tea service — even to how the water is boiled.
“These are very traditional cast iron vessels often used in Japanese tea ceremony,” Mangan said of the large iron kama sourced from Iwate prefecture that Kettl uses to boil water, which itself is filtered using a Cleansui system designed specifically for tea. “The iron actually has a positive impact on ion on the water. So when we make tea with this, it tastes superior to boiling an electric kettle,” he explained. Each step is careful and measured, as Mangan transfers the water with a bamboo ladle, known as a hishaku, to a wide, flat-bottomed kyusu-style teapot to allow for an even distribution of water over the leaves. The final tea is served in delicate cups made by Minami herself, through her Soto Ceramics studio.
“This catalog is a representation of nine years of just relationship building.”
The labor involved in not only growing the tea but bringing it to New York warrants the extra care. It took Mangan two and a half years of trips to Japan to get to know the growers, as well as the opening of an office in Fukuoka, just to be able to purchase the first tea in his catalog. “It’s this building of trust,” he said of the many trips back and forth. “And then eventually they said, ‘Oh, maybe you want to buy our tea?’”
Before the opening of its public-facing store, Kettl first began as a wholesale business with Mangan selling the imported tea to New York’s fine dining scene. “At that point, though, I was delivering it to restaurants on my bike, like no business infrastructure, so to speak,” he said. While there wasn’t exactly an existing demand for artisan imported Japanese tea, the positive response proved there was interest. “Chefs are pretty discerning their palate. So you know right away when they take something and they get excited.”
From there, Kettl grew into an e-commerce platform, which led to the opening of a second floor Williamsburg showroom in 2016. In addition to selling tea, the store remains the primary hub for Kettl’s collection of imported Japanese ceramics. But while the Williamsburg store offers customers a taste of its tea for sale, it’s primarily a place to shop. But if you’re to take the effort (not to mention spend the money), on high-quality imported tea, it only makes sense you’d want to ensure it’s prepared and served properly as well.
The new Bowery space is a chance for Kettl to offer New Yorkers the feeling of a Tokyo tearoom, in a way that makes sense for Manhattan. “That’s what I love about this space,” he said. “It’s taking it out of the tea room in a way and making it a little bit more present.” The four-seater space doesn’t allow for many patrons to visit Kettl at once, but it does let those customers have a personal interaction with Mangan or whoever is behind the bar. And since this is New York, Kettl’s to-go window lets those who don’t want to stand on ceremony opt for a more casual approach to traditional Japanese tea.
“It’s taking it out of the tea room in a way and making it a little bit more present.”
But on to the tea itself. An excellent starter tea for novices and experts alike visiting Kettl for the first time is the Genmaimatcha, which adds matcha to the traditional brown rice and sencha blend genmaicha. You’ll also find three varieties of sencha, one of Japan’s most popular tea styles, including the competition-level Tenkuu Sencha hailing from Uji. That’s in addition to the shaded teas like Ayame Kabuse and nuttier roasted teas like Tsuyuhikari Houjicha, both from Fukuoka. Green tea is the focus, but there’s also an oolong and black variety in the selection of oxidized teas.
Keep in mind though that while the menu is somewhat extensive, only certain teas are available to go — a Tenkuu-level tea is simply not the kind of thing that can be enjoyed in a paper cup.
All the history and explanation aside, what matters is that customers enjoy the taste. “The thing I love about Japanese tea is that so much of the explanation can be summed up in how it tastes. So you can go on and on and on like, okay, there’s all this information, once you taste it, it’s like, ‘Oh I get it, that’s really different,’” Mangan said. That people might want to learn more about the provenance of the tea is, he hopes, a byproduct of enjoying their time in the space.
Those years spent building partnerships with restaurants have allowed Kettl to expand its repertoire beyond tea. Thanks to its long standing relationships with various chefs, Kettl has been able to develop recipes for a small selection of sweets like pudding flavored with matcha, houjicha or soba, a matcha chocolate bar and gelato made in collaboration with il laboratorio del gelato. The key for Mangan is finding partners that have a shared commitment to quality even if that falls outside the world of food and drink, as shown in Kettl’s teaming up with the likes of Snow Peak to to host events.
Prices may not be quite so accessible if taken in the greater scope of tea and coffee, given that Kettl’s full tea service starts at $7 USD a serving and goes up from there. But the pricing makes more sense if you think of the Kettl experience as more akin to visiting a well-developed wine bar than to grabbing a coffee to go from your local corner cafe. “My wife and I, we love wine and drink a lot of wine,” Mangan said. “The way that my brain works for both of those, there’s literally no difference. It’s an agricultural product, made by a producer who has a certain point of view. Each year there’s always variance and weather, humidity, etc.”
“Tea is a living thing. So essentially, you can control everything, and it could taste different one day versus the other.”
All that precision aside in measuring the leaves and boiling the water, the many variables and steps involved in a single brew means each cup of tea is ultimately a singular experience that can’t be replicated. “There is always variance you know,” Mangan said. “Tea is a living thing. So essentially, you can control everything, and it could taste different one day versus the other.”