It all happens inside a cup of tea.
It’s where worlds meet and cultures mesh: where indigenous history joins forces with urban modernity. From the mugs of The Capilano Tea House & Botanical Soda Co. rises more than steam—it’s a melding of the minds, a breaking down of walls, an education.
From its newly opened Gastown café, The Capilano serves artisanal indigenous tea blends and plant-based sodas in what the Squamish Nation mother-daughter duo behind the shop describes as a linking of two worlds. “We have a really nice offering of what I call local meets global teas,” says Michelle Nahanee, the mother of the team. “We have the local ingredients, but we mix them in with the global blends. We make it very Vancouver, which is really how we’re living as indigenous people now. It’s a more accurate reflection. I love rooibos tea, it’s not from here but I like it, so we mix it with juniper, which is from here.” That would be the Juniper Rooibos blend; there is also a tea called Senakw Village, the Squamish Nation’s name for what is now called False Creek, made from hibiscus, berries, lemongrass, and black currant; and the Weavers Blend, with sage, black tea, and blackberries, created by the Nation’s Chief Janice George (whose traditional name is Chepximiya Siyam). It’s all about sparking a dialogue, however small, about indigenous practices, customs, and philosophies. “It’s just time for us to sit at the table with everybody and share and enjoy it—that’s what we’re hoping to do with the tea,” says Michelle. “It’s simple, but it starts the conversation.”
The Capilano takes its name from the Capilano River in North Vancouver—an important resource for the Squamish people. “For me it’s a real life-giver of our community,” explains Michelle. “We get our fish there, we get our berries there.” The café had a rocky start, originally opening up months ago on Powell Street in a building that, little did they know, was in the process of being sold. So Michelle and her daughter Paisley went the pop-up route for the summer, all the while searching for the perfect new permanent home (which they finally found on Abbott). Now they’re ready to grow roots, bridging communities and fostering connections. “I think the space and approach of The Capilano is about her generation,” Michelle says of 19-year-old Paisley. “With that same melding of influences: an East Van creative person and someone from the res … It’s finding the best of all those things.”
Paisley takes charge of the botanical soda portion of The Capilano—“super creative work” she started doing recreationally to bring to parties and give as gifts. “It was always kind of about that plant love,” she says. “That you can use plants to make something that is traditionally very artificial.” She recalls taking months to perfect her root beer recipe (other flavours include rose lemonade and hibiscus mint), the result of continuous trial and error—even a slight variation in boiling time and measurements can tip the delicate balance of that perfect sip.
The Nahanees also serve a small and artisanal offering of home-grown goods, and traditional indigenous snacks paired with local urban vendors: bannock is served with East Van Jam and The Real Churn butter, for instance, and in the summer, they’ll make floats with Paisley’s soda and Nice Vice vegan ice cream. It’s all designed to create a full experience for guests—equal parts accessible and different. Michelle and Paisley, who have an undeniable respect for each other evident just by watching them chat, have plans for seasonal blends that will complement the year-round staples and allow them to use local crops such as lavender when they’re freshest. “I would say the teas are designed, really,” says Michelle. “We definitely say we’re flavour first.” That is what allows them to weave in indigenous elements with more commercial blends: Roots and Chai, for one, pairs beet root, cinnamon, and cardamom with dandelion root. It makes a comfortable, well-known tea and introduces something new at the same time. There is always an educational aspect, ready for the learning if patrons are so inclined; in Weavers Blend, the main ingredient is sage, something used by indigenous people to clear the spirit. “It’s an herb we use in our ceremonies for smudging,” says Michelle. “And it’s also just delicious.” Leaves steep and water darkens, and somewhere along the way we start to taste a whole lot more than just what is in the mug.
UPDATE: The Capilano brick-and-mortar shop has closed. The tea is now available at Nordstrom.
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