A Tea Renaissance is Underway in the San Francisco Bay Area
San Francisco might be known for its vibrant craft coffee scene, but did you know that a tea renaissance is underway in the Bay Area?
Forget unexciting, mass-produced tea bags. Tea is worth geeking out over - as a tea blogger, I’m guilty of that. Think high-quality loose-leaf tea, so good it doesn’t need milk, sugar or flavorings. That’s the beverage with a growing following, people who care about origin, tea leaves to water ratio, temperature and quality of water, steep time and traditional preparation methods, like gong fu cha, the Chinese way of brewing tea with skill. It’s a niche, but it has seen some exciting developments lately.
What makes San Francisco and the Bay Area the place to be for tea lovers? Why is the tea scene here so unique? I gathered the thoughts and perspective of some local tea professionals to help me answer these questions.
Roy Fong is the founder of Imperial Tea Court, the first traditional, completely tea-oriented tea house in the area. Imperial Tea Court has been around since 1993 and it’s the “first tea house to come out and tell people that not all tea is created equal” Roy told me when I joined him for tea at the Ferry Building. He used the word “renaissance” to refer to the developments underway in the Bay Area. “The audience has grown. The first tea festival in San Francisco was 6 years ago. At the first edition, we had 4-500 people. Last year we had over 2000! People are excited, there are a lot more avenues to get closer to tea and there’s no shortage of people who travel to Asia to procure tea”.
Jody Beavers, co-owner of San Francisco-based online retail and wholesale business Tap Twice Tea, agrees that the local tea scene is buzzing. “San Francisco seems pretty vibrant when it comes to people who like tea and enjoy loose-leaf tea and gong fu cha.” Tap Twice Tea almost started out as a tea buyers' club and is now an Instagram sensation, whose signature is drinking tea outdoors while hiking and backpacking.
In Berkeley Ali Roth of Blue Willow Tea has no doubt about the local tea renaissance either: “Look at the concentration of tea shops, importers, wholesalers, high end tea shops and so on.” Ali has owned and operated Blue Willow Tea, which is primarily a wholesale business, since 2012. Last year she opened a tea house, the Teaspot, where she performs the Japanese tea ceremony and hosts regular tea-centric events.
The geographical position of the Bay Area and the mindset of people seem to be contributing factors, as Roy explained. “San Francisco is the gateway to the Pacific, immigrants from the Pacific regions are coming in and bringing their culture, not only tea culture. Local tea lovers are from their mid 20s to their mid 40s, educated, but most importantly open-minded and San Francisco makes you so. This is such a melting pot. This city allows you to meet people that don’t look like you and eat different food and it makes you want to try their food … and their tea. A Chinese can learn about grapes and wine and an American can learn about gong fu tea. Nothing spectacular about it, it’s absolutely cool here. Because of the ties of immigrants and cross cultural pollination”. Everybody brings something valuable to the table.
Why has tea become so attractive? According to Jody, it’s a combination of many factors but mainly health benefits and social aspects. “A lot of people here in San Francisco are interested in the social aspect, the community around it, a deeper human connection as a way to slow down from their busy lives, slow down from work and to connect in a genuine way. Tea is a beverage that’s full-on healthy, boosts your mood and elevates you to almost a positively altered state of being. The conversation flourishes really well.” The conversation-boosting properties of tea are evident at the informal tea gatherings Jody hosts monthly, with 15 to 20 people who get together to share tea and talk about tea. Ali points out that tea has a unifying power: “It’s a unifying substance, think of people drinking tea together, it’s energizing. It’s unifying across borders, where it comes from, how it’s made, it’s almost like a spider web which follows the tea from where it’s grown across oceans and continents”. According to Roy, it’s all of those elements and more. It’s definitely a multi-faceted phenomenon.
As for tea drinking habits, I’ve discovered that puer, a type of fermented Chinese tea, is really popular here. “Tea experts and newbies alike love puer for its health benefits but also because it’s an interesting type of tea, it’s delicious and has a unique flavor. Hong cha and Yunnan red teas are really popular too, as well as oolong and of course matcha” Ali says. I’m surprised, especially considering that puer needs some sort of “tea education” for a tea lover to get into and, most importantly, proper storage in a controlled environment if you want to age it. If you think about it, though, it’s not that different than ageing wine. In an area where wine is produced and appreciated, it should come to no surprise.
The San Francisco Bay Area tea scene is unique because of the diversity that is easily obtainable here and a higher level of acceptance. “Here you can explain something completely foreign to someone and that will be received as completely normal, because that is how San Franciscans are, willing to accept new things, they give you the opportunity to be yourself”, Roy told me. Additionally, the combination of many different influences is common here. Take yoga and gong fu tea, for example. Jody points out that Northern California is really into yoga (which as we all know, originated in India) and many people who practise yoga are also into gong fu cha (a Chinese cultural ritual). There’s more. “A big part of tea culture in Northern California is represented by festivals and puer is served there. People at these festivals are interested in spirituality and interesting creative music and art and talks about improving our lives and different planes of existence. I feel like tea speaks to that. Tea awakens the mind in a peaceful way, prepares you more for creativity and I feel like these are the things that festival goers are interested in”.
“Tea culture”. As much as I like the expression, I cannot help but wonder whether the San Francisco Bay Area tea scene can be referred to as a tea culture. It’s the question I’ve been the most hesitant to ask. The word “culture” can have more than one meaning. Luckily, Roy helped me clarify this point: “Before the second World War, Americans were drinking more tea on average than we do today. Tea is widely accepted in American life, you just don’t know it. You know what it is? It’s the Lipton tea bag. It’s in everybody’s cupboard. Across America, you wouldn’t find restaurants that do not serve tea, even 20 years ago. The acceptance level is already there, it’s the level of awareness that is not there yet. Tea has always been there, it’s like that cousin you have, you know him but you just see him once a year, you don’t think of him but he’s there. What makes it a culture is if it’s allowed to continue and grow. Every culture continues to grow or it ceases to exist. From the tea bag to puer and attention to water temperature, if that’s not growth and awareness I don’t know what is. To me, that tells me it’s a culture”.
A version of this article originally appeared on Tea For Me Please Quarterly Tea Journal, Volume 12.
Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with any of the companies mentioned in this blog post.