Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


An excerpt from an article on tea houses in the SF Bay area. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directged to the full article.

Tea's time
Bay Area artisan teahouses offer tastes to rival the complexity of fine wine
Olivia Wu, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
At Teance, the tea bar and store in Berkeley, co-owner Winnie Yu takes her place behind the sleek concrete and copper tea bar and, with suppressed excitement, pours the first of the 2007 winter-picked wulong (oolong) tea. The wulong has just arrived from a Li Shan estate in Taiwan, one of the world's foremost centers of this complex varietal.
Proprietors of other fine Bay Area teahouses, including Roy Fong of Imperial Tea Court and Donna Lo Christy of Far Leaves, are heading to China, Taiwan and Japan to oversee the harvest of artisanally grown Camellia sinensis.
All of them are bringing the best of the leaves back to the Bay Area for the growing numbers of artisan tea aficionados.
January is the start of the premium tea harvest. More of this tea will come through the Bay Area than through any other American gateway. San Francisco historically has been a major center for tea in the United States, and in the 21st century promises to reinvigorate America's tea culture as never before.
"The Bay Area is the center of the current tea renaissance. No other city has this range and depth," says Gaetano Maida, executive director of the Tea Arts Institute in Oakland.
The popularity of artisan tea is being fueled by places such as Far Leaves and Teance teahouses, Starbucks-like cafes such as Teavana and food-and-tea restaurants such as Samovar. These ventures have moved today's tea culture beyond the traditional Chinatown establishments to urban destinations, suburban neighborhoods and even shopping malls.
The world of artisan teas in many ways parallels fine wines. The cognoscenti resemble wine connoisseurs, developing discriminating palates to appreciate the teas, and using a language that parallels wine appreciation -- vintages, single estates, harvest time and method, not to mention all the descriptors for the taste of tea, such as acid, tannins, weight, fruit, earth aromas and mineral characteristics.
Premium teas are whole leaf teas that come from specific estates or gardens, and are designated by varietal and year of harvest -- like vintage wine. They're different from blends of chopped or scented teas, such as English breakfast, Earl Grey and Lapsang Souchong, and very different from the mass-market tea bags made of finings, the dust left on the floor after the tea leaves dry.
The current interest in premium tea, and teahouses, is just the latest development in the growing mainstream appreciation of tea, which began 20 years ago as Baby Boomers searched for a low- or non-caffeinated alternative to coffee. Reports about tea's possible health benefits also fueled the boom.
Today's boom is planted on fertile ground. Tea packagers such as Republic of Tea, Mighty Leaf Tea Company, Numi, Leaves and Silk Road all began in the Bay Area, and now command a national market.
The focus has expanded to artisan teahouses and suppliers, such as Teance, Far Leaves, Imperial Tea Court and Lupicia, to name a few. Here's a look at these major players in the Bay Area's new tea scene.
Winnie Yu, Teance: Teance, which opened last fall, is the reincarnation of Yu's first tea store, Celadon, which she opened several years ago at a different location in Berkeley.
Yu, 37, came to the United States from Hong Kong as a child and attended UC Berkeley. Missing the types of teas she drank from age 4, she began acquiring, exchanging and investing in premium teas with devotees and friends who traveled to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and China.
"I wanted to introduce the public to wonderful teas,'' she says. "And I wanted to support the small farms that make a living out of growing tea." Yu's sources range from gardens that cover one hill to plantations in the Anxi region of China that occupy four mountains.
At the heart of Teance is a circular, heated and stone-imbedded concrete bar in the shape of the Chinese gaiwan, the classic, covered cup-bowl used for some Chinese tea services. Patrons can choose from a menu of any of the 60-plus teas in the store, from white, green, wulong, black, herbal and puer teas, for $5 per person.
Taking a cue from wine culture, Teance offers tasting flights of tea, ranging from $5 for a single tea to $15 for three or four teas. A suggested pairing with tea-flavored artisanal chocolates from Charles Chocolates of Emeryville is also on the menu.
Yu offers classes in fine teas and tea making, but offers these tips for neophytes:
-- Ninety percent of fresh teas are seasonal.
-- Tea is best unblended. "Farmers pick meticulously according to freshness. There's a 9 o'clock picking, or a pre-dawn picking, that separates batches of tea."
-- Know your farmer or elevation. Generally, the higher the better.
-- Ask about craftsmanship -- in other words, who is roasting your tea. Over-roasted tea loses its delicacy and herbaceous character. Under-roasted retains moisture and may cause mold. Your teahouse owner and dealer are critical at this stage. Many go to China and Taiwan to oversee the process.
-- Understand steeping techniques. "Oversteeping can ruin a tea in two seconds if water is too hot or steeped too long. That's when you get the, 'Oh, it's bitter. Let's add sugar and milk.' "
Yu's top sellers: White Peony, Jasmine Dragon Pearls, Baosheng Wulong.
Hidden gem: Phoenix Danchong Honey Wulong from 100-year-old trees in China.
Donna Lo Christy, Far Leaves: Christy's comfortable and serene tea shop on Ashby Avenue in Berkeley is dedicated to making fine tea accessible and affordable. Any tea can be tasted for $5, and one can sit on tatami mats, at tables or in alcoves.
"I had a customer the other day who asked for honey with her Dragonwell, so I gave it to her. Anything to get them started with good tea," she says.
Christy began enjoying tea as a university student in Taiwan. After marrying, she and her husband explored the great teas in the 1970s and 1980s while they remained in Taiwan. Christy used the word "leaves" in her store name because she wanted people to be able to "escape reality" with the experience, but also feel fully and healthfully present, she says.
Like Teance, Far Leaves offers a global selection, with teas from the best regions of China, Taiwan, Japan and India, as well as herbal infusions from all over the world.
Christy's top sellers: Pearl Jasmine, Blood Orange Herbal, Monk's Blend Black.
Hidden gem: Dongding (Frozen Summit) Wulong, one of several of the store's specialty Taiwanese wulongs.
Lupicia Fresh Tea Leaf: The tea shop Lupicia focuses on Japanese teas and carries 200 teas from around the world.
The corporation, whose strongest suit is Japanese teas, has 80 outlets in Japan, some stores in Honolulu and Los Angeles, and two in San Francisco. A third Bay Area location is scheduled to open this spring in San Jose.
"Our customers don't buy one (1.7 ounce) bag of loose-leaf tea, they buy five to eight," says John Meneses, manager of the Westfield San Francisco Centre store. "The second time they come, they buy a pot." Not far down the line, he says, Lupicia may add the classic sit-down teahouse experience.
Lupicia's top sellers: Momo wulong (Taiwan), Champagne Rose (black), Gyukuro Green (Japan), Jardin Sauvage (herbal).
Hidden gem: Darjeeling BPS, or broken pekoe stem (India).
Roy Fong, Imperial Tea Court: Fong is the grandfather of the tea movement in the Bay Area, a man of impeccable palate and unerring nose. In his 40,000-square-foot Oakland warehouse lies an assortment of puer teas that he has collected, cared for and aged for more than 20 years. Emissaries of wealthy Chinese moguls come to cajole Fong into selling them his teas, the quality of which cannot be found in China.
When Fong, 51, first bought teas in Hong Kong and China in the early 1980s, China's tea production was still in disarray from the Cultural Revolution. Fong bought large quantities of the one tea that improves with age, puer, and stashed them, aired them and tempered them in his Bay Area warehouse. The tea leaves aged naturally to an earthy brown, eventually making a brew, that when steeped correctly, is intensely amber, clear, silky and full of complexity, with earth tones and a drawn-out finish comparable to aged Bordeaux.
Fong's first retail outlet was Imperial Tea Court in San Francisco's Chinatown. In recent years, he's added locations in the Ferry Building, as well as on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, where he also serves organic Chinese food. The Ferry Building and Chinatown stores are designed like Northern-style tearooms in China, with classic Chinese furniture.
Only his friends and big dealers may be lucky enough to find Fong at his warehouse roasting teas. They might be invited into his inner sanctum, a private tearoom outfitted with Chinese antiques. And he might just pull out his 1984 early spring harvest puer, which he has personally cared for, or the 1983 late spring harvest puer, which brews a deep, silky, Cognac-colored tea, with an aftertaste that lingers for the rest of the day. "This is a living being," he says of the glistening liquid before him.
Fong's top sellers: Jasmine Pearls, Monkey-Picked Tieguan Yin, Imperial and Lotus Heart Dragonwell.
Hidden gems: Wuyi Yencha (Chinese wulong); 2000 Topaz Puer.
Like many Chinese, Fong believes that tea is a civilizing force. "Let's be human beings and drink tea," he's fond of saying.
He also believes in the health properties of tea, especially puer, a main ingredient in traditional Chinese pharmacopoeia. Its taste and effect -- to soothe and stimulate -- are healing and magical in themselves, he says.
"I'm saving these teas for my children,'' he says. "It's easy to save money for your kids, but the tea is something I cared for."

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