Steep Learning Curve

Educating the Motor City about the world’s most popular beverage

It’s Detroit’s year for tea.

At least that’s what Elias Majid, owner of Detroit-based Eli Tea, is hoping. The 25-year-old is on a mission to educate the Motor City’s “underserved market” about the art and craft of tea.

“The recession put everything on hold for four years, so while the tea trend was growing across the country, Detroit experienced nothing,” he says. According to Majid, one tea shop serves the 700,000 people who live in the city, based on figures compiled from Google Maps and, compared to 16 tea shops serving Chicago’s population of about 2.7 million. There are a handful of tea shops in Detroit’s surrounding suburbs.

“Tea is the world’s most popular beverage. In India, they drink Indian tea. In China, they drink Chinese tea. In America, we drink blank. … There is no emotional connection to the products currently offered here,” Majid says.

Eli Tea aims to help people make a connection to tea. The all-natural tea company features American-sourced herbals and “thoughtfully selected” teas from around the world.

Using a $3,000 grant from the Wayne State Blackstone Warrior Fund Business Competition and money he cashed out from stock investments, Majid established Eli Tea in 2012. He plans to open a tea bar in downtown or Midtown this summer.

Majid crafts tea blends in one of Detroit Kitchen Connect’s community kitchens. He tries to source ingredients from America and Michigan, if possible. He offers 30 teas, but the Traverse City Cherry Festival far outsells everything else. The ruby-colored beverage tastes like “Michigan in a cup” and is quite sweet.

The secret to Majid’s flavorful teas: He fire roasts spices (with a blowtorch), most notably for the Indian Masala Masala Chai, a family recipe. It has an almost intoxicating aroma and makes for one tasty cup of dirty chai (steamed milk, chai tea, and espresso).

Like many Motor City entrepreneurs, Majid moved back to Michigan (he’s from Saginaw, and recently worked as a botanist in Chicago) to start his company, saying the city is perfect for his business because of the foodie culture and the growing health consciousness.

Majid has made a fan out of die-hard coffee lovers like Amanda Brewington, owner of the Always Brewing Detroit coffee shop in the Grandmont Rosedale neighborhood. Before offering Eli Tea, she had offered non-local green and black tea but decided to step up her tea game. Now she’s making different concoctions with Eli Tea, including a green tea lemonade.

The two started working together after Brewington spoke about pop-ups at Wayne State University, where Majid is a student in the nutrition and food science program. Brewington was impressed by Majid’s professionalism during their first meeting. “I’m picturing a kid with baggies of tea. He comes in, very well put together, very professional,” she says.

Indeed, Majid is serious about tea. Eli Tea is pretty much a one-man operation, including the hand-crafting of wooden “tea dossiers” that include information on ideal brewing and facts on the tea’s origin. He also leads tea tastings at coffee shops around the city.

Majid’s steep tea knowledge — he speaks about it like a sommelier would about wine — comes from his Indian background and time spent in Darjeeling, India, where he went to the Tocklai Tea Research Institution in 2010 and 2012.

While the challenge of navigating licensing and insurance requirements was difficult, the most interesting hurdle was personal: Majid’s parents. “They were more nervous than me about leaving the comfort of the 9-5 job,” he says. “But now they have come around and are happy that I am able to both express my Indian heritage and honor my American birth.”