If you go to the Arabica coffee shop on Commercial St. close to the pier, you’ll find a curious offering on their drink menu: seaweed tea.
What impressions first come to mind when you think of seaweed tea anyway? A mouthful of salt water, but piping hot? The company name behind the tea is “Cup of Sea” after all.
Arabica patrons that day simply said that it “sounded interesting,” but maybe they’d try a cup next time. Instead they ordered matcha green tea lattes and macchiatos, like usual.
Seaweed tea has a long history in Asia — it’s known as kombu cha in Japan, not to be confused with the fermented yeast drink from Russia — but the person behind this latest addition to Arabica’s beverage menu, Josh Rogers, is the first one to bring it to Maine, and quite likely New England.
Kimberly Teret holds a plate of dried kelp, bladderwrack, and floral petals.
“I’ve always loved cooking with seaweed,” said Rogers. “One day I had the idea of mixing kelp and green tea, and I pitched it to a friend. She said, ‘you know with all the crazy drinks out there, yours could taste terrible, and people would still buy it. But I don’t think it would be terrible.’”
Rogers took that backhanded compliment and ran with it, later “inventing” three blends of seaweed tea. Last week, I tried them all.
The first one, Great Wave, is a mixture of kelp and green tea. After steeping it in boiled water for five minutes, I brought the cup to my nose. It smelled faintly reminiscent of the air outside Commercial Street, and unmistakably seaweedy.
But you know what? It’s subtle. Unlike a great wave smacking you in the face while swimming at a Maine beach, the tea doesn’t taste bitter or salty. I learned later from Rogers that the process of seaweed harvesting entails an immediate cold rinse to wash off any excess salt. Hints of ocean brine are present in the brew, but they’re equally balanced with the familiar taste of green tea.
The next tea I tried was an interesting one. Rogers described it as his version of genmaicha tea, typically a mixture of green tea and roasted rice. Genmaicha has been around for centuries in Japan, originally drunk exclusively by poor farmers who added brown rice to dwindling tea stocks to increase its bulk. People began to develop a taste for it and the practice spread worldwide. It’s much more popular today and is colloquially known as “popcorn tea.”
But Rogers made it his own, swapping out the green tea with kelp. The result is a tea that’s very drinkable, and my favorite of the three; it’s got notes of toast and seabreeze.
The last of Rogers’s creations is called “Sea Smoke,” and is arguably the most intense. It’s a blend of lapsang souchong (a Chinese black tea that’s dried over burning pine cones for a distinctly smoky flavor) and dulse, a fiber-rich snacking seaweed. Brewed together, the tea presents itself for adventurous sippers.
“Some think it’s way too intense,” said Rogers. “But others have said it’s amazing and very nostalgic. I just want to create teas that are interesting and drinkable.”
As a former editor at Zagat, and writer for The Portland Phoenix way back in the day, Rogers says he’s familiar with the foodie world and anticipates seaweed to be “the next big thing" in terms of culinary trends. In parts of the world it already is. Apart from marketing to people with an affinity for sensory experiences related to the ocean, Roger also thinks his teas will catch on with people that consider themselves explorers in the food world, consumers eager to try the next weird thing.
And in a country dominated by offbeat food trends like rainbow bagels, dessert pizza, sushi burritos, and bottled cactus water, it’s hard not to believe there’s space for a seaweed tea to carve its own niche of popularity.
“I want to celebrate the seaweed in these teas,” said Rogers. “It doesn’t exist elsewhere.”
One could call these teas adventurous because they’re the only type of easily accessible hot drink that activates our umami sense. In its most reductive definition, umami means savory flavor. It's found in foods like beef, tomatoes, mushrooms, soy, carrots, and shrimp. But the “Cup of Sea” teas are special in that they don’t come close to tasting like a salty broth. The flavors are robust but emerge in delicate ways, like most teas do.
And because seaweed isn’t a plant (it’s an algae), the teas can’t be classified as floral, or herbal either; they exist in their own category entirely.
The story behind Cup of Sea starts with Rogers missing the Maine coast while working in New York City. Rogers lived in Portland during the ’90s but spent the last six years in NYC, first as an editor at Zagat, and then as a content strategist at Google. During that time he would visit Maine often, most notably for the Maine Startup Week and the Seaweed Festival.
“I always wanted to come back to Portland,” said Rogers. “I’ve always wanted to do something that’s connected to Maine.”
So eventually, he did. Rogers quit his job at Google and recently moved back to Portland, partly to provide a more comfortable environment for his two young daughters, but also to launch Cup of Sea with the intention of working with as many Maine connections as possible.
So far it’s working out for him. Roger buys tea from Little Red Cup, a company based in Portland that imports loose leaf teas from China, that’s guaranteed fair trade, organic, and high quality. His logo was done by Patrick Corrigan, a Portland musician and visual artist. And his seaweed is sourced from Maine as well, at the Atlantic Holdfast Seaweed Company situated on a tiny island seven miles off the coast of Stonington.
Micah Woodcock works there, and has been commercially harvesting edible and medicinal seaweeds for seven years. He also has been hosting “seaweed appreciation” classes to inform the public around the state that consuming seaweed provides benefits to both the body and the natural environment.
“Seaweeds hyper-accumulate the trace minerals in ocean water and make them available to us in dietary form,” said Woodcock. “There are about 60 trace minerals considered essential for the human body, and seaweeds have all of them. They are the best dietary source of iodine, have a broad spectrum vitamin content, are low in calories, and contain unique beneficial compounds found almost nowhere else in nature, like Laminarin, Fucoidan, and Algin.”
A screenshot from a Youtube video that features Micah Woodcock, the owner, and operator of the Atlantic Holdfast Seaweed Company, talking about the process of harvesting seaweed and sustainable resource management.
Woodcock said that interest in seaweed is on the rise, and that he’d like to see us interacting with it more, but that growth needs to happen thoughtfully and considerately in order for it to be sustainable.
It’s true that growing and harvesting seaweed can be a net-positive for the environment (often times growing seaweed restores life to dead zones, and helps combat beach erosion) but Woodcock stresses the importance of ensuring the 5 companies harvesting wild seaweed in Maine consider the long time viability of the industry.
“Responsibly harvesting and growing seaweed improves water quality, creates habitat for other marine organisms, and produces some of the most nutritionally dense food in the world,” said Woodcock. “For those reasons and more, I would like to see the industry continue to grow, albeit slowly and responsibly.”
But Rogers doesn’t want his teas viewed simply as an alternative health trend, although seaweed is packed with hard to pronounce minerals. He just wants to attract people that dare to mix up their routine and try something out of the ordinary.
“People don’t know what it is,” said Rogers. “That’s the challenge; putting it in front of people and getting them to try it.”
You can try your own "Cup of Sea" during the next tasting session: Wednesday, April 12th at Arabica on Commercial St., 2-4pm or Sunday, April 23rd at Dobra, 2-4pm.