Tea with a Twist

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“Let me make you a cup of tea.”

This classic comfort phrase takes on new meaning at the recently opened Vital A Tea shop in downtown Riverhead, where cancer survivor — “and thriver!” she interjects with sparkle — Carolyn Poncato dreams up the perfect brews for whatever ails you, whether you know it or not. Inspired by her own journey of healing, fighting pain, nausea, hardship and depression with the power of tea, Vital A Tea is the fulfillment of a promise she made to herself to make her community a better place once her struggles were behind her.

“I wanted to create a space that was healthy, safe and warm so that people could connect and just relax,” she says. “I didn’t have that when I was going through loss and disease, and that was hard.”

She paused to reflect. “Some people have to relearn to breathe or eat from the pain. You go through hormonal changes, and just need someone to connect with or talk to that’s been there. I walked in those shoes, and I want to help make the path a little less rocky, to provide a supportive haven and a healthy alternative to the traditional gathering spaces and activities.”

She does this by drawing on her experience as a trained yoga instructor and certified Ayurvedic — the “A” in Vital A Tea — practitioner. After having studied under Dr. Naina Maribal, one of the first women in India to have gone to school for this discipline, Poncato can now read auras like other people read labels, customizing amazing blends based on just a few minutes conversation with her guests. After astounding me and my husband with impromptu “cuppas” that perfectly matched our unspoken preferences, she mildly shrugged off the incredulity and praise.

“It’s about making the connection to see what people need, and once that connection is there, it’s easy to figure out what they like. People tell you who they are immediately, so it’s only a matter of really listening,” she says. “They say so much with their tone and body language, and all I do is take that into consideration by truly tuning in and listening with my senses in return.”

This generosity of consciousness — something we so rarely encounter in today’s world of plugged-in distraction — is what makes Poncato so good at what she does. Her genuine compassion, combined with her expertise in the more than 30 varieties of organic, exotic, rare and conscientiously sourced teas, create an experience that is unlike any other and a drink suggested for you alone.

For instance, for those who suffer from stress she’s fond of mixing revered silver needle with red tea for a double whammy of antioxidant power and mental support. Need that caffeine boost every day? She recommends black tea with rose hips; the vitamin C will have your immune system as alert and energized as you’ll be. Feeling bloated? A green and oolong blend can help reduce water retention and is a delight iced on a humid day. For those who have been feeling lightheaded or in a funk, she has just the thing: Nepalian oolong, a special type that’s used to support climbers who suffer from hypoxia and restore oxygen to their cells and organs. And if a little hint of sweetness can enhance the tea, she calls in hibiscus, coconut and raw sugar for reinforcements and honey for iced tea only, which “denaturizes in hot tea.”

This deep understanding of the healing properties and flavor profiles of so many varieties across the world make her a veritable mixologist of tea.

This deep understanding of the healing properties and flavor profiles of so many varieties from across the world make her a veritable mixologist of tea, which ties into her healthy get-togethers: mocktail parties; BYO vinyl and tea tastings that bring her poetic, sensory menu descriptions to life; Reiki- and acupuncturist-by-donation nights; and business networking for those who don’t drink.

And all day, every day, Poncato serves scones from Junda’s Pastry, Crust & Crumbs as well as baked goods from other local purveyors. Over the summer, her flights of tea and chocolate were a hit; she paired organic, fair-trade chocolate, like Ecuadorian orange-infused, with green tea for an exceptional taste exploration.

This fall, fresh juices enrich her offerings; soups will warm nippy nights ahead. Meditation and yoga classes three afternoons a week realize her dream of making Vital A Tea even more of a community space, and Poncato looks forward to getting involved with local cancer organizations to support them now her business is beginning to take wing.

“I’m eager to support the community and share my love of tea and all of its benefits,” she says. In short, Vital A Tea is just the shot of vitality we all may need as we gear up for the cooler weather ahead.