Steeping in ritual, connection at Boulder’s Sunshine Springs Teahouse

Building an intimate community teahouse 15 minutes west of Boulder

By Paul Hagey Nov 21 2018

Editor’s Note: We have collaborated with Ignite Boulder to share some stories the Boulder nonprofit highlights at its local events. Our fourth story in the series features Stephan van der Mersch’s passion for tea and the exquisite community teahouse he and his wife are building in the Boulder foothills. Feature Image: Sunshine Springs Teahouse. Credit: Bu Nan.

Tucked in a southeast-facing valley off Sunshine Canyon Drive about five miles west of Boulder lies one of the countless secrets folded within Boulder’s foothills: the Sunshine Springs Teahouse.

I visited the 120-square-foot exquisite building one recent Wednesday late afternoon for a tea ceremony offered by Stephan van der Mersch, who, with his wife, has spearheaded the teahouse. Nearly three years and six figures in, the teahouse, located 15 minutes from downtown Boulder, is nearly complete.

Stephan, who lives in Boulder with his wife and two young children, hopes the teahouse will find daily use when it is finally done, which should be early next year.

Stephan van de Mersch. Credit: Paul Hagey, BLDRfly

Boulder, of course, is familiar with teahouses — The Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse offers us all a taste of their exquisite craftsmanship and ambience. The Sunshine Springs Teahouse, whose small size caps visitor numbers to six to eight, presents that vibe on an intimate scale.

Designed to accentuate a tea ceremony — a ritualized serving of tea by a host to guests — a teahouse, at its best, deepens participants’ connection to simplicity and quiet, ideally helping them bring it into their daily lives.

Way of Tea

Stephan first encountered tea ceremony in a small Taiwanese fishing village in early 2016. Renowned tea teacher and Zen monk Wu De, who runs the international tea organization the Global Tea Hut, poured for that ceremony. “It was the most profound moment of prayer I had experienced,” Stephan says.

As Stephan explained at his September Ignite Boulder talk about tea, tea ceremony transcends typical interaction with the simplicity of ritual. First of all, the ceremonies feature pure, organic teas. Secondly, intentionality steeps every aspect of them.

Wu De. Credit: Global Tea Hut

The combination of the tea’s energy, or chi, and the environment the ceremony host creates melts intentionality and ritual away, leaving a sense of timeless experience with self, nature and other ceremony participants. That’s the idea at least.

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It’s easy to view tea ceremony as an overly precious endeavor, but the formula of good tea and a careful host works, at least it did in my visit to Sunshine Springs Teahouse.

The tea experience

Reaching the teahouse requires a drive down a long dirt driveway, winding from the Sunshine Canyon ridge into the valley of the 43-acre property the Sunshine Springs Teahouse sits on. The small hut stands about 100 feet below the parking area, a marble stuck in the valley folds.

Stephan van der Mersch serving tea at the Sunshine Springs Teahouse. Credit: Paul Hagey, BLDRfly.

A dirt path winds down to the teahouse valley. Stephan leans against a fallen tree across the small arroyo just below the house, near the location of the spring that gives the teahouse its name and the source of its water.

Bu Nan Brown, a Zen Buddhist priest who has played a big part in building the teahouse, is there as well.

We walk up to the teahouse, built with traditional Japanese flourishes — curved wooden rafters, tatami mats, shoji screens — and others including a stunning copper roof. An in-process support wall built from rocks collected from the property stands behind the house. Property rocks also make up a support wall at its front.

After taking off our shoes outside, we take turns crawling through a northwest wooden sliding door, about half the height of a typical entrance.

Inside, reclaimed wood beams harvested from the property curve above — charcoal, black, silver and grey from the 6,200-acre 2010 Fourmile Canyon Fire that swept through the area eight years before.

The Sunshine Springs Teahouse has been nearly three years in the making. Unless otherwise noted, images credited to Bu Nan. More photos, and videos, can be seen at the teahouse’s Instagram page here.

All three of us in, Bu Nan slides the entrance door closed. The two other full-height sliding doors remain closed. An antique Japanese chest stands against a wall, a wood stove sits attached to the wall above and behind, tea cups and tea kettle from the Qing dynasty sit across from us.

Source. Credit: Global Tea Hut

Incense wafts in a tokonoma (altar), the chortle of a charcoal fire mixes with the mumble of gently boiling water, a small tree sprig with fall-coloring leaves stands in a vase to one side of the natural wood slab table. Several of the sprig’s leaves scatter across the table. Bu Nan and I sit, backs to the entrance, on the tatami floor before the low table, where Stephan will serve the tea. Stephan sits facing us on the table’s other side.

The 2008 sheng pu erh tea, called Source, Stephan chose for our ceremony sits in an upturned piece of bark on the table. (He brought another tea variety in case the weather turned damp and rainy, something that would better match the weather).

After explaining that we will share the first bowls of tea in silence, Stephan picks up the bark and brings the tea to his nose for a deep inhale and then offers it to us for a sniff; the long, dried silver strands carry a faint earthly aroma. He then slides the tea from the bark into a side-handle tea pot with a twig.

Details from the Sunshine Springs Teahouse tea ceremony. Credit: Paul Hagey, BLDRfly.

After pouring hot water into the tea pot, Stephan sets up three bowls in an arc facing us. He empties the pot in the bowls from his left to right in a few passes. When done, he presents our bowls to us. We all pick the bowls up and sip.

About three sips in, the tea’s power hits me — one clear blow. My body involuntarily relaxes, breath deepens and eyes soften, the chi kick strong and clear. Later, Stephan said he saw the moment it struck me.

After draining the first bowl, Stephan reaches behind him for his kettle and pours a second round of boiling water into the tea pot. He then opens the shoji screen behind him and to our right (glass sliding doors remain closed for warmth).

With the shoji screens slid open, the view of Boulder’s three southern peaks, Flagstaff Mountain, Green Mountain and South Boulder Peak emerge in front of Bu Nan and I — the view framed by valley and bathed in early evening light.

Teahouse views of Flagstaff, Green Mountain and South Boulder Mountain peaks. Credit: Paul Hagey, BLDRfly.

Stephan then refills our bowls and we sip again, this time followed by free-flowing conversation. Then, Mocha Vaughan, a local builder who designed and built the teahouse, arrives.

The rinse-and-repeat pattern of sip, empty, refill continues. The conversation runs natural — parenthood, difficult relationships, dreams.

After about 90 minutes of talking and repeated tea refills — though time had completely melted away in the experience — we exit the teahouse to relieve overly full bladders, feeling the snapping cold pour into the valley with the setting sun. We chat for a bit and then hike back up to our cars.

The vision

Stephan, an investment analyst, doesn’t know whether to call his effort to build the teahouse genius or insane. The answer remains cloudy. Two-and-a-half years and a sizable investment in, the handcrafted teahouse, with a hand-dug site and hand-poured foundation, is still a work in progress.

But it also presents the commitment to something with no practical purpose other than beauty and experience, Stephan says.

Stephan hopes the Sunshine Springs Teahouse eventually gets daily use. The teahouse requires careful stewardship, which means that he trusts just a handful of practitioners to host visitors now.

Currently, the best opportunity Boulderites have to visit the teahouse is through the biweekly tea ceremonies Bu Nan leads. See upcoming events here. You can follow further Sunshine Springs Teahouse developments at the Facebook Group here.

Another Wu De student, Colin Hudon, also hosts Boulder tea gatherings at his house in the Boulder foothills. Those interested can sign up at his website.

Wu De himself will be holding a series of tea-related events in Boulder, including a beginner’s guide to tea ceremony on Sunday, Nov. 25 from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Boulder’s Starhouse. Tickets here. Wu De is holding a variety of tea-related events in Boulder next week; those can be found here.

Stephan’s Ignite talk here:

Paul Hagey

Paul Hagey is BLDRfly’s founder and editor. When not wrangling video, audio and words in the name of story, he’s riding his mountain bike, trail running and hanging with his awesome wife Jen and their young daughter.