We are delighted to be able to interview our content writer Jamie today about her seasonal tea hut at OBSERVATORY in Belfast, Maine. Jamie is the co-founder of the art and education non-profit smudge studio and its project OBSERVATORY; directed towards inspiring curiosity and belonging to Earth and the cosmos. We look forward to learning from Jamie about her experiences with Japanese tea, and how the Tea Hut at OBSERVATORY and Japanese teas in general are a part of the movement towards a more insightful way of life.
Thank you for joining us for this interview! First of all can you please introduce yourself?
Hi Elise, thank you for asking to set up this interview. My name is Jamie Kruse and I’ve been living in New York City for the past 22 years. I’m originally from Illinois, but also spent a couple years living in British Columbia after undergrad. I now live in Maine part-time too. In 2022 I opened a storefront called OBSERVATORY, with my collaborator Elizabeth Ellsworth, as part of our art practice, smudge studio. Liz and I met in New York in 2004 and started smudge as a non-profit art design practice around then. I also have been teaching sustainable art and design at Parsons, the New School for Design, in New York for the past 10 years.
Could you explain the inspiration and mission for the OBSERVATORY project and the Tea Hut to our readers?
OBSERVATORY is a project of our studio, which is really about expanding personal awareness of large planetary forces, and ongoing environmental change, happening on Earth. This has been a primary focus of our work for the past twenty years. It also feels increasingly important as the change seems to be intensifying. At OBSERVATORY, we stage exhibitions and share Long Life Designs from Japan, but we also serve complimentary tea during our open hours. We’ve found that the conversations change and people slow down when tea becomes part of their creative experience.
In this blog, you talked about your first eye-opening interaction with gyokuro. What got you into tea in general? Were you born a tea lover or did you have another experience that initially drew you into Japanese tea?
Japanese green tea has been a significant part of my daily life for many years. Living in New York, I’ve been able to enjoy really wonderful Japanese tea at home — and out in the city, including cultural experiences related to Japanese tea. During visits to Japan, tea education and tasting experiences are a major part of my travel itinerary. I visited Maiko Tea, in Kyotanabe in 2008, and have felt very loyal to them ever since. I am also a big fan of Kettl tea in Brooklyn. Their tea is spectacular! One of my earliest gyokuro experiences was at a restaurant in New York, Kajitsu, which was a seasonal Shojin Ryori (Buddhist Vegetarian) restaurant. It is now closed, but we had a monthly ritual of going there for many years. Kajitsu served spectacular tea from Ippodo, so I fell in love with drinking gyokuro during their long, multi-course meals over the years.
What was your inspiration for creating the Tea Hut in Maine or what is it about Maine that adds to the Tea Hut tasting experience? Is there another location you are interested in in the future?
The Tea Hut concept was very specific to OBSERVATORY and Coastal Maine, but we’ve been sharing tea publicly, and as part of art project events, for many years. I think this will continue in the future, though we are becoming more interested in mobile tea, and tea outdoors, using the Earth itself as a kind of tearoom/tea space. I think that’s probably where we’re headed next.
The Tea Hut’s previous events include “Umami Tea: Tasting the Savory Earth” which delved into the world of umami teas. For beginners and tea novices, could you describe your experience with umami in Japanese teas?
I’m a big fan of shaded Japanese green tea. Gyokuro is probably the pinnacle for this type of experience, but I’ve enjoyed learning how different regions can manifest this savoriness in both senchas and kabusecha. The umami of gyokuro from Fukuoka (Hoshino’s Mare, for example) is quite different from that of Kyotanabe (Yamashita’s Nomigoro). I love both — and a tasting is about experiencing this difference and taking the time to appreciate it. I also like offering shaded sencha during a tasting, to express how much umami can be present in other teas, like Hoshino’s White Princess, even though it’s not gyokuro. It’s really fun to experience this.
What Japanese teas have you been drinking recently?
During the summer I like cold brewed green teas best, their sweetness really comes through. So, right now I’m drinking a lot of Ayame from Kettl and Hoshino’s White Princess, cold brewed. I also enjoy this kabusecha from Chakouan, which I respect for being women owned. There is so much great tea available!
Are there any Japanese teas you would recommend, or what advice would you give to people who just started getting into Japanese teas and would like to attend a Tea Hut tasting event?
I think simply trying a variety of teas is the best advice. There is so much available and everyone’s palette is different, and this actually changes over time. I’d recommend carefully sourcing your tea and trying to form a relationship with the farmers/growers, in order to make sure you know how your tea is being sourced and its environmental impact. I also think experimenting with temperature and brew time can be a great way to get to know a tea better. The same tea cold brewed, tastes quite different when brewed warm. Freshness is also a big factor. It’s extremely important to buy tea that hasn’t been in a package for a long time, exposure to oxygen greatly impacts flavor, as does the water you use. Kettl tea uses oxygen-free packaging and includes a desiccation packet in each bag. Their approach really respects all the hard-work that goes into making tea — and retains the potential of the tea leaves.
How do you choose the day’s tasting brew at the Tea Hut according to the ambient atmosphere of the hour and the season? What teas have you found that suit what atmosphere?
I really do this mostly based on the weather conditions. Coastal Maine is a rather moody place weather-wise, lots of fog. It also tends to be cooler there than most places in the United States. Still, it’s fun to cold brew sencha or gyokuro at room temperature teas during hot July and August days and then move into warmer teas, like Houji-cha during the autumn.
Are there any memorable moments from past Tea Hut events? Or do you have any exciting present or future plans for the Tea Hut?
This summer we staged a public event along a nature trail in Belfast, Maine and served tea out of a shed along the trail. This was really fantastic and done in collaboration with a local conservation organization, Coastal Mountain Land Trust and the local community arts center, Waterfall Arts. It was fun to have guests stumble upon the tea hut and enjoy it spontaneously and enjoy the view. Last autumn, we held an autumn moon viewing at the harbor and served tea, and that went really well. In August and September of this year, Liz and I will be attending a visual arts residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, for a program called Meeting for Teas. We’re very curious about this program and what might result and how that will reshape our work at OBSERVATORY. So, stay tuned!
You also talk about the teaware at the Tea Hut being in collaboration with supporters of the Japan’s Long Life Design movement. What are some ways that Tea Hut has been supporting sustainability?
Overall OBSERVATORY and the Tea Hut offer a context for slowing down and experiencing tea in an unrushed way. We don’t use any disposable teaware or cups and tea is typically served in antique tea cups from Japan, that my friend and collaborator, Marie Uno sources at flea markets in Tokyo. These cups are all over 100 years old and while holding them in your hand, you can really appreciate their longevity and beauty. Marie also has repaired a few of them with kintsugi, so there’s a really wonderful opportunity, and aesthetic to appreciate older, long-lasting objects. We also have a variety of tools and utensils on exhibition from D&Department’s Long Life Design project. I really respect their ability to source objects that have been in production continuously for decades, and sometimes centuries. It’s really inspiring!
At the “Tea at the Tilt of the Earth” past tasting event at the Tea Hut, you mentioned that the Tilt of the Earth 23.5° Teacup helps orient the mind into the cosmos. What are some additional ways that readers and tea lovers can experience this awareness of the cosmos when drinking tea?
In a very foundational way, all aspects of tea are related to the cosmos. The sun, 93,000,000 miles away, fuels pretty much everything, and very directly supports the growth of the plants. The climate that tea requires is also part of a larger, very dynamic planetary system. Tea leaves also require some basic elemental forces to become tea, such as fire and water. The minerals in the soil that support healthy, quality tea, are all part of a longer and vaster geologic process. All of these things come together in making and sharing tea, but it’s kind of endless once one starts to think about it.
You have also written a number of blog posts about the different tea regions of Japan such as Fukuoka and Kagoshima. Are there any regions in Japan that you would like to visit to try tea in the future?
I’m a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to green tea, so Kyoto prefecture is usually where I focus on my tea research when I visit Japan. One of my favorite activities is to visit temples and drink tea in Kyoto. It’s very special to me, and experiencing tea in relation to the outdoors, usually overlooking a garden or forest, and near incredibly old wooden architecture is…hard to put into words. But, it’s wonderful. I have also come to learn that my favorite senchas tend to be from Fukuoka. So, hopefully I’ll have a chance to visit there in the near future! Thank you for your time today Elise. It has been great sharing this conversation with you!
We are grateful for the opportunity to interview Jamie, and hopefully you have learned more about the transformative experience of Japanese tea. Be sure to check out the upcoming events at the Tea Hut at OBSERVATORY and more of smudge studio’s work!
Follow her on:
- smudge studio’s website: https://www.smudgestudio.org/teahut
- OBSERVATORY’s Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/observatorybelfast
- smudge studio’s Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/smudgestudio
If you are also a tea fan, make sure to book your local guide in Kyoto to enjoy delicious Matcha and green tea!