ExtraSpecialTeas serves up tea and opportunities

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Photo Gallery | ExtraSpecialTeas in Great Barrington

GREAT BARRINGTON — Change is brewing at ExtraSpecialTeas.

The two-story tea house and gift shop officially opened last week in downtown Great Barrington. It brings to the space bright splashes of color while maintaining the serenity of the former spa and offices, located in a commercially zoned Victorian located at 2 Elm St. Just look for the ochre-hued sign with the white "EST" tea cup logo out front and marquee-style light bulb letters mounted above the entrance.

A three-year project in the making, ExtraSpecialTeas is a community-building venture handcrafted by the Sanes family, which includes co-founder and chairman, Scott Sanes; his wife, co-founder and director, Cherri Sanes, and their almost 24-year-old son, Jache, who designs crafts, makes deliveries and serves tea and inspiration there.

In talking with Scott and Cherri, you'll detect warmth in their hospitality and a bit of the South in their accent. Originally from Houston, Texas, the family relocated to the Berkshires in 1999 to be close to the Son Rise autism treatment program taught at The Option Institute in Sheffield. Jache was diagnosed as a toddler with an autism spectrum disorder, which means that although he exudes enthusiasm and is independently mobile, he has very limited verbal skills and has had to learn to communicate without talking.

In Massachusetts, young people with disabilities and mental health disorders can receive state schooling and services up until age 22, but after that, these young adults and families are on their own. So instead of hunting or traveling for opportunities to make sure Jache is an active, healthy and happy community member, the Sanes decided to develop a caring place for growth and gathering, to train and employ Jache and other people like him, in their own southern Berkshire backyard.

"We wanted him to be included versus excluded, and a tea house setting offers a communal setting. There's a certain type of community and spirituality that comes with the drinking of tea, versus your fast-paced Starbucks type of place," Scott said.

Cherri said that it took ExtraSpecialTeas a longer time to open because they had to bring the building and entrances up to code so that people of all abilities can access it. So the tea house has a lift and ramp and wider doors, and a mix of seating and table options.

Cherri and her staff also put in a lot of do-it-yourself hours to bring Pinterest-inspired projects to life, like repainting wicker tables, and restoring other unique furniture finds from Habitat for Humanity's area ReStore outlets. "I think the bright colors just exude happiness," she said.

As for the teas and baked goods offered in the shop, they're also intentionally handpicked for quality and flavor. There are more than 40 loose-leaf teas to try, from three primary purveyors to ExtraSpecialTeas: Chicago-based Tiesta Tea, which also helped to launch the shop's opening; West Stockbridge's own No. Six Depot Roastery and Cafe; and the organic, Fair Trade-focused Little Red Cup Tea Company based in Brunswick, Maine. In addition to iced tea, this summer the tea house will also bring on a line of bubble teas, aka boba teas, a sweet drink made with tea, tapioca pearls, mixed with other ingredients, like fruit or cream.

All of ExtraSpecialTeas' baked goods — which include tea cakes, scones, cookie bars and more — are gluten-free, from The Gluten Free Bakery in Chatham, N.Y.; the Home Sweet Home Doughnut Shoppe in Great Barrington, and Matt's Cookie Bars, a new bakery operation in Pittsfield by Matt Albert.

Cherri will also be rolling out her own line of ExtraSpecialTeas' signature tea-infused, gluten-free shortbread cookies, stamped with the EST logo. She'll be baking them, along with protein bars, off-site at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire in Great Barrington.

"We wanted to have gluten-free options that are also really delicious," Cherri said. Her shortbread flavor infusions include nutty almond cream, matcha green tea, and "chai love."

People with autism often have sensitivities and food allergies to gluten and casein proteins. The Sanes say it was important for them to not only make the space accessible, but the food and drinks accessible to everyone too.

In addition to its creative and business team, ExtraSpecialTeas has also enlisted Andrew Rapport, Mount Everett Regional School's life skills director, and community-based day program manager Alicia Ogaz to help integrate young adults with autism and other special needs in with the other tea house staff to help with daily operations.

If this model works well, the Sanes hope to open other ExtraSpecialTeas shops across the country.

Recent Mount Everett graduate, Sam Gogel, an aspiring actor with Community Access to the Arts, said he's enjoyed his first days working there. "It's a beautiful place and the people are so nice," he said.

In addition to working indoors to keep the tea house running and making crafts for retail, like custom-decorated tea pots, ExtraSpecialTeas staff will also work outdoors to tend to the venue's herb and flower gardens and serve guests wishing to sip tea al fresco.

Said Scott, "We want it so that everyone can be involved, whatever their potential is."

About ExtraSpecialTeas

Location: 2 Elm St., Great Barrington.

Accessible: Yes.

Hours: Currently 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday. Will expand this summer.

Menu: More than 40 different loose-leaf teas, a house coffee, and daily selections of gluten-free baked goods.

Info: http://www.extraspecialteas.org or https://www.facebook.com/ExtraSpecialTeas or 413-645-3247.


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