Walking into the artists co-op at Stetson Hall, you first get a whiff of peppermint. Then comes the smell of apricot and peaches, then a very faint scent of vanilla.
A half-dozen artists display their wares in the small room of the former town hall building, but the distinct smells all come from one of them: Vermarje Tea Co.
“Most people don’t know much about tea,” Mary Fernandes, owner of Vermarje, said. “When green tea became popular in this country it was around the health benefits and people started to realize that there we all these different types and qualities of tea. It started a bit of a movement.”
And it’s a movement Fernandes is all in on.
Vermarje Tea Co. takes up an entire wall in the Artisans at Stetson co-op, and it’s lined with dozens of jars filled with green, black, herbal and oolong tea leaves. Every tea produces a different smell, flavor and feeling, Fernandes says, and she’s determined to get people to slow down, embrace the ritual and incorporate tea time into their everyday lives.
“We think we can do a lot, but I think we’re moving too fast,” she said. “I want to take tea and make it more than just a thing: It’s all about mindfulness and presence in the moment. I think tea can help us do that.”
Fernandes’ familiarity with tea was similar to that of most Americans growing up — it was something your mom made when you were sick, and it came from a teabag steeped in boiling water. But when she picked up a magazine and started to learn about the types of tea, rituals and important cultural significance that exists in places across the world, she knew she’d stumbled across something she wanted to commit to.
“It’s the one beverage that can lift you and calm you down,” she said. “It can be all kinds of things.”
By the time she discovered her new-found love, Fernandes was already leading a successful career as assistant general manager for the state Department of Transportation. She loved her job and didn’t want to give it up, so she worked part time on several tea-centric ventures — including a tea store with her daughter and hosting high tea events with a pastry chef friend — before committing to Vermarje Tea Co. full time more than five years ago.
Since then, Fernandes has traveled to tea expos across the country and tasted everything she can get her hands on, including some leaves that can cost as much as $1,000 per ounce.
“I’m always training and learning,” she said. “It’s like wine. All wine comes from grapes, and all tea comes from leaves, but not all wines are the same. Tea is like that.”
When customers shop at Vermarje Tea Co., they don’t just walk away with a bag of whatever blend they’ve chosen. Fernandes hopes customers stay a while, sample different types of tea and learn how each style should be brewed and served. There are misconceptions surrounding brewing, she says — if you want tea to be stronger you steep more leaves, you don’t steep it longer — and Fernandes wants to make sure her shop is an educational space, as well as a retail store.
At the Stetson co-op, Fernandes also sells tea brewing supplies and makes sure every customer walks away with instructions for how to get the most out of their purchases.
“I’ve had people come back to me and say, ‘I’ve been doing this wrong my whole life,’ ” she said.
Vermarje Tea Co. also has an online tea of the month club, which sends subscribers various teas for $25 per month. In store, Fernandes sells dozens of types of teas for between $5 and $7.50 per 2-ounce bag.
Photos in this post were taken by the wonderfully talented Greg Derr. They were originally published in The Patriot Ledger.