I’m a very big fan of tea, and the Stone Leaf Teahouse is one of my favorite places in Middlebury. I visit the store regularly, as I find it to be the best place to spend some good, quality time with my school work or friends (or both). With this in mind, I can’t quite tell if my motivations behind writing this article are to convince you to also love tea or to discover more about Stone Leaf and tea itself. I’m leaning more towards the latter.
Last Friday, I met with John Wetzel, the owner and founder of Stone Leaf Teahouse. We sat under the sun on the store’s patio drinking “凍頂 (dòng dǐng),” a type of Taiwanese oolong tea. Our oolong was not served in a mug, but instead presented on a tea tray alongside teaware handmade by one of John’s employees.
Having tea at Stone Leaf is special. There is a lot of care that goes into the way his patrons experience the drink and are able to engage with the tea itself, a level of which I haven’t found in any other place I’ve ordered tea. Knowing the rarity of the experience curated in the shop, I went into our conversation with one burning question: how on earth is a place like this located in a small town like Middlebury, Vermont?
“Why in Middlebury? I asked myself that too in the beginning, but now I don’t even question it because it grew so slowly and so naturally,” Wetzel said.
John initially moved to Middlebury to farm organic vegetables. He’s worked a variety of jobs, but what has remained constant was his love and appreciation for tea. He started the tea house in part because he was inspired by the expansion of coffeehouse and cafe culture he observed throughout his time in college. With these spaces becoming centers for art and community that revolved around the beverage, he wanted to construct a space of his own.
“I enjoyed coffee,” he explained while refilling my then-empty cup, “but what about tea? People drink tea all around the world. I knew there was something more to it.”
The largest motivation for John’s career in the tea world, however, was traveling. To source the teas for Stone Leaf, John travels throughout Asia, meeting with various producers from India, China and Japan. It has taken a long time for him to cultivate these relationships, and the ability to connect with people around the world is what John loves so much about his business. The Teahouse allows for these connections from abroad to find a place within the Middlebury community, creating a uniquely global space in our small town. This makes Stone Leaf all the more valuable.
“One of the advantages of being in Middlebury is that [the store is] even more valued because it gives this international connection,” John said.
He gave me the final pour of our first pot of tea. I drank it down and then sat, waiting with anticipation for someone to bring us more hot water so we could steep the leaves again.
“I have the space set up so that everything honors where the tea comes from,” he said while we waited.
John’s personal relationships with and respect for his producers is evident from the various decorations and intentional set-up of the teahouse. He wants to ensure that the hard work and, as he describes, “artistry” of the farmers is not forgotten when enjoying tea at Stone Leaf. With this, it is important to him that the plant is honored as well. The history of tea is long and the variables that influence tea’s growth and flavor are nearly innumerable. There is nothing simple about the plant, and the way that John has designed Stone Leaf reflects this.
Talking to John, it was apparent that I was speaking with a man who has a true love for tea, the people who make it and the cultures it developed in. What might be greater than his own love for tea, though, is his love for sharing tea with others. Throughout our conversation, he mentioned that Stone Leaf Teahouse is not run like a typical business. It’s not located in a big city, or even on Middlebury’s main street. It is a lot more work to offer the experience of serving tea rather than simply being a storefront for the teas John sources. John and his employees founded Stone Leaf Teahouse to connect with communities from across the world, and through this, kindle a passion for tea in his customers with the hope that it will spread to others.
“This place grew out of the community here, with the college being a part of that,” John said. “I would love to help other people do this in other places so they can have it grow out of the community where they are. Then, there can be unique places that are different than here, but still with the same kind of good tea.”
An employee brought us out the pot of hot water we had been waiting for, and John did not hesitate to make us another round of tea. He steeped the leaves quickly, poured for me first, then himself.
In modern life, nearly everything is globalized, but rarely do you find a place as intimately international as Stone Leaf Teahouse. John’s devotion to bringing the art of tea and the hard work of people from around the world to the Middlebury community is unique and essential to the community.
Leaving the tea shop that day, I realized I was wrong to initially ask “why Middlebury?” The real question is: where else but Middlebury?
Katherine Michaelson is a member of the class of 2025.