For aeons, it has been customary across Asia to serve tea to houseguests. A symbol of hospitality and respect, the steaming beverage helps visitors feel more at home. Perhaps that is one of the reasons those who set foot into the newly opened Tannin Hill Tea Gallery feel so sincerely received.
The tea house is a surprise find on old Jalan Ipoh, KL, and one of several indicators of the area’s ongoing revitalisation. While it may seem like an odd place for a tea house, it is the perfect place for founder Tan Ban Leong, his son Tan Guan An and members of their family, who all call the neighbourhood home.
Named after the astringent compound and the idyllic peaks at which tea bushes are traditionally cultivated, Tannin Hill pays homage to tea in its most simplistic form. Its eight offerings all hail from China. Guests are welcome to sit at the bar and sample the variations, supplemented with information from explanatory cards and friendly staff members. From the subtle floral notes of the pale golden Shou Mei to the earthiness of the full-bodied Liu Bao that leaves a hint of sweetness on the tongue, the menu has something to entice every palate.
In a unique twist, the high fare matches teas with Western-style bites like scones topped with cream and jam, sliced baguette with savoury dips and saccharine confectionery. While not the most traditional interpretation of afternoon tea, these provisions speak for Ban Leong’s passion for tea and all its aspects and possibilities, as well as his desire to innovate and experiment in order to create a rendition that attracts young blood.
“I want to make tea appealing to the younger generation,” he says. “Nowadays, youth only drink bubble tea. To me, that is not tea — not real tea. I want to make the real thing cool for them.”
In Ban Leong’s own words, Tannin Hill is “not about educating” but rather about making experiences. And this becomes apparent from the moment one steps through the door into its chic interior.
The design of the space is strikingly modern. Cool stone tiles pave the floor in a stretcher bond pattern; plush upholstery in neutral tones extends comfort; and the copper shelving behind the marble-topped tea bar reflects the mellow glow of amber backlights, basking the area in a balmy luminescence.
Sequestered away towards the end of the café is the teapot room — a private space that harks back to the days of traditional tea houses. There is cushioned floor seating and mantels that display potted blooms and an assortment of earthen teapots propped on wooden trays. Guan An, who manages daily operations, will tell you that the pottery originates from another avid tea aficionado in the family — his grandmother — alluding to the deep significance of tea in the Tan family.
As contemporary as the store appears to the bare eye, there is more to ponder if you peel away the top layer. The botanical decor evokes the earthy nature of tea; the warm wooden finishes and lighting give the shop a cosiness, not unlike how it feels to nurse a hot cup between cold hands; and the families and friends who visit the café are reminders of times spent bonding with loved ones over pot after pot of tea.
Semi-legendary philosopher Lao Tzu is credited with the saying, “Tea is the elixir of life”. This tonic, though allegedly discovered by accident when tea leaves fell into Emperor Shen Nung’s boiling water, has been purposefully used to treat all sorts of ailments, many of which have been justified by modern science.
Through years of globalisation, tea may have lost its footing with the younger generations who may feel stifled by the formal and sometimes filial associations with tea ceremonies. That said, with the likes of Tannin Hill, where ancestral traditions and stylish appearances entwine, there is hope yet for the future its founder dreams of, who, for now, is content with “settling into the business” and taking things one step at a time.
481, Jln Sultan Azlan Shah, Taman Million, KL. Tues-Sun, 9am-5pm. For more information, visit @tanninhill.co on Instagram or contact (016) 617 8379.
This article first appeared in issue No. 109, Autumn 2023 of Haven.