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My Gourmet Connection: Spotlights Samovar’s Jesse Jacobs

Jesse Jacobs
Jesse Jacobs

My Gourmet Connection: Spotlight on Jesse Jacobs

Jesse Jacobs was raised in a home overflowing with culture and community. His curiosity about tea was sparked by a steady flow of visitors whose one common thread was taking time for tea.

Growing up, he experienced exotic teas from around the globe, not to mention the sense of kinship that arose from drinking tea with others. Jesse spent his early life working in a variety of occupations.

Sometime during the “dot com heyday,” Jesse found himself deep in the world of technology in San Francisco. As his passion for the corporate world dissipated, so did its economic viability.

Taking advantage of the ideal timing, Jesse determined that he needed to get back to his roots: “connecting to people, communicating.. experiencing the cultures of the world.”

Out of his desires to create a company rooted in the timeless traditions of tea – equanimity, community and vitality – and to establish a place where others could escape the stresses of daily life, Samovar Tea Lounge was born.

Through Samovar, Jesse partners with tea experts and suppliers from small family farms across the globe. As more and more people are turning away from coffee, Jesse is at leading the way to a new generation of American tea culture.

What were the initial challenges you faced in turning your passion for artisan tea into a business?
It is one distinct experience to be excited and passionate about something, to embrace it as a lifestyle. It is an entirely different experience to be challenged by the realities of real world business: leading people, managing a P&L, negotiating, product sourcing, and dealing with what is commonly referred to as “fear.”

The biggest challenge I have faced is the simple realization that business, and life, are complex, and that “problems” are never-ending. And in fact that problems are never actually problems or obstacles.

Every new wall that arises that seems to block creativity, potential and vision, actually has a hidden door within it. The joy, and the challenge and the pain, and the pleasure is finding that door, walking through it, and experience the new set of experiences that that walk brings.

All the usual suspects were and are challenges… managing the personalities of diverse staff, trying to unify them to our common mission, managing a very tight cash position in light of tight margins – means constant negotiating with vendors about patience, and perseverance, and faith.

How do you convince a confirmed coffee lover to try adding tea to their repertoire, aside from health benefits?
Easy. Why does the coffee lover love coffee? It is usually for either the caffeine, the bittersweet rich flavor and aroma, or the sweet and creamy taste you get from milk and sugar with coffee.

There is a tea that satisfies each of those needs and also offers much more complexity in flavor depth, cultural connection to the traditions and cultures that make tea, and proven health benefits that come with tea drinking.

Thousands of years of tradition and ritual with tea stands for something… and it’s proven the test of time. What is old is new again, and both Baby Boomers and Gen-y’ers are embracing it voraciously for the reasons above.

There are so many interesting and unique teas available today. How would you advise the “tea novice” to begin educating their palate?
Just do it. Buy the best tea you can afford that is unflavored – to be able to taste it in its purest form. Practice will quickly reveal to you what makes a good tea and what makes for a bad tea.

We encourage you to look for quality tea, as we define it: Consistent size, shape and color of the leaf. Seasonal and fresh – not stored in a warehouse on a shelf for 18 months. Complex in aroma, taste, body and aftertaste. The tea should do something to you.

You should be able to distinctly notice an array of aromas, flavors, mouthfeel and aftertaste. Good tea will have all that. Flavored or old or teabag tea may be strong in taste, but, is usually singular, and not at all complex.

Do you see your role with reference to tea as a sommelier is to wine?
Definitely. Tea has so much behind it: terroire, body, aroma, taste, aftertaste, and the amazing ability to pair it with food, and your mood!

Of the teas you serve at the Samovar Lounge, which is your favorite and why?
Depends on the time and the day. I drink a lot of our senchas, like the Nishi, and the Fukamushi, in the morning for the antioxidant kick, mild caffeine, stimulating-relaxation that Japanese teas bring, and the refreshing, uplifting effect.

Around 1 p.m. after lunch, I usually go for oolong – recently the very rare Phoenix from China because of its incredibly complex and sweet profile. I love earl grey with soy milk and honey around 4 p.m. for an uplifting caffeine and citrus boost. For before bed, I’ll go with Ocean of Wisdom, our house-rooibos blend, or the nocturnal bliss for good, soothing sleep.

What are your favorite food and tea pairings?
Maiden’s Ecstasy Pu-erh and steamed squash dumplings. Ancient Gold super malty black Chinese tea with our Belgian waffles. Osthmanthus Silver Needle white tea with buttered sourdough toast and fried eggs for breakfast. Orange ginger herbal infusion with chocolate brownies for dessert.

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