[A] mustachioed tea maker named John Ray Edwards solemnly unfolds a woven mat, places a traditional gaiwan atop it, and begins to pour water into the vessel. As the hot rinse wakens the oolong tea, he muses, “It’s almost a religious experience.” When he decants a second steep into a small handleless cup, floral and toasted rice aromatics waft through the air.
The grace and precision of this traditional tea ceremony couldn’t be more at odds with the name of its setting, Hillbilly Tea Shack, a newly opened teahouse in Louisville. True to its name, the small two-room space features a rustic, unpolished atmosphere, a steady soundtrack of classic country music, and an impressive array of artisanal teas. The reclaimed wood counter with six of the Shack’s ten seats and antique furniture create an aesthetic perhaps best dubbed “mid-century-Appalachian.” It feels more like a primitive cabin in coal country than a boutique café.
The unlikely marriage of artisanal tea and Appalachia is explained by Hillbilly Tea’s urbane and engaging founder, Karter Louis. Louis, who sports a perfectly coifed fauxhawk and a shawl collar cardigan, sits in an antique armchair across from me at the Shack’s solitary table. As we sip an earthy Pu-erh, Louis explains his approach to tea. “Tea does not have to be ostentatious,” he says. “People think it has to be pretentious. I believe that tea is a magical beverage, and I want to bring everyone to it.”
This philosophy is behind the Shack’s unconventional menu layout. Recognizing that Louisvillians would be uncomfortable ordering in Chinese, Louis renames each of their teas and then categorizes them as either black, green, mountain, or earth teas. “We call oolong ‘mountain tea’ because it’s from the mountains. We call Pu-erh ‘earth tea’ because it’s earthy!” Louis says.
Over the course of a diverse and international career, the Louisville native has worked as an actor, musician, designer, and restaurant consultant. After a twenty-year hiatus from the stage, Louis recently started acting again, and he tells the story of Hillbilly Tea with the magnetism of a seasoned thespian.
While working as a restaurant consultant in Washington, D.C., Louis happened upon Teaism, a highly esteemed Dupont Circle teahouse and restaurant. Louis was a lifelong tea drinker, but had never before encountered a tea café. “I walked up to the door. [But] I was shocked and I didn’t go in!” At that point Louis had already started and sold his first restaurant and gone on to help open more than twenty restaurants, but he had never considered opening a teahouse. Eager to sharpen his tea skills, Louis took a pay cut and began working at Teaism, which led to a job opportunity with a fledgling tea importer, Rishi Tea.
Louis began traveling around the country doing training for Rishi Tea. But as his knowledge about tea grew, his ability to explain his career to his family diminished. “Here I am teaching about tea all over America,” Louis says. “I felt ashamed that I didn’t have anything to say to the core of America.”
It was while driving through West Virginia on the way to Kentucky that Louis had an epiphany: a tea house which would cater to people of the heartland. Its name started as a joke: Hillbilly Tea. Stereotypes about residents of the Bluegrass State abound, mostly involving a lack of shoes, missing teeth, and kissing cousins, but Louis isn’t afraid of the moniker. “I embrace the hillbilly inside of me,” he says.
Louis tabled the idea for eight years before his friend, the chef Arpad Lengyel, suggested they move to Louisville and follow through with the project. Louis booked a flight to Louisville and within a week had found the space. In 2010, Hillbilly Tea opened up in downtown Louisville to much fanfare. The menu is built around Louis’s carefully curated tea program and Lengyel’s menu of Appalachian inspired New American food. The latter, however, garners the most media attention.
While the popularity of the restaurant thrilled Louis, he felt like tea was being overlooked. “I saw the need to focus on the tea,” he says. Expansion had been built into the original business plan, so Louis began searching around town for the right space. After a couple of false starts, Louis, as he had eleven years earlier, had an epiphany in his car. “One evening I was driving home and got stuck [in traffic], and I looked over and saw the space,” says Louis. “And I said, ‘Oh my God! What if we did it in the Highlands?’”
The Highlands have long been Louisville’s main bohemian neighborhood, with the first espresso bars opening there in the early nineties. Until recently, the building Louis spotted had been a hot dog stand that did most of its business through a walk-up window. Louis saw the potential to have a take-away program to make the space financially viable, while reserving the interior for a quiet tea sanctuary. After a year-long build out, Hillbilly Tea Shack opened in early November.
So far the reception has been slow, but the word is still getting out. Louis already has plans to host a weekly gongfu tea ceremony, and other tea tasting events. “This is a community place,” says Louis. “I love when people say we’re a Louisville institution.” If he has his way, Louisville will soon be a city of tea connoisseurs.
“I believe,” says Louis, “if you are passionate about something and that’s what you focus on, you’ll thrive.”
—Michael Butterworth is a barista trainer at Quills Coffee and founding editor of The Coffee Compass.