It’s called the Spice Lab, but Brett Cramer can’t resist introducing New Times to the teas sold in his store first: rows and rows of jars, discs, and kettles that take up an entire wall of his spice, tea, and gourmet-food marketplace in Fort Lauderdale.
“Check this out,” he offers excitedly, grabbing a disc of compressed, dried leaves. “This is called pu-erh. Pu-erh means 'aged tea cake.'” Cramer stares at the cake in wonder before launching into a detailed explanation on the subject of tea. At 52, he sports a pair of green sneakers, faded jeans, and a black polo with his company’s emblem, three star anises (a dried star-shaped fruit with a licorice-like flavor). Give him a corduroy jacket with elbow patches, and this guy could easily pass as a distinguished Harvard professor of tea.
He sniffs the tea cake with the adoration and focus of a wine enthusiast presented with a 150-year old bottle of Port (yes, it exists). These cakes, which are compressed with a ten-thousand-pound press and aged, can cost up to $10,000. There are all sizes: large ones meant to be consumed over months, breaking off bits at a time, to individual-sized miniature cakes wrapped in fragile rice paper, like an Altoid dressed up for the prom.
“Let me get you a fun one to play with,” Cramer offers, disappearing into his vast collection of teas. Along the way he greets customers, making sure they are finding whatever it is they need before making his way back to his throne: a metal swivel-stool placed behind a counter at the back of the store. Perched in that tactical spot, he has full view of the store, enabling him to supervise all the action while brewing tea and teaching whoever is willing to listen.
“Good tea you brew three, four, five, six times,” he begins. “Americanized tea you brew once, then throw away.”
One of his workers, a young man with wheat-blond hair, bounds to the back of the store for Cramer’s help. There is a problem with the computer at the register up front.
“Be right back,” he says, before heading to the front. They are still working out the kinks, having opened on October 14.
The tea kettles, lined up carefully on the farthest end of one wall, are impressive and beg for closer inspection. They have intricate designs, with dragons and snakes wrapped around the handles, spouts, and tops in beautiful colors of burnt orange, jade, and onyx. For a moment, one might believe they are at a museum display — that is, until Cramer suddenly reappears and grabs one off its shelf.
“This one here is, like, $600. Why? Because it is made by the Picasso of China.”
Every item in this store is a learning opportunity.
“It comes with its own certificate delicately tucked inside the pot, written in Chinese. This guy is what they call a Grand Master. He’s been making teapots for 30 years. Look at the level of detail. The parts fit perfectly.”
From there, Cramer gives the grand teapot tour, explaining the history of each one of these masterpieces, right down to the simpler, mass-produced exports that sell for $20.
“These are what they [the Chinese] use in their day-to-day use. But when friends come over or officials come over, they pull out their high-end teapots.”
His obsession and knowledge of these works of art put Indiana Jones’ enthusiasm for the Ark of the Covenant to shame.
“Look at the detail on this one here,” he extols, picking up a mocha-colored pot with an elaborately carved dragon’s neck. “This is handmade. And the trick is the clay. Ever work in a pottery class? I can’t even make a bowl that looks straight! All these are different pieces that come together, and then they fire it and it takes days and days to make a teapot.”
He talks more about the clay, which is called yixing and comes from a small province in China of the same name. “Special clay that comes in a multitude of colors — everything from yellow to white to black to red.”
We return to the bar-like setup in the back of the store, whose wall is made out of blocks of Himalayan salt. It is Cramer's favorite spot.
He produces two small clay cups with matching covers called gaiwans.
“Most everyone in China brews their tea this way, if they’re doing anything good with the tea.”
He places a handful of dark flecks, an aged Xantou Mandarin White Pu-erh tea, in each cup, adding a dried-out, hollowed tangerine, then fills them with hot water and immediately tosses the water out.
“The first brew we throw away — always throw it away. Because it’s the bitter stuff. Just leave the water in a few seconds, just enough to let it wet the leaves. Now, why do we use clay?” he asks, swiveling in his stool like a restless child. “If I start using this every day for the tea,” he continues, filling both cups again with hot water, “it’s going to absorb the oils, like your grandmother’s skillet. It’s going to expel the oils when you serve the first cup or two here, so it’s going to help even out the tea. The cool thing about the gaiwan is that you can control the temperature with it; you can see what’s going on.” He peers into the tiny cup. “If it’s too hot, you leave the top off,” he illustrates, removing the toy-like top from the cup. “You can stir the tea around very quickly with it,” and there he goes, picking the top up again, tilting it, and plunging it into the aromatic water, stirring, stirring, stirring. “Also, we’re probably going to brew this tea six, seven, or eight times.”
He talks fast. Very fast. He barely stops for air. It’s a bit hard to keep up, but then, all of the sudden, you are there with him, diving into this unknown world of tea, forgetting that you once reserved such a craving for when you were plagued with a wicked sore throat. You see how this can easily become a lifestyle. You are turning into a tea connoisseur, and you are quickly infatuated, eager and willing to throw yourself down that rabbit hole with Cramer. His enthusiasm has got you, hook, line, and sinker.
He guzzles the tea down quickly, as if it were a shot of vodka. Another employee approaches, asking him where the ginseng is. Without skipping a beat, he replies, “Third — no, second shelf down. See it there?” (He does.)
“Look how beautiful the color [of this tea] is.” He pours the third brew, then snatches both cups and sprinkles turbinado sugar in each.
“Everything is chemicals in life. Sugar is going to react differently. Smell it; it has that earthy smell to it, that umami smell. It doesn’t taste like it smells. It’s very sweet, even though we just add a pinch of sugar."
The tea has a clean, light, soothing taste.
He pours more and begins to explain how he, a successful entrepreneur in the computer technology business, first became interested in teas.
“I married Jennifer 21 years ago. God, she’s a good soul! We go places. I was always hitting up the little gourmet shops or whatever.”
While on a trip to Chicago visiting the Frank Lloyd Wright house, they happened upon a small tea shop.
“It was literally just a downstairs of an old Victorian house. The guy traveled around the world and collected tea. I was there drinking tea and talking to him for five hours!” His passion for tea had begun.
He is busy pouring more. “See the tangerine in there, it’s getting nice and happy.
“Well, she still stayed with me!” He jokes, referring to his wife, an interior decorator who does not drink tea. “Pinch of sugar!” He commands, shaking more turbonado into each gaiwan. “It’s like a margarita needs a little lime in there; this needs a little sugar. Not much. See the color is a little richer this time?”
An older woman approaches. “Can I ask you a quick question? Those tea cakes, do you just break a piece off?”
“That’s what we’re doing right now!” he answers enthusiastically. It is hard to imagine Cramer ever being sluggish. “Here! Wait a second and I’ll pour… this is a funky one of… ” he mumbles, turning around and looking for something.
“But, so, it’s the cake?" the customer continues, glancing, uninterested, at the large disc and our tiny teacups.
“Yes, the cake’s in there. You break a piece off, and a little bit goes a long way. Four or five grams of that will give you a pot like this big pot, four or five times,” he adds, picking up one of the many kettles surrounding him on the counter. “If you wait, I’ll give you some of the next round here,” he adds, referring to our tea marathon.
She wants to know more about the tea cake — if it is the only one, if there are different flavors. Cramer is friendly and eager to share information: No, it isn’t the only one; there are more in the back; he can sell her a partial of the cake if she doesn’t want the whole thing. She thanks him and apologizes for interrupting, then wanders off to consider her choices, quickly distracted by all the beautiful products in the store.
Another swivel on the stool, and Cramer is back to telling his story. Tradeshows for his dot-com business took him to New York and San Francisco. Jennifer would come along. “I’d get stuck in Chinatown with Jennifer, find some tea shop, and literally be the only white person and the only one speaking English. But that’s the kind of shop you want because if everyone there looks like me, it’s a tourist-trap crap, and I have no interest in that. Five hours later, I’m still there and I’ve drank 100 cups of tea. I’m caffeine and tea high, ‘cause you drink enough of the green or lighter teas and they give you a very ethereal reaction; it’s called a 'tea high.'"
The tea high has definitely kicked in today. Cramer has poured around eight cups of tea before announcing he will brew a different kind. “You like jasmine teas?” he asks, bouncing back to the tea wall and coming back with one before he gets an answer.
“We’ll do a green [jasmine] tea now,” and the brewing begins.
He begins talking about salts, which is where his business first began.
“I had an idea for Christmas presents for my employees seven-and-a-half years ago. ‘Cause I had a lot of salt. What happened was my wife was very pregnant with my son. I found these salts online that I wanted and I asked her, ‘Hey, can I get these salts?’ and she said, ‘Whatever makes you happy, I don’t care!’ She’s super pregnant! She doesn’t care! She just wants to shut me up!”
He ended up ordering 12 five-pound bags of salts, and, in efforts to get rid of what he didn’t consume (the majority), decided to make gift packages for friends. Cramer is meticulous and laser-focused almost to an obsessive compulsive degree. It has served him well in his shop, which is aesthetically appealing with hundreds of perfectly lined glass jars of teas and spices. So it is no surprise he spent a good amount of time, resources, and energy creating the ideal packaging for the initial gifts of salts. The final product was a row of 12 labeled glass test tubes sealed with corks, all resting on a wooden rack he made himself.
He pours the jasmine tea, and a fragrant aroma brightens the space between us.
“Thanksgiving weekend, seven years and one week ago, I literally sat at home and took some pictures, threw them on Amazon, come in on Monday and check my inbox, and I had, like, 30 orders! I thought my friends were fucking with me. ‘Oh, Brett put this shit online! Let’s order and fuck with him!’ So I start looking at the addresses in these orders, and none of them are from Fort Lauderdale; they’re from all over the country!”
By two weeks before Christmas, he had sold over 130 sets.
“I knew it was actually a thing then.”
In the meantime, he received an offer to buy his dot-com business, a modeling/photography company that paired modeling talent with jobs.
“I had the papers faxed to the hospital. My wife was giving birth to my son.”
They decided to give the salt business a try. Cramer found himself at the New York Fancy Food Show just a few months after his son was born to see what the artisanal salt market looked like and was surprised to find nothing like his product there. The more trade shows he went to, the better reception he received.
In the last seven years, they have sold over 130,000 sets of their original test-tube salt sampler. Of course, they’ve added many products since then, including over 500 salts, spices, rubs, and blends, 250 teas, and other tea accessories and pantry goods. Everything is available online at the Spice Lab, which presents itself not only as a user-friendly shopping experience but an engrossing history lesson as well.
The original idea for a retail store, a thought that was born early on, was postponed by wholesale demand, where they began selling to little gourmet stores and then moved onto bigger places.
“We are now in 6,000 stores. I’m everywhere.” Cramer explains this is the reason they are in the midst of moving into a 75,000-square-foot warehouse, then, almost as an afterthought, rattles off every megastore imaginable: “Costco, Walmart, Sam’s Club, Trader Joe's, TJ Maxx, Homegoods, Ross. Also in Canada, the UK, Poland, Mexico.”
And, of course, they have a heavy presence on Amazon, where it all first began.
Too many cups of tea have been poured to keep track of when another kid in a black Spice Lab polo approaches: “I’ve never done a return. I don’t know what to do.”
“See if Joey knows. Or call Steven. Interrupt his football,” Cramer jokes.
There were several other moments where Cramer looked into opening a retail store, including seven years ago. But it just didn’t work out.
“Then I had him,” Cramer says, pointing to a young boy who has quietly settled on one of the farther barstools at the counter. “Say hi,” he asks in a warm voice. “Now, don’t say anything else for the next hour!" he jokes. Cramer is a playful dad — you can just tell.
“It never had the right vibe to it, so it always got pushed off,” he says, referring to earlier store inquiries. “I started looking a couple of years ago and found this space.” He didn’t do anything for a year and a half, then decided to gut the whole place and redo it, something his wife was happy to help with. The shop has a tasteful, elegant feel, with clean lines, warm lighting, and intimate nooks and crannies.
His explanation of the store’s layout is, like his teaching style, very hands on. “When people want to buy spices and teas, they want to come over here.” He walks quickly over to one of the corners of the store and looks at the items, then shifts over to another spot — “Or look at the stuff here,” he explains, facing a stack of beautiful cookbooks. “Most of the spice shops out there are just big square things, with just gigantic walls. It’s not only overwhelming; it’s not intimate. Buying high-end gourmet food should be like buying Victoria's Secret. You walk in there, it’s not a big square. ‘Hey! Look what they got over there!’ he re-enacts while rushing to a corner, imagining, presumably, shopping for a Dream Angels demi-bra. “I want this!” he continues, waving his hands around and rushing to the front of the store.
“When people walk into the store,” he says in a authoritative voice, “I want them to have a museum-type thing on this wall that draws you down the store, that you follow and say, ‘Oh, my God,’ and then you end up here." He is referring to the wall that runs from the entrance of the narrow shop all the way down to Cramer’s tea bar. It is lined with a vibrant selection of salts, spices, and rubs. “I want it to be a place where people come back and always find something new.”
The Spice Lab doesn’t offer any classes yet but has a different tasting every weekend.
“Join the Facebook page. Sign up for the mailing list. We’re doing caviar soon! What are we doing next week?” he asks a woman approaching him in a camel-colored sweater. She introduces herself as Jennifer, his wife, while bending down and kissing the top of his head. “We’re doing waffles and all the cool jams we have,” Cramer goes on. “Jellies. Honey. The whole theme is going to be breakfast.”
Any best-selling products? The question is directed at Jennifer.
“We sell a lot of teas,” she says in a calming voice.
“We’ve done really well with everything,” Brett interrupts, too excited to stay quiet. “The rubs are doing very well. The teas are doing really, really well.”
Speaking of teas, we are nearing our 100th cup. On cue, Cramer adds, “Like what we are doing here today. I have a tea here, and I do this for three or four people who sit down. It’s all about education. Getting knowledge on what we’re selling. Not walking and grabbing something off a shelf and hoping you’ll know what to do with it.” Jennifer has left to tend to customers. The store is full.
Cramer shoots off his stool and disappears into one of the nooks of his shop. He returns balancing many tall bottles of balsamic vinegar and olive oil and begins to explain.
"You want acidity to sweetness to fruit on a good vinegar."
Out come tiny tasting spoons, and he begins pouring a rich elixir almost as dark and thick as tar.
"That's the good stuff!"
He explains that barrels lose about 3 percent a year of volume as they age and the vinegar becomes thicker with time, absorbing flavor from the wood, exactly like wine.
"You use it as a finishing vinegar for sure! Don't cook with it. Desserts! You can drizzle a little bit across your fish or your steak — it's just stunning!"
And $130 a bottle.
But worth every buck.
We sample the others, bottles under $30 that will change how you perceive balsamic vinegar forever, and then move on to the olive oils, another round of tiny spoons and happy taste buds, before inevitably returning back to talk spice.
“What’s your favorite spice?” New Times asks.
“What are you cooking?” Cramer counters.
“You like to cook?” There’s a new lesson coming; I can feel it.
He smiles and nods. “I don’t do it much because I’m too busy. Herb de Provence!” he exclaims. “It’s a blend. You put it on chicken, beef, lamb. I make brussels sprouts with it. He eats brussels sprouts like a crack addict,” he says, pointing at his young son completely engrossed in his iPad Star Wars game.
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And then the lesson arrives:
“Brussels sprouts have a lot of sulfuric acid, so you gotta kill [it] so they taste good. You take a nine-inch sauté pan. Put a pat of butter and some olive oil. Low heat until the butter melts. You can do it with the ghee as well. Turn the heat up to medium. Put the halved sprouts in the pan. As soon as you put them in the pan, sprinkle on the Herbs de Provence blend with Fleur de Sal. Then let them sit there for 30 seconds, get ‘em nice and caramelized, flip them, shake the pan, then another 45 seconds or so. Then pour in half a cup of water and put a top on the pan. Never let your pan get dry. Check it; add another quarter-cup of water if you need to. Another two minutes, they should be cooked. Fork-tender, take them off the heat. Done!” he shouts triumphantly, waving his arms up like a conductor finishing Beethoven’s Symphony #9. Even his son looks up momentarily from his game.
The Spice Lab. Monday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday 12 to 5 p.m. 1201 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale; 954-275-4478.
Alona Abbady Martinez lives in Plantation. She writes about food and family on her blog, Culinary Compulsion, and is currently working on her book, My Culinary Compulsion, a global food memoir with recipes. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.