Making tea with skill

Muskegon tea room offers respite as ’third space’
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An elegant tea slushie at Café Tamaki. Photo by Carmel Musich.

A Muskegon tea room offering incredibly beautiful and tasty creations also provides respite as a “third space.”

Open Wednesday to Sunday, from 2 p.m. until midnight, Cafe Tamaki, located at 1222 Peck St in Muskegon, serves both hot and cold beverages and food such as okonomiyaki and taiyaki. With varied seating, including kotatsu-inspired heated low tables and pop-up art events (updates are posted to Facebook), the cafe provides a warm buffer between day-to-day responsibilities.

“We’ve been playing with tea affogato.” Tea connoisseur and Cafe Tamaki shop owner Sam Birkenkamp says. “Just imagine one brew—one gong fu brew, which is equivalent to an espresso shot—over ice cream or gelato.”

Café Tamaki owner Sam Birkenkamp skillfully prepares tea.
Photos by Carmel Musich.

Cafe Tamaki serves tea prepared gong fu style—a Chinese brewing method that means, literally “making tea with skill.”

“We’re bridging that gap between school, work, and home,” Birkenkamp says. “Because when you sit down with someone and you’re drinking tea with them, you’re getting to know them. You’re getting to sit down and, hopefully, the tea tastes good enough that you’re not pulling out your cell phone. We hope to build a space where everyone is welcome.”

Birkenkamp recognizes the importance of third spaces for the pleasant culture, but the need goes deeper.

“There’s a growing need for inclusive spaces. [There are] marginalized communities that just simply don’t feel safe leaving their homes anymore. Before we moved out of Grand Haven, we definitely had a few of our customers tell us, ‘You know, you need to reopen ‘cause otherwise I have nowhere else to go.’ So, definitely feel like that’s part of our plan.”

With free, personalized tea samples and a late-night schedule, Cafe Tamaki opens its cozy beverage shop to everyone. Slushies, sodas infused with tea, and soft serve ice cream are a few of the non-coffee and tea options the experimental tea shop offers. And boba is on its way.

“Teaologie started in 2014 and we would go to sci-fi shows, anime conventions, steampunk events in addition to serving the tea and doing the samples.” Birkenkamp, who already had a tea background says, “We also info dump because we’re big tea nerds.” It was a previous manager that introduced him to the larger world of tea.

“I started working at Teavana in 2010 and a few months into that job, the manager was like, ‘There’s so much more to tea than what we’re doing.’”

A purple soda float, one of many beverages offered. Photo by Carmel Musich.

The move from Grand Haven combined Cafe Tamaki, BananaDog loose leaf tea shop and tasting room, and Tealogie, which sells and distributes tea nationally. With more than 100 varieties and countless trials behind them, Tealogie supplies grocery stores and tea lovers.

“There’s a bar down in Ohio that uses our tea as a bittering syrup. We do all kinds of creative collaborations.

“The ‘Afternoonified Rose’, the ‘Blood Orange,’ they’re top sellers. Those are the teas that we recommend for our wholesale customers just because it’s gonna sell.”

Birkenkamp hovers his right foot. “This is such a top seller for us, I even designed footwear.” He wears a pair of “Royal Masala Oolong” custom printed canvas boots. The shoes come in other tea “flavors” at Teaologie LLC’s website.

Tasting notes
“At the beginning of the pour and at the end of the pour, I have weakly brewed tea and strongly brewed tea,” Birkenkamp explains while pouring a small teapot of leaves and hot water into a large glass pitcher– the fairness cup. “The fairness cup mixes that all up in fairness so that everybody gets all of the good flavor.”
The rooibos “tea” that Birkenkamp prepared for us was robust, root-y and recognizable.

“When we’re doing tastings, I don’t like to lead people with their expectations,” Birkenkamp says.

While the water was heating, he said rooibos is a legume and its scientific name is Aspalathus linearis. It is an evergreen plant that is indigenous to southern China and India that verbatim means “red bush.”

“Typically, people will come in and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t know where I’m at.’ Or, they’ve shopped for tea before and they’ll ask for something by name, or they’re really old hat Chinese tea drinkers and they’ll say, ‘You know, give me a gong fu brew of Ti Kuan Yin.’ We really meet everyone where their expectations are.”

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