Tea Shop owner reads a bright future in tea leaves

Polly Kragt, also known as the Queen of Tea, is demonstrating to a new group of customers, soon to be fans, how to brew tea.

This is "the agony of the leaves," a phrase used to describe the steeping and unfurling of tea leaves while brewing the perfect cup of tea.

If agony smells this sweet, agonize away. The aroma is delicious.

Kragt owns Chocolatea, a tea shop at 7642 South Westnedge Avenue in Portage, tucked in at the end of a strip mall with a secluded deck of tables and benches over the Portage Creek.

"Most people who don't like tea," Kragt says, "don't like it because it hasn't been made right. Timing is everything."

Timing, Kragt repeats with evident passion for her art of the tea leaf, timing. One to three minutes for green tea, three minutes for black, three to four for oolongs and whites, five for herbal and rooibos. Her shop is filled, floor to ceiling, with shelves of great glass jars, clearly labeled with the name of the tea inside. Tea should be kept in airtight tins, she says, not glass jars, but she's broken this rule, and this rule only, so that her customers can easily view the tea leaves inside, their color and mix and curl of leaf, the chunks of cinnamon or twist of lemon peel. Chocolatea carries more than 200 flavors.

Timing, she explains to her rapt customers, along with using loose leaf tea rather than "the dust" of tea leaves that you find in the common tea bag. Kragt uses freshly boiled tap or bottled water, never distilled or previously boiled water -- the required oxygen in the water has been depleted in that case -- and a roomy strainer or infuser basket to hold the tea leaves. "The more room there is for the agony of the leaves, the better."

Sitting down with her personal favorite, Darjeeling, Kragt recalls the beginning of a dream. She'd always loved tea. And coffee? Sure, but the more she learned about tea, the more she left coffee behind. Now, she drinks none. Chocolatea offers coffee, but she keeps it well separated from the tea, because tea absorbs surrounding aromas and flavors.

"I used to make tea with three tea bags in my teapot," she says. "Then I learned about tea leaves. You know how some women are addicted to collecting shoes? For me, that's how it is with tea." As her passion for tea grew, so did her dream about opening a tea shop.

Kragt has been a tea-sipping pediatric nurse in Kalamazoo for 26 years. She loves her work, and she still works two days a week, 12-hour shifts, in nursing. "But in here," she points at her head, "I'm at Chocolatea seven days a week. And when I am not at the hospital, I am working here. "

It took about five years for the idea to steep in Kragt's mind. She opened Chocolatea in 2008, during the presidential elections when the economy was taking a serious hit.

It might have been an odd time to open a new business, she admits, but the timing was right for her.

Initially, Kragt worked the shop by herself, with her husband, Mark, helping her wash dishes at the end of the day, and close. Today she has two to three employees. She maintains a presence throughout the shop, moving between customers, asking about tastes, steeping, demonstrating, chatting, selling.

"It's all about customer service," she says. "I never close the door as long as there is a customer here. I tell my staff that they are not to turn out the lights until the last customer finishes her tea."

Her final nudge to open the shop came from one of her three daughters. "If you don't open a tea shop, you will live to regret it, my daughter told me. I had to hear it from my child to finally do it." Polly says. "And when I opened Chocolatea, it was a success the moment I opened the door the first day. It wasn't about making money. It was about realizing my dream."

Build it, steep it, and they will come. And they did come.

Chocolatea has its regulars, patrons who come in daily, book clubs who meet there, groups of knitters twice a week. Along with tea, Polly offers gourmet chocolates and locally-made cupcakes. She'd discovered that her favorite beverage tasted even better when she nibbled a chocolate with her cup. "And always use a white cup so that you can appreciate the color."

"Worldwide, tea is the second most popular beverage," Polly says. "The first is water. We can always tell the coffee drinkers when they come in. They are always so hurried! But tea drinkers are relaxed group."

There's a reason for that, Polly says. L-theanine is an amino acid unique to tea, and it is known to be a mood enhancer and stress reducer. "While coffee gives you a spike of energy," Polly says, "tea provides a steady feeling of being alert yet calm. No matter what kind of tea you prefer, all tea is healthy." Evidence is accumulating that tea contains antioxidants that may be beneficial to heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and dementia.

Chocolatea sells teas at prices that range from $2 to $9.75 per ounce, along with a selection of tea pots, infusers, tea cups, T-shirts. Edibles include chocolate, of course, but also quiche, bagels, muffins, pies, brownies and cookies. The shop is open Monday to Friday, 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., or until Polly turns the lights out -- only after the last customer has finished her tea.

Zinta Aistars is a freelance writer and editor of literary ezine, The Smoking Poet, who lives in Portage, Michigan.

Photos by Katie Rausch.

Polly Kragt, owner of Chocolatea, poses in her shop in Portage.

Chocolatea carries a number of specialty teas.

Chocolatea is everything from an espresso cafe to a tea merchant to a candy store. 

Portage's Chocolatea sells a variety of chocolate.

Polly Kragt, owner of Chocolatea, poses in her shop in Portage.
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