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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.

http://www.hansonbridgett.com/edms/grn_newsltr_2008-09/article2.html

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

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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 samovartea.com, on iTunes, and on youTube.com.

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: www.samovartea.com, 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”

CALIFORNIA NOUVEAU

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. freshcup.com

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

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Listen to Samovar Tea Lounge Music…

samovar cdTea Lounge Groove is the perfect accompaniment to your tea drinking experience. Listen to our custom blended music, made with local musicians, to elevate your tea drinking to a higher level…

One is the beginning.
The sum of many parts, one is whole and united. One full circle, one beginning is one ending. We live in one world. We have one life. There is one human race. One man and one woman, one sperm and one egg, one spark and one…

Sound
The sound of a beating heart confirms life. Relish your own sound, your own life, because you have only one. Love life and dance to its rhythm. Let our music inside you, guide you, inspire you, illuminate you. Let it sway you as it reflects the voices and rhythms of the world. Dance and rejoice to this music of…

Tea
Tea is the sum of the earth and the sun and the gentle touch of humankind. Sun and rain, wind and fog, mountains and lowlands, heat and cold, and gently crafted, tea is everything, and tea is for you. In one slight sip, tea becomes you for an instant, and then leaves you forever changed; relaxed and enlivened, warmed and refreshed. Sip again.

Tea is like life. It can be bitter and it can be sweet. It can be strong and it can be weak. Like you, it is mostly water. It can be young or old, smooth or wrinkled, black, white, yellow, brown, green, red. It is there on a hill-side, then here in your cup, then steeped then sipped then gone. It can be soothing or invigorating, stolid or sensual, enrapturing or enlightening. It is alluring and ephemeral. It is the union of the earth and humankind and we offer it to you.

Welcome to the sound of Samovar Tea Lounge, One. One sound, one tea, one world, one life, this is the beginning. Sip, dance, enjoy.

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Free Download

Join the Samovar Tea Lounge community and we’ll send you links to three of our favorite tracks.

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