22 December 2023

Australia's coffee culture is among the world's best - this Wollongong woman wants our tea to match

| Zoe Cartwright
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Love a good brew? Specialty tea brand opened its first store front on Kembla Street this year. Photo: Billie Acosta.

Wollongong woman Melissa Di Marco is on a mission to bring more moments of peace into people’s lives through the power of a good cuppa.

Growing up with Italian and Spanish heritage, Mel’s default hot drink was coffee, but that changed when she left her decade-long career as a hairdresser to try something new.

“After I left hairdressing, I wanted to do something completely different, so I just handed out my resume all over Sydney,” she said.

“I landed a job in a tea shop, and I vividly remember tasting a milky oolong – there’s no milk added. It’s where it’s grown and how it’s processed that creates this milky taste.

“My previous exposure to tea was Nonna giving us a bit of chamomile and honey if we were unwell as kids, so discovering this was amazing; I fell in love with tea and wanted to learn everything there was to know.”

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After completing tea mastery and blending courses, Mel became disillusioned by the artificial flavours added to many commercial tea blends.

She wanted to make creative, flavourful teas using premium ingredients, so she began to hand-blend small batches to sell at markets.

TeaEsk was a success, and as her business grew, she tried to find the most ethical sources possible.

“I try to use certified organics where I can, and source my single estate teas from smaller farmers,” she said.

“Sometimes it’s hard with language barriers and farms in remote areas, but the ones I’ve found have been amazing, and I know my money goes directly to support them and their workers.

“There is a place for artificial additives, and I can see why bigger businesses use them, but for me, it’s about quality.”

Her wholesale and market business took off, and Mel was able to open a storefront on Kembla Street earlier this year.

Melissa Di Marco discovered her passion for tea after she left her hairdressing career. Photo: Billie Acosta.

Her blends have won multiple awards, and now she hopes Australian cafe culture will expand to include tea crafted with the same love and care as a good espresso.

While a pot of chai might not give you the same caffeine buzz as a double-shot latte, it has other benefits.

“It’s slower than coffee culture, for sure,” Mel said.

“That’s what I love about it. It gives me 10 minutes in my day to just breathe and enjoy brewing a pot.

“It’s a great conversation starter, and if it’s good quality, people are wowed by the taste.

“If you’re enjoying a pot with a friend, it gives you time for deeper connections.”

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For those who know exactly what they like, TeaEsk offers tea blending workshops, but if you’re not sure what your cup of tea tastes like, Mel has some tips.

First, think about when you’d like to drink it. The cuppa you’ll enjoy first thing in the morning probably isn’t the same one you’d want just before bed.

Then, identify any flavours you really hate. For example, if licorice doesn’t do it for you, you’ll want to avoid most things with fennel or anise.

When you’re starting out, keep it simple – teas that are too bold, intense or floral probably aren’t the best place to begin.

“In the morning, I’d encourage a beautiful breakfast tea, a single estate,” Mel said.

“For an herbal, I’d lean towards my sleepy blend, a rooibos, or maybe a lemongrass and ginger.”

Once you’ve selected your tea, the tea master says it’s all in how you brew it.

Temperature and time are the two big deciding factors in whether you get a smooth flavour or a bitter mess.

“For black tea, about 90 degrees and a short two-minute steep is beautiful,” Mel said.

“People often over-steep if they’re adding milk, but that brings the bitterness out instead of more flavour. You’re better off to add an extra teaspoon of tea to the pot and keep the steep time short.

“For green tea, you want a two-minute steep in water between 75 and 80 degrees for a sweet, fresh cup.

“Herbals need something a bit stronger. You can steep them with boiling water and leave them for five to seven minutes and get a delightful cup.”

TeaEsk is at 84c Kembla St, Wollongong. For more information, visit the website or follow on Instagram and Facebook.

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