Mountain Moods series: In western North Carolina, there’s a place for everyone: artists and epicures, locals and visitors, explorers and kick-back-and-relaxers. Down in the valleys, high on the peaks, around every bend in the road, communities with identities all their own remind us that our mountains contain multitudes.
Decked out in a tiara and a glittery pink gown, a shy princess arrives with a family entourage to celebrate her birthday. In the far corner, two friends catch up over delicate porcelain cups and a platter of scones and sweets. A couple from the Piedmont are breaking up a road trip with exquisite little sandwiches and a fresh-brewed pot of tea to fortify them for the rest of their journey. On any given afternoon at A Southern Cup Fine Teas in Hendersonville, you’ll find a mix of locals and travelers who have made their way to Kym R. Brown’s cottage to enjoy a ritual that celebrates the tea traditions of both England and the American South.
Owner Kym R. Brown welcomes guests with freshly brewed tea. photograph by Tim Robison
“This is what I know, what I grew up with,” says the apron-clad Brown as she scans the room, ready to refill the china pots. “My goal has been to bring back the essence of afternoon tea, which seems to have disappeared. It doesn’t have to be fancy — it’s about taking that time and making that time to do something for yourself and to be with family and friends.”
It’s an experience that Brown came to love growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she watched her grandmother and other relatives prepare light afternoon repasts both for the white women who employed them as domestic servants and for their own communities. “In African American culture, we have our own history of tea,” Brown says. Black churches often held teas as fundraisers, and women, including wives of ministers and Pullman porters, opened tearooms that became centers of social and political life. “It was a way for women to go into business when other paths were closed to them,” Brown says.
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As a little girl, brown had her own tiny set of Blue Willow china and one of four older brothers who was conscripted as a guest at her tea parties. She grew to appreciate British tea traditions, too. At A Southern Cup, she has transformed a former feed and supply store (where poet Carl Sandburg and his family are said to have shopped for their nearby farm) into the tearoom of her dreams — and those of other little girls and Anglophiles, who love the candy-colored exterior and the dainty dining room filled with antique furniture, lace tablecloths, and tea ware in china and silver.
In addition to hosting events, Brown sells everything a tea-loving customer might need: cups, kettles, strainers, and about 70 types of tea. photograph by Tim Robison
A former school psychologist, Brown prepared for her new career like a serious student, visiting hotel tearooms and even studying abroad with a tour of tearooms in the United Kingdom. Her original intent was to launch a retail shop selling the custom teas that she developed in partnership with a professional tea blender. Just two weeks after A Southern Cup’s opening in 2016, though, a Hendersonville local asked if Brown could host an anniversary tea. Brown quickly pulled together a menu, tapped into her personal collection of vintage china, and laid a tea table that became the talk of the town.
“Everything just fell into place, and the calls and the customers kept coming,” Brown says. Soon, A Southern Cup was welcoming garden clubs and real estate agents for their meetings, and Brown arranged a Christmas tea with Mrs. Claus, attended by many little girls in their holiday frocks. She has taken her talents to other local venues, too, having taught etiquette classes and hosted a premiere of the first Downton Abbey movie at a nearby theater.
The quintessential Southern Cup experience, though, remains the afternoon tea. Brown offers a range of reservation-only options, from a cream tea (the “cream” is Devonshire-style clotted cream served with her hot-out-of-the-oven scones) to a children’s menu to deluxe spreads that feature variations on her grandmother’s celebrated tea sandwiches and sweets created by Hendersonville bakery Gâteaux Cakes & Pastries. Every tea is brewed to order, and popular offerings include a delicate white tea with notes of peach, a rose-and-lavender-scented Earl Grey, and a robust rooibos called Red High Heels and Chocolate that goes especially well with the rich (and, incidentally, gluten-free) chocolate cake that’s an occasional star of the pastry tray.
Brown’s menu offers various combinations of tea sandwiches, scones, clotted cream and jam, desserts, and, of course, your choice of tea. photograph by Tim Robison
A Southern Cup draws many visitors who are vacationing in the region, and Brown’s local customers often become regulars. She has served countless little girls their first real tea, and she is moved by the memory of an older customer whose final outing with her daughters was an afternoon at A Southern Cup. While gentlemen are welcome — “One of my brothers has actually learned to enjoy tea!” — Brown’s clientele is mostly, in the long tradition of afternoon tea, female.
“I love it when women come in and celebrate each other — a bridal shower, someone’s last chemotherapy treatment,” Brown says. “I love the sound of women talking and laughing inside and then in the parking lot as they leave. One lady said to me, when I put the tray down in front of her, ‘Oh, I don’t deserve this.’ And I said, ‘Of course you do. We all deserve this.’”
A Southern Cup Fine Teas
1529 Greenville Highway
Hendersonville, NC 28792
Read more about the Southern Mountains:
English-Style Charm at the Highlander Mountain House
Peak Style in Highlands