The New York Times Dining and Wine Section features Samovar among the colorful and diverse San Francisco Bay Area teahouses.
Teahouses’ Unique Blends Are Not Just in the Cup
By GREGORY DICUM
Published: January 1, 2010
“…Samovar, in the Castro, makes tea drinking a stylish affair. Teas from around the world are served as they are in their home countries: Japanese maki bowls of rice and seaweed with ryokucha brown rice tea, English tea service with scones and Devonshire cream, Chinese tea with dumplings, and masala chai with curry. Russian tea is poured from a gleaming samovar.
‘We bring the world’s tea traditions under one roof,” said Jesse Jacobs, who opened Samovar in 2001. “It’s contemporary and hip but also respecting tradition.’
…Though many occupy spaces that used to be coffeehouses, it’s too early to call tea drinking a trend that will replace espresso anytime soon. Instead, it’s a parallel, calmer universe.
Inc. Magazine Fastest Growing Companies – We Made the List!
Samovar Tea Lounge joins an elite group of companies across America as they have made the 2009 Inc. Magazine 5000 list of fastest-growing companies. Over the last six years, Samovar has grown its staff to over 60 employees and to three San Francisco locations.
We’d like to thank all of our customers for contributing to our rapid and prosperous growth!
ABC News Channel 7’s The View from the Bay tastes, talks, and pairs tea and food with Samovar Tea Lounge founder Jesse Jacobs.
Tea & Food Pairings featured in the segment:
White Tea: Poached eggs, buttered sour dough toast with honey, sauted greens, steamed veggies, and desserts like vanilla ice cream and flan all help to bring out the subtle floral sweetness of this beautiful Chinese White tea.
Puerh Tea:Quiche, omelettes, nutella on toast, bittersweet chocolate, robust red wine and cheese, and spicy foods all pair really well with this earthy, espresso-like aged Chinese tea.
Green Tea:The succulent, floral, aromatic quality of jasmine flowers blended with organic, fair trade Chinese green tea pairs really well with rich, robust, smoky, heavy foods. Brioche French Toast, bacon, smoked fish, huevos rancheros, red meat, baked swordfish, sauteed onions and garlic are all ingredients and flavors that pair greatly with this tea.
Tea & Health:
• Seasonal, whole leaf Tea is healthy, as it’s got less caffeine than coffee, loads of antioxidants, and a natural, fresh delicious taste that comes only with artisanal whole leaf leaves sourced from small family farms around the globe.
• It’s soothing, and simultaneously uplifting, actually known to stimulate the same brain waves that yoga and meditation do!
• And, organic, Fair Trade tea is good for the environment as it is sustainably harvested from small scale family farms.
• Tea is romantic, and perfect for valentine’s day. Bring health and clarity to life and your loved one by giving them artisanal tea.
• Tea is easy. Brewing whole leaf tea is simple and fun, just add a pinch of fresh tea leaves to hot water, steep, and enjoy.
• Tea is about connecting: Living today in our modern world people have the need to connect, slow down, and take time for appreciating life. Tea delivers that.
• It raises the bar as the first tea company to launch an unprecedented eco-friendly packaging design consisting of 100% compostable materials. Recognized for its award-winning tea menu and leading role in the burgeoning American tea movement, Samovar develops innovative eco-conscious solutions for everyday small business needs.
• Samovar’s ingenious packaging utilizes 100% post-consumer cardboard for its exterior shell and a wood pulp fiber liner to retain maximum freshness of their handcrafted teas.
• A pioneering Bay Area green business, Samovar proudly introduces a sustainable container that, if composted, would turn to soil within a couple of months. The new container will be available in 2010.
• Samovar holds an exclusive partnership with Eva Lee and Chiu Leng of the Hawaii Tea Society as they will supply artisan tea made in America.
• Samovar’s goal is to further put America on the map for the production of premium artisan tea. After eight years of continual farming in Volcano Village on the Big Island, Samovar is the first mainland outlet to feature the limited edition Hawaii-Grown Oolong and Hawaii-Grown Black Tea, which was released on September 1, 2009.
• Samovar recently prepared a custom tea blend for His Holiness The Dalai Lama. The tea is named after The Dalai Lama himself, its titled Ocean of Wisdom. The tea accompanied The Dalai Lama as he presented “The Missing Peace” project at various art institutions across the U.S. Ocean of Wisdom is available for purchase at Samovar’s three Bay Area locations and online.
• Samovar is the exclusive retailer of “Gyokuro Inoka Hill,” which took 1st Place in the All Japanese Gyokuro Tea Competition last year. No one else in the world sells this tea, not even any retailers in Japan. It’s for only politicians and dignitaries in Japan, and Samovar customers.
• Almost all Samovar teas are organic and fair trade certified.
• Samovar utilizes many eco-friendly sustainability practices in their design and building efforts. They use many reclaimed and renewable resources as they design new locations. Their latest locale features a 1200 year-old, 20-foot naturally wind fallen redwood tree from Marin, CA serving as the tea bar.
• All tables are from wind fallen old growth trees, and the FSC certified wood flooring comes from sustainably managed US forests. All the metal work utilizes materials from turn of the century food processing facilities.
• Samovar allocates 1% of their profits to an education budget for standout employees to travel to other countries to research new teas firsthand, attend national industry and restaurant conventions, and take tea education classes.
Samovar Tea Lounge
Specialty Coffee Retailer
by Dan Bolton
“New generation teahouses share a vision of tea for the broad audience, say Samovar Tea Lounge founder Jesse Jacobs (featured on this month’s cover)….
‘What all these teahouses have in common is an experience that is based on the foundations of tea: relaxation, social intimacy, and health — and delivered via food and teas with integrity.'”
“At its three locations around the city, Samovar Tea Lounge has mastered what many restaurants aspire to but which few achieve. More than just a business, it’s a lifestyle. Denizens here aren’t just cooks, waiters, baristas, and regulars — they’re ‘Ambassadors’ on a ‘mission to create peace through tea.’
“Samovar’s approach involves sourcing small batch, organic teas at fair trade prices from artisan family farmers, educating the public on the benefits of tea, and promoting traditional tea culture through the restaurants, events, and extensive Web site, Samovarlife.com. While the globally-inspired menu offers choices from dinner to brunch, small plates to dessert, the star is the tea, which Samovar implores you “sip slowly, filling you with calm and vitality.”
In a year when luxuries have to come with small price tags, the San Francisco Chronicle gives Samovar Teas a nod in their affordable gift guide:
“No gifts, no glory — yes, it’s that time of year. The quest for lasting value made our holiday shopping different this year. Quality trumped quantity, an old-fashioned notion that’s new again and, when we did the math, affordable. We took our Champagne-tastes and found indulgences, treats and all kinds of surprises on a ginger ale budget. The challenge made us creative. We’re delighted with the high-low mix. And as you wrap your selections, we know you’ll be basking in the giver’s happy glow.”
Tea is Hot
By Susan Steade
Posted: 03/10/2009 05:00:00 PM PDT
For a long time, it was listed on menus just by color. Then, suddenly, there were tastings and classes, talk of varietals, origin, terroir. Like wine 20 years ago, tea has become the drink to know.
Any beverage that’s been around for 3,000 years can hardly be called an overnight success. But even those who have been in the tea business for decades acknowledge a recent spurt of interest.
The reason? Part of it is a perception that tea has health benefits, particularly when compared with coffee. Part is a desire to be soothed in rocky times. And part of it is an appreciation of the increasing quality and variety of hand-crafted teas — what Gary Shinner of Marin County’s Mighty Leaf Tea calls “an upgrade in sensory experience.”
Jesse Jacobs, who last week opened his third Samovar Tea Lounge in San Francisco, cites the farmers market effect: an interest in seasonal, artisanal products from family growers. “The quality of the tea we’re getting now is unprecedented. Partly, that’s because we’re getting it faster, so it’s fresher. But the new demand is also making it possible for a farmer to produce and sell some wonderful teas in small quantities.”
Descriptions of these high-end teas read like a rhapsody on a Bordeaux: thundering, nutty, silky, hauntingly ambrosial, “warm apricot marmalade on toasted English muffin.” It’s a lot like wine, Jacobs agrees — “except, with tea, you can always have one more for the road.”
So how does a tea novice — a two-latte-a-day die-hard, for instance — enter this world? With a glossary, a few caveats and some encouragement.
What’s the best way to find the right tea?
“Sample two or three from each category,” Shinner advises. “Explore as you would with wine. What are the flavors you appreciate?” Jason Simpson, director of coffee and tea education for Starbucks, elaborates: Consider acidity, body, flavor.
For a coffee lover, the first step might be something like Yunnan, a black tea — robust, with a slightly roasted undertone — that takes milk and sugar well.
Don’t rely on the name of the tea, as that can be misleading, cautions Eliot Jordan, director of tea for Peet’s Coffee & Tea. “There are no conventions in naming, and you get a lot of creativity. Is this jasmine tea the traditional green tea, or is it a black tea, or an herbal, or is Jasmine just the name of their dog?”
So taste, first, across the four categories of tea. (Some say five; we’ll deal with that later.) All come from the same plant, the tree Camellia sinensis; the difference is in the processing.
At the center of the tea world are black and green, Jordan says. Black is the thicker, darker brew that took hold in countries that use dairy in cuisine, like India and England. Green is the standard in areas with less dairy tradition — Japan, China, North Africa. Oolong covers the wide range of spectrum between those two, and white is a lightly processed variety that 10 years ago was barely known in the West.
How they’re processed:
White. Leaves are picked, sometimes lightly steamed, and then dried, and that’s it. Simpson describes it as vegetal, grassy.
Green. Withered, then steamed (for more delicate, herbal flavors) or pan-fired (for a heartier, aromatic quality) before drying.
Black. Withered, then rolled — which breaks open the leaves and allows oxidation — and, finally, dried to stop the oxidation.
Oolong. Also withered and rolled but not fully oxidized. The oxidation is sometimes stopped and started more than once, as a lot of change can occur in just an hour. With a smooth, aromatic character, it’s a favorite of many tea professionals, Jordan says, and it’s hard to find a good, inexpensive one because of the work involved in crafting it.
The sometimes-fifth type is pu-ehr, an aged tea often sold in compressed cakes. A secondary fermentation gives it a very dark, earthy quality. In China, where our black tea is called red, pu-ehr is known as black.
Wait, what about herbal?
Tea has to be from Camellia sinensis. Any other infusion is technically a tisane (“ti-ZAN”).
Loose tea good, tea bags bad?
Not necessarily. There are good-quality teas in bags, especially with the recent advent of whole-leaf tea bags, which let the leaves expand and the water flow through. With the loose tea, though, you pay less for packaging, and you get the experience of the tea-making ritual.
The most flavorful teas are whole-leaf, which, though they shrivel when dried, will unfurl in hot water. Large broken pieces aren’t bad; what you want to avoid is finely crushed leaves and dust. Also, tea’s flavor fades as it ages, so consider how likely it is to be fresh. (Pu-ehr aside, of course.)
Where can I learn more?
Besides the thousands of tea aficionado Web sites? The Bay Area is a hotbed of tea stores and tea lounges; some offer classes, among them Tea Time in Palo Alto (www.tea-time.com, (650) 328-2877). Other South Bay tea rooms include Lisa’s Tea Treasures in Campbell and Menlo Park, Ku Day Ta in Milpitas’ Great Mall and Puripan Tea Garden in Santana Row.
Samovar, which has three locations in San Francisco, is adding more educational pages to its Web site, www.samovartea.com; Lupicia, a tea store in Valley Fair, is another good source.
The Samovar Tea Lounge’s Hayes Valley edition has been up and running since the end of 2008, but there’s still no sign on the door to mark the establishment. With its dim lighting, the lounge easily blends into the rows of Victorians on Page Street — an unobtrusive, almost organic piece of the neighborhood to the casual eye. Which is exactly what owner Jesse Jacobs had in mind….
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.