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Samovar Featured in “Tea Industry Roundtable: San Francisco Speaks”

Industry Roundtable (Part One): San Francisco SpeaksIndustry Roundtable (Part One): San Francisco Speaks
by Lindsey Goodwin

With close ties to the Far East, San Francisco has always been a beacon of the United States tea business. During a recent trip to the Bay area, WTN Contributing Editor Lindsey Goodwin spoke with leading tea room owners and tea retailers to get the pulse of the industry.
Participating were Roy Fong, co-founder of Imperial Tea Court, Jesse Jacobs, owner of Samovar Tea Lounge, Jill Portman, co-founder of Mighty Leaf Tea, Winnie Yu, founder of Teance, and Chongbin Zheng, co-founder of Red & Green Company. Highlights of the interviews follow.

WTN: What has been the most important change in the Bay Area tea scene since the American tea revival began?

Portman: There’s a really significant demand for whole leaf, but also for convenience. Customers won’t drink inferior quality in traditional bags, but now there are 20 to 30 companies offering similar products to ours, which we pioneered in the 1990s.

Yu: I think the biggest thing is the availability and recognition of high quality, premium loose-leaf tea. In the 1990s you were finding a lot of blended, herbal or black American-type teas. Now authentic, unblended, premium teas are much more available and appreciated.

Jacobs: I agree, but it’s more than just the tea. It’s the appreciation of the tea lifestyle and what tea represents, like awareness of health, relaxation, sustainability, artisanal products and Slow Food.

Fong: I think those things are important, but more importantly… You know how people drink tea in the Orient as a matter of course, like people in Italy drink coffee as a matter of course? People readily accept tea now, like “This is what you do.” It is so acceptable, you don’t even think of it as extraordinary, but it’s a drastic change from when I opened the first traditional Chinese tea house (in 1993), when people would ask, “Is it in a bag or not?” The first big step was getting beyond bags, and then the question was, “Is it a green tea or a black tea?” Now people know white tea and puer, and ask which region, year, factory and item number a puer is. These changes creep up on you, but it’s so drastic.
Zheng: Since 2005, there are many newspapers, publications, magazines, where people are talking about teas. People are really aware, and asking a lot of questions about teas. … Also, tea has expanded to many areas, and to a fusion of traditional and Western styles while staying pure. They’re in different geographical areas where you wouldn’t expect (them) to succeed, like Samovar in The Castro. There are even outlets in shopping malls, and the Asian Art Museum here has a lot of tea events and programs. … It’s very interesting – all types of people find access to tea. It’s almost like grassroots.

WTN: What are your thoughts on the current state of tea in the Bay Area?

Yu: We call this city “the hotbed of the tea renaissance.” Tea houses showcase teas through fusion and bridge the gap between ethnic shops that offer teas and more accessible, modernized and mainstream, but authentic, formats.

Jacobs: I believe the Bay Area is the epicenter for tea culture in North America, due in part to the weather, which works for hot and iced tea, and because there are many different cultures in a small area. Also, San Francisco is very progressive. It’s a hotbed of new ideas. I can’t think of another area in the world that has all those three things together. It has allowed tea culture to take off. Sure, people drink Moroccan mint tea in Morocco as daily life, but they definitely don’t drink Japanese gyokuro or tea from a samovar. There’s nowhere else with a more international tea culture.

Zheng: San Francisco is pretty provincial and small compared to New York. There’s less distraction. If you have five or six tea stores in the city, everybody knows. The level of competition is very high in terms of getting high quality teas. People in Berkeley and Palo Alto are also very into tea. I live in Marin County, and they include tea tastings in county fairs along with the art, crafts and local foods.
WTN: What are the major business trends in the industry now?

Fong: I think the industry will stabilize, like anything else. A few years ago, at the Fancy Food Show, there were many tea companies cropping up. Now there are fewer new businesses. There are companies who have built up reputations and consistency, and they will do well. In China, they say that people do not stay rich or poor for more than three generations, and a business rarely lasts longer than three generations, but the exception is tea. There’s so much to tea that one generation cannot learn it all.

Yu: Education and sustainability are big trends. We’re dealing with a very educated consumer here in the Bay Area, but the education level is still so far from where it needs to be for them to really appreciate these teas. We need to help people build their palates and learn about tea through classes and events.

Jacobs: Education is also one of our foundations, but not in terms of specific classes. Winnie (Yu) does that really well, and educates the public very deeply. (At Samovar) we like to share knowledge without making it overt. We like making it fun and easy, and letting it resonate on a deep level.

Portman: I think that tea starts with education. Without education, one isn’t drawn to a product.
WTN: What about sustainability?

Jacobs: Nowadays, people are super-sensitive and observant of sustainability. Is something good for me and my wallet and my taste buds and the environment? Will it make me feel good? Does it support the farmers? That’s the metric for our customers.

Zheng: Sustainable packaging materials are important, too. I use bamboo for about 70 percent of my packaging.

Portman: We use biodegradable, corn-based bags with unbleached cotton strings.

Fong: Five years ago, organic tea from China was not readily available. Now I sell close to 100 tons of organic tea a year, which is pretty phenomenal for a small company like mine. In retail, certified organic tea makes up 30 to 35 percent of my sales. I’m surprised fair trade didn’t take off. In the tea business, you have to sell organic tea, but you don’t have to sell fair trade tea. The fair trade people charge so much, there’s no motivation from the merchant side, because it costs so much. With organics, it’s easy for merchants to believe in it and sell it.

Portman: We work in a more project-based way as opposed to feeding the TransFair offices. We are creating a foundation just for that, and have been giving back to gardens for the last three to four years in the form of schools, eyeglass programs, a senior center. … Our volume is becoming quite significant, so we can ensure that our gardens are implementing best practices.

WTN: What are the local changes you’ve seen since the economic turbulence began?

Jacobs: We opened during the dot-com bust along with a bunch of other places. Now it’s the changing of the second guard. There are places that are opening and closing, because the reality of this industry is that it’s tough to make a profit.

Fong: It’s hard to make a living selling only tea. It’s even harder if you only sell what you like. Each place has to do something well. I try to get better at the things I excel in every day. Anywhere with that approach, I think they will succeed.

Yu: People are responding to sales more, but we still have the same clientele. There’s less foot traffic, but when they’re here they buy the same things. Maybe they’re just not leaving their homes, but our buying patterns are the same, and the expensive teas are still moving. Once people recognize a certain quality, it’s hard for them to give up. Tea is not a replaceable product for people. They just want to buy it a lower price.

Zheng: We just did a (retail) warehouse sale. Our teas sold like hotcakes.

Pull Quote: Jacobs: I think that people will pull back on bigger spending and continue to spend on tea like they did in the dot-com bust. Our average price point is $10, and our goal is to make you feel better than you did when you walked in. It’s like the cheapest spa treatment you’ll ever experience.

A cup of coffee is $4, and a pot of tea is $5 and makes 20 cups. It doesn’t matter how expensive it is if there’s value. Our downtown location is up 50 percent over last year, and Castro is up five percent. I think the economic stuff hasn’t settled in yet. I think we’ll know in six months, but in the meantime nothing has really changed. I have noticed that a lot of people became fans of this Japanese gyokuro we sell for $18 a pot after we added a $50 a pot gyokuro to the menu. It’s like they can get an idea of the $50 tea by buying the $18 tea, so the $18 gyokuro is now a best seller.

Media Contact:
Jesse Cutler, Samovar: (415) 655-3431 / [email protected]

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Sustainable Business News Features Samovar Tea Lounge

sustainSustainable Business in San Francisco…Samovar Tea Lounge makes the delicious and intriguing world of tea approachable and affordable, and perhaps just as important, sustainable.

Media Contact:
Jesse Cutler, Samovar: (415) 655-3431 / publici[email protected]

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Transcript of Tea Tea TV Episode 1: Tea 101

This is the transcript from our Tea TV Episode: Tea 101

Jesse Jacobs: I’m Jesse Jacobs and I’m here today with Christine Savage of Samovar Tea Lounge, and we’re here to talk abut tea, of which we are looking quite a few types and let’s start with just Tea 101, Christine.

Christine Savage: As you see, all of these teas really look different from each other. But all tea is made from the same plant, this plant is Camellia sinensis and it’s a plant indigenous to the China, Burma, Northern Vietnam, Assam region of the world.

What distinguishes each kind of tea from one another is the way that it’s processed.

Jesse Jacobs: So these are all the same plant, just processed differently?

Continue reading Transcript of Tea Tea TV Episode 1: Tea 101

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New Videos Promoting World Peace through Tea Released Today by Samovar Tea Lounge

“San Francisco, CA (PRWeb) July 15, 2008 -– Samovar Tea Lounge today announced the release of their new video series on world peace entitled “Passage to Peace: Exploring Tea Culture Today.” The videos — aimed at promoting universal peace by engaging viewers in the culture of tea – offer a behind the scenes look at the families and individuals who cultivate tea for a living.

From Africa to Asia, the 16-video educational series is made up of one-on-one interviews with tea experts, growers, foodies, tea company owners, tea houses, organic and fair trade experts, and many others from various continents. Video subjects include ‘how tea is made’ and ‘the history of Chinese tea,’ all with the common theme of promoting world peace. ”

Media Contact:
Jesse Cutler, Samovar: (415) 655-3431 / [email protected]

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Samovar Tea Lounge Launches Tea Series Podcast Online

Samovar Tea Lounge Launches Tea Series Podcast OnlineHot off the press: we have just launched the first episode in our series of tea videos: on, on iTunes, and on

Subscribe to this entire video podcast series on iTunes (What’s a podcast?)
rss Subscribe to this entire video podcast series via RSS
To view these videos, you need the latest Flash player. Click here to download.

Why did we do this project?
In an effort to elevate the perception of tea, making it approachable, and informative, and educational, and to show just what the tea experience is like and why it is so valuable, we just completed this Web Tea TV video series in which I interviewed the Bay Area’s top luminary tea producers, buyers, sellers, and retailers.

The name of the series is Passage to Peace: Exploring Tea Culture Today, and the preview trailer is currently viewable online:, and on iTunes .

It will be launching online only, and available as a weekly podcast on itunes, and on the Samovar site as well. This project is all about propagating tea culture because tea culture is about two people connecting and creating peace. And what better way to create peace and make a difference in the world, than to have a cup of tea with a friend. Let me know if you have any questions and I am happy to talk.

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Fresh Cup Tea & Coffee Magazine Features Samovar Tea Lounge

freshcupExcerpt from Bruce Richardson’s Article in Fresh Cup Magazine, “San Francisco, America’s Gateway to Tea”


Not all tea experiences in San Francisco are either Asian or contemporary. Traditional European-inspired tea experiences are still popular occurrences at the palatial hotels such as The Ritz- Carlton, The Fairmont, The Sheraton Palace, The King George and The Renaissance Stanford Court. The city also holds a wealth of British afternoon tearooms catering to ladies in hats and serving tea with all the petit fours and lace you can imagine. However, this style is giving way to what some call “California nouveau,” a tea experience that centers more on the leaf and less on the cliche?.

Samovar Tea Lounge is a prime example of how tea is putting on a new face in America by combining the best of several tea and dining cultures. At the original location, straddling the Mission and Castro districts, you’ll find a mix of young professionals, col- lege students and neighborhood regulars who drop by every day to enjoy a pot of tea and pastry or a light meal. Russian, British, Chinese and Japanese tea service are all offered in this eclectic setting. Nowhere else will you see a guest enjoying a bento box accompanied by a bowl of green gyokuro tea sitting next to a diner drinking a pot of lapsang souchong and nibbling away at a three- tiered stand of English afternoon tea sweets and savories.

The popularity of the hospitable Samovar has spawned a second location in Yerba Buena Gardens, just steps from the Moscone Convention Center. As is true of any outstanding teahouse, the emphasis here is on the tea. From aged earthy pu-erh to flowery Earl Grey, there is a tea on the menu for every palate. Each is brewed and served according to tradition. Packaged teas bearing the Samovar Tea Lounge logo are the favorite take-away item at both locations.

San Franciscans may not realize what an extraordinary wealth of tea-drinking opportunities they have at their doorstep. With
its multicultural neighborhoods, diverse shops and ethnic restau- rants, this blended metropolis offers unique tea experience after unique tea experience. The ancient brew has become infused into the life of this city unlike any other in the United States.

In “The Way of Tea,” Sauer issues an invite: “I cordially offer you this invitation to our local tea party, whether a Chinese tea
tasting, an afternoon tea at luxury hotel, an austere Japanese tea ceremony, or a night out with friends at a tea nightclub. You
can bring a hat, a kimono, a fan, a bird, a book, or a pair of white gloves. Or just come as you are. You’ll fit right in. I promise.”

It remains true, as Pratt has written: “A love of tea inevitably engenders friendships around the world and any one writing a
book about tea is wise to live in San Francisco, where friends from around the world may be discovered living next door.”

50 Fresh Cup Magazine.

Media Contact:
Jesse Cutler, Samovar: (415) 655-3431 / [email protected]

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Jodet, Samovar Leader Reports on her Learnings


“Work is love made visible. Everything else is secondary.”

I have learned this past year just how much love one can have for something they believe strongly in. It could be a cause, a person, a book, or in my case, the essence of tea culture and everything it stands for at Samovar Tea Lounge: Community, vitality, equanimity.

So, yes…I have learned an immense amount this year. I feel that if I were to break down the myriad of things that I have learned, I could write a whole book. Just to sum it down, I would say this: I have truly learned the beauty of patience. If it were not for patience, I may have pulled away from management a very long time ago. I have learned that dedication and hard work…really pay off.

I have learned through the team and my experiences that respect is not granted to anyone or anything. I have learned this through my interaction with the staff and the way they treat me now, in comparison to the first week I came here.

I have learned how truly the way you feel and think affects those around you; especially a team in which you are leading. I have learned to separate myself from situations where I felt I could act on emotion, and really learned to put the well-being of a team ahead of my own “thoughts and misconceptions.” I have learned that “what you think is really happening, is not always an accurate reality of your truth.” By this I mean….remembering not to make assumptions. I still have a tough time w/ this one.

I have learned that the way others feel or behave is not a direct reflection of who you are—that doing your best, is your best. No more, no less. I obviously don’t need reassurance in my skills—not anymore to say the least. I know I do well. It shows through the effort I have put out.

I remember when I first started managing, I wanted so much to be reassured that I was doing well. I constantly felt that others actions and problems were always my fault. I felt insecure, fearful that I would not do well, that the staff would not “favor me,” and that I was not cut out for the job. Slowly……very slowly, but surely, things changed. I stopped thinking negative, and starting bringing in the positive.

With confidence, and time, thank God for TIME, I have truly learned that I am not the center of my own universe. I have learned what is truly important in life. Listening. Trusting. Letting go. Believing. Acting w/ intention and integrity. Being effective w/ words. Engaging. Inspiring. Smiling. Paying attention to detail. Being aware. Being kind. Being compassionate. And being open to everyone and everything around me.

Managing a business like Samovar is like a puzzle—every single piece counts; from the team, to pouring tea, to tea inventory, to the food, to COGS, to payroll, to customer feedback, to employee retention. The list goes on. Its endless.

And that’s only half of what I have learned at Samovar Tea Lounge. To be continued….next year.

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The Most Important Question in Your Life

Teresa Making a Difference at Samovar
Teresa Making a Difference at Samovar

Did I Make a Difference?

When it’s all said and done, will you consider whether your presence on this planet made one iota of difference? We believe everyone wants to know their lives made a difference. Why?

Because nothing else really matters. So what if you made a lot of money, traveled the world, or bought a lot of stuff. Did you make a difference? Let’s live our lives every single second of every single day knowing without hesitation that our lives made a difference for the better. And let’s live with an easygoing elegance that is contagious to everyone we touch. Below are six really simple ways you can make a huge difference.

1. Use compact fluorescent light bulbs.
If every household in America used just one bulb, this would equate to taking 1.3 million automobiles off the roads.

2. Shop at a farmer’s market once a month (or more) to eat healthy, seasonal, organic food produced by local farmers. It’s good for your taste buds, your health, local business, and the environment.

3. Help everyone get health care. We live in a great country, and it would be even greater if everyone had health care. Support initiative
H.R. 676 that supports universal health care.

4. Make peace by drinking tea. No, this is not blatant self promotion for Samovar. It’s just blatant truth. Tea is about connecting to the moment, whether alone or with others. If everyone were to have tea with a friend at least once a week, a lot of our problems would just go away.

5. Shorten your shower by just 10 seconds and conserve water and energy.

6. Reduce your environmental Toothprint.
By the time you die, most will have gone through at least 1,000 toothbrushes. That’s 100 million pounds of plastic toothbrushes in landfills in this country alone. Buy a toothbrush with a disposable head and you’ll have made a big difference.

For more information, check out these movies and resources:
Feature films: An Inconvenient Truth , by Al Gore and, Sicko by Michael Moore

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Mirin Mirin on the Wall, Who’s the Fairest of them All?

This lil'Japanese Tetsubin Knows All About Good Mirin
This lil'Japanese Tetsubin Knows All About Good Mirin

What is mirin, why should you care, and what do we do about it?

Used in Japanese cooking since the 1600s, mirin (sweet cooking wine) imparts a sweetly rich and buttery profile that is deep and complex, providing incredible complexity to sauces, marinades, and glazes. It is the perfect vehicle for marrying the flavors of tamari, sesame oil, and ginger.

Because longevity and quality and true deliciousness matter to us more than price, we scoured the States and Japan to finally settle on the mirin we use– sourced from a small family operation in Japan that makes it nice and slow, the old-fashioned way. The mirin we use develops its complex by taste by ageing glutinous sweet rice for up to one year to create the natural, rich taste we love. Not only does this taste much better, it’s better for you than the mass produced, ready-made stuff available in your local supermarket (“flash” aged, and loaded with salt, refined sugar, MSG, and preservatives). So the next time you have Japanese food, ask what kind of mirin they use! And in the meantime, enjoy our Tofu!

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Slow Down 2008

A Slow Evening at Samovar Mission-Castro
A Slow Evening at Samovar Mission-Castro

Living in 2008, we sometimes get caught up in all our obligations and to-do lists., forgetting about the little things in life. At Samovar, we intentionally try to slow you down. Sometimes that can be painful, so please be patient. Through your pot of tea, and the experience of brewing, it, serving it, and sipping it, you will come to actually enjoy beauty of slowness.

As you wait for your pot of tea at Samovar, smell the fresh baked cherry-oat scones coming out of the oven. Or the cardamom and cinnamon and cloves simmering in a pot of chai on our stove. Watch those around you witnessing the same, savoring their time to sit still and absorbing the colors, people, and activity around them.

In slowness we are forced to experience the fluctuations and vacillations of our mind, our thinking, our patterns and habits, and our surroundings. Through slowness we witness the blowing of the wind, the honk of a horn, the smile of a passerby, the aroma of a cup of tea, the good morning kiss of a partner, the abilities of our body, the beauty inside our home.

How slow is slow enough? We are addicted to the speed, and the faster we go, the faster we want to go. But if you can slow down you will experience magic. There is no other way.

Slow things have more value, they take more time, and they deliver more. Slow food tastes better than fast food. Slow breathing makes you more relaxed than hyperventilating. Slow loving feels better. Friendships take time. A good meal takes time. Wild salmon takes time to grow up big and strong. Delicious produce takes time to go from seed to sprout to full grown and edible. Deep, meaningful, lasting companies take time to evolve, develop and prosper.

How do you live slower? Sip some tea and you’ll find out…

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Tomorrow’s Tamari Takes Time

Cooked Kale Tossed in a Tamari Seseme Dressing Isn't the Only Delicious Thing in the Japanese Tea Service
Cooked Kale Tossed in a Tamari Seseme Dressing Isn't the Only Delicious Thing in the Japanese Tea Service

Since the Buddhist monk Kakushin brought back the original soy sauce from China in 1254, soy sauce has become virtually ubiquitous world wide. So what is the difference between Soy Sauce, Shoyu and Tamari? Generally speaking, when people refer to soy sauce, they are referring to the light, fruity, salty taste of shoyu. Shoyu is made from a mash of soybeans and wheat.

At Samovar we decided to use traditional tamari instead, because it imparts a deeper, richer, darker, and more complex taste for our sauces, dips and marinades. Additionally, tamari in its traditional form, is wheat free. As an actual by-product from making soybean-miso-paste, our tamari is hand-made, and aged in cedar kegs for nearly two years by a family who has been doing it for nearly 400 years on the pristine island of Shodo. Because these kegs are no longer produced, our supplier is the only one in Japan making it this slow-aged way.

Sure it’s more costly when you compare it to the supermarket-soy sauce out there full of colorings, preservatives, sugar, salt, and additives. But, because we value health and taste above price, we believed strongly that nothing else compares to the rich, thick, velvety, and deeply flavorful profile of this tamari. Savor it and travel back to an era 400 years ago of hand-tied tatami mats, shoji screens, and bushido etiquette from feudal Japan.

Also, as our tamari is naturally fermented over many months, not only does it taste richer, it is also packed with healthy digestive enzymes and antioxidants.

As the world gets faster and faster and more industrialized, and as 99% of the soy sauce in the market is made in a matter of weeks, we feel really proud to offer you a soy sauce aged over two years ago by a family that takes their time to drink tea, and make our tamari the ancient, sloooooow way. Enjoy!

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The Four Agreements (Samovar-Style)

Tie Kwan Yin Agrees
Tie Kwan Yin Agrees

Tara, one of our esteemed leaders from the Yerba Buena location recently inspiredus with her book recommendation The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz:

2. Nothing’s Personal. We aren’t at the center of the center of our own little Universe. Instead, our customers are. That said, we value your opinions and watch our actions, all without being too attached to outcomes. That way, we never take things hard, and always take it easy.

3. Assume Not. We live the questions and work our way toward answers on a daily basis. Communication is key, so our customers aren’t ever afraid to express what it is they want. With all eyes on our assumptions, misunderstandings, sadness and drama simply disappear.

4. Our Best, Always. Our best always looks the same, but we always give it. While circumstances change from moment to moment, our commitment to excellence never wavers. We’re simply too busy being the best that we can be, all day every day, to find room or time for judgments. Or, better yet, regrets.

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Samovar Tea Lounge Mission in a Teacup

Making Peace, One Cup of Tea at a Time
Making Peace, One Cup of Tea at a Time

For those of you who may not have had the chance to visit us in person, to experience what life is like in the tea lounge, you might not really understand our mission. So, we decided to put it down on paper, or screen in this case. It’s a starting point, and likely to change as time goes on. But, it will give you an idea of who we are, and what we do and why we do it, so enjoy!

Let’s face it People: Oneness is where it’s at. That’s why Samovar Tea Lounge upholds the Mission, the raison d’etre, the work that the almighty Universe has put before us all, as a charge to change Planet Earth, one happier, more fulfilled resident at a time. Uplifting our patrons with the human touch of love and light fosters a tribal sense of community, a healthy sense of vitality, and a Buddha-like sense of equanimity, which…in time…helps transform our world from the inside out. Imagine all that… with a few leaves, some water, and the sweet, sweet passing of time. Believe in Life.