When you walk into the J-TEA Tea Room on Friendly Street, you’re first taken aback by the beautiful wood entryway. Designed by owner Josh Chamberlain’s brother, award-winning architect Ben Waechter, the wood frame invites you in and transports you into a new world where tea and community thrive.
Chamberlain knows tea and its significance. Spending six years in Taiwan during and after attaining his international studies degree from the University of Oregon and his MBA from National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan, his love of tea was ignited when he and his roommates would drink the calming beverage while recounting their day and decompressing. He saw the sense of community it encouraged.
“It’s almost like a conversational aphrodisiac,” Chamberlain says. He described a scenario where he sat at a table with people he didn’t know and who initially seemed to have nothing in common, except for the drink in front of them. “Then, from the tea, we start talking about tea, and it just leads to, all of a sudden, we’re best friends after a half hour of drinking tea together.”
He told me his story, which he described as “falling down a well,” in the back room of the Tea Room, which was set up to facilitate tea-inspired conversation, complete with a hot plate for heating water in an iron tea pot (“I have a tea pot problem,” Chamberlain tells me, showing me the others on display around the room and in the shop), tasting cups, cylindrical aroma cups specially designed for smelling the tea, and special cups for steeping and serving.
Similar to his teapot obsession, there is a lot of nuance to crafting tea, and your equipment can make all the difference. “It’s sort of like a musician with instruments,” he says. “They’re all playing the same song, but—like the tone or the sound, especially the more you use it—the nuance of it is going to become more apparent to you.”
Chamberlain carefully pours hot water over about six grams of whole-leaf tea, steeping it briefly before transferring it to the serving cup and then to our individual cups. He showed me the slurping technique to really get the full “flavor, aroma, and mouth feel.” This isn’t the same bagged tea you get at the grocery store.
Chamberlain spent his remaining time in Taiwan learning everything he could about tea, meeting with masters, growers, and talking to as many people as he could.
“There are so many professional tea experts in Taiwan, and I have my core teachers that I still connect with, but there were also people that I would meet that would be in a different area,” Chamberlain says. “I’d go all over the whole island just making appointments with tea experts and learning from them.”
Each expert had a different take on tea as well. “There are rules, and you learn all these rules, and then, eventually, you talk to the masters and they’re breaking all the rules,” he says.
In 2005, he brought his tea blends knowledge and resources back to Eugene (his hometown), and started his tea business out of his house, selling tea wholesale and then developing his home into the Tea Room that stands today.
He sources his tea from all over, from the Minto Island Tea Company in Salem to tiny mountain grows in Taiwan. He says he wants to bring the unique flavors and different tastes of tea to Eugene.
In 2016, Chamberlain opened Oolong Bar near the University of Oregon, serving delicious tea drinks, house-made fruit compotes, kombucha, coffee from Equiano Coffee Roasters, and bubble tea. He says he wanted to separate the two experiences between the more traditional Tea Room and the more coffeehouse vibe of the Oolong Bar.
It’s obvious that the Tea Room is something special. The smell alone, with all the different teas in brightly colored packages, is immediately inviting and enticing.
Chamberlain says tea is something that no one person can master. “It’s very humbling in that you can know something so well and almost know nothing about it in a sense,” he says.
J-TEA Tea Room
2778 Friendly St.
Tues-Fri, 10 am-6 pm; Sat-Sun, 12 pm-6 pm
1607 E 19th Ave.
Mon-Sun, 10 am-6 pm