Japanese panelsI recently spent four days in Chicago writing a story for an upcoming issue of TeaTime magazine. Tea is hotter than ever in the glittering hotels along Michigan Avenue, the sleek new tea bars and kiosks throughout the downtown, and the tea stores of the suburbs. You can sip tea from a delicate porcelain cup alongside a glass of champagne, or in a biodegradable cup while walking to work. Tea is everywhere and served any way you desire — hot or cold, fast or slow, expensive or cheap.

Argo Tea is leading the charge in getting tea quickly into the hands of urbanites on the go. They have ten outlets and kiosks in the metro area, including a highly visible new street-level location in the Chicago Tribune Building. Not to be out brewed, Adagio is opening a sleek new store this month only one block off Michigan Avenue. Gentlemen, start your kettles! This race is heating up.

But before I give you a taste of what else I found, I must tell you that the highlight of my trip was not found in a teacup, but in the Japanese Galleries of the Art Institute of Chicago.

I happened upon four original panels from the 1893 World Columbian Exposition Japanese pavilion. The heavily carved panels are all that remain from the graceful Buddhist structure that inspired architects such as Frank Llloyd Wright and Charles Greene. The long horizontal building with deep overhangs was destroyed by arson in 1945, and the surviving panels were stored underneath the bleachers at Soldier Field and forgotten until they were discovered in the 70s. They have just been restored and placed on view in the Japanese Galleries. But why are they of interest to students of tea? The design of the panels and the pavilion was directed by Okakura Kakuzo, director of the Tokyo School of Art and author of The Book of Tea.

TeaLulaThe great hotel teas are still very much in fashion here. I can tell you that my award for Best Michigan Avenue Scone goes to The Peninsula Hotel.  And the Best Hotel Tea Harpist can be found at the venerable Palm Court in the Drake Hotel.

Just minutes from downtown, I had the good fortune to visit the shops of two outstanding tea merchants. Todd & Holland is located on a busy corner in Forest Park, a few blocks from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park studio. Bill Todd is the tea guru here. Customers love the fact that he freely hands out information gleaned from his years in the business, and there are always pots of teas to sample. Loyal customers seem to leave with ever-bulging shopping bags of tea and tea paraphernalia.

My other favorite tea shop is TeaLula in Park Ridge. Sheila Duda opened this tea mecca three years ago after attending my TEA 101 school and three levels of STI certification classes. She is a truly dedicated student of tea. I love her intimate tea bar, where young tea baristas lovingly steep individual cups of tea for patrons who long to linger and discuss the virtues of drinking good tea. Both Sheila and Bill are patiently growing America’s rising tea culture — one carefully crafted cup at a time.

All photos are courtesy of theteamaestro.blogspot.com/.