Looking down from a space ship, an alien could be forgiven for thinking that the daily business of Plentea is that of a specialty coffee bar.
Yes, there is a boxy metal machine that spews hot streams through either of two portafilters and, next to them, a wand that gets milky pitchers afroth. Yes, tools stand by for the sieving, shaking, whisking, and pouring of slower-moving liquids, served hot and cold. Toward the front of the formidable black bar, glass domes politely shelter croissant loaves, cranberry almond-flour muffins, and banana bread. Some customers get cups to go, while some choose to stay, sipping and sitting on street-facing stools or at communal tables upstairs. They hear pleasant music, take in the walls’ futurist geometric designs, and use the Wi-Fi.
But, earth to everyone: Plentea is a tea bar.
And as it turns out, that workhorse appliance making all the noise is not for espresso. It is a Teapresso, developed by Taiwanese espresso machine manufacturer Klüb more than a decade ago and still likelier to appear in Asia than the Parkdale neighborhood of Canada’s most populous city. Plentea’s owners say their CSB2T model—which, besides two group heads and a steamer, has a high-volume brewing unit for up to eight-liter extractions—makes for optimal steeping.
Standardization and quality control matter a lot to Mohammed Binyahya and Tariq Al Barwani, the 30-somethings who opened Plentea in 2016. Both were born and raised in the United Arab Emirates and met as engineering students at the University of Calgary. The school in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies was a fitting place to learn about the oil and gas industry, explains Binyahya; Al Barwani admits being especially drawn to the mountains. That kind of market-opportunity acumen coupled with environmental attunedness seems to be just what has led the duo to success so far.
“Back in Dubai there is this trend in tea, where people are drinking these small, cool cups everywhere—in the malls, everywhere you go,” says Binyahya, reflecting on contemporary Emirati culture’s influence on their enterprise. “[The tea is] called chai karak, and it’s a very trendy and cool drink that everyone has. So we thought: why not take that to another level where people can have different varieties?”
“Make new patterns” is Plentea’s slogan. It comes into sharp relief upon hearing that the 23 wall-mounted dispensers of leaves and spices sourced from Asia and Africa can be combined to “make an infinite amount of teas.” Although the set menu now offers 20 beverages made from a tea or a tisane (an herbal infusion), the “tea bar concept” means “we don’t pre-blend teas, we don’t pre-mix teas, we don’t use tea bags,” Al Barwani stresses. Customization is encouraged, too. Fighting the sniffles? Request more citrus in the black tea-based hot toddy. Caffeine-craving but sugar-skeptical? Order the Black Velvet chai sans chocolate syrup.
Plentea estimates that 90 percent of its sales are of tea, though an espresso, a latte, and a mocha are also on the menu, winkingly prefaced by the suggestion to “caffeinate the old school way.” Toronto roaster Mountain View Coffee supplies the beans, a Brazilian-Peruvian espresso blend; shots are pulled on a one-group La Spaziale S2 EK. Prior work in cafes, ranging from their university food hall to Starbucks, clearly helped prepare Binyahya and Al Barwani for the current operations.
“People, especially in coffee culture, like to get things fast, efficiently,” Binyahya says. “So we made sure that this also transfers to tea culture—and this is why we’re a little bit different. We call ourselves a tea bar. It’s not going to be a teahouse.”
Toronto no doubt has other remarkable tea spots—for example, the multiple retail outposts of takeaway-by-the-tin-tending chain DavidsTea and the floridly porcelainic Annvita Tea Room, a true study in Commonwealth fetishization. But, as Binyahya emphasizes, Plentea offers a “modern way of drinking tea—so it’s per cup,” with a focus on “making that [preparation] procedure very efficient, in the same way as coffee.” Tea traditionalists may balk. But to patrons of new-wave cafes, the approach is not at all alien.
Karina Hof is a Sprudge staff writer based in Amsterdam. Read more Karina Hof on Sprudge.