Other articles by Bruce Richardson:
Bruce Richardson, Norwood Pratt and Roy Fong enjoy a cup of oolong at Imperial Tea Court.
San Francisco: Gateway to Tea
Story and photography by Bruce Richardson
The new year quietly brought an end to one of the most important sanctuaries for tea in America�s recent tea renaissance. Most tea consumers across the country would not know the name Roy Fong. But, anyone who seriously entertained a calling to a vocation in tea over the past decade has made a pilgrimage to San Francisco to share a cup of tea and a few hours of instruction from this tea master at his Imperial Tea Court in Chinatown.
Pilgrim after pilgrim made their way down the steep slopes of Powell Street to sit in an authentic red and black lacquered Chinese made tea house and drink tea with Roy while being serenaded by finches perched in a half dozen cages hanging from the ceiling. The marble floor, wooden walls, paneled ceiling, handmade furnishings, and the owner were all imported from China.
As a small boy in China, Roy Fong would walk to school each morning and pass workers huddled around a fire drinking tea from small handleless cups. These memories came with him when his family immigrated to California when he was in his teens. Though he owned a lucrative car-towing business, he had a smoldering passion to bring an authentic Asian tea experience to his new hometown, San Francisco.
On July 4, 1993, Roy opened Imperial Tea Court and introduced specialty tea to a city that, luckily, had a thirst for quality. His tea list was unlike anything previously seen this side of the Pacific. It was filled with fine Dragonwells, expensive monkey-picked oolongs, aged puehrs, and delicate silver needles. His prices were unheard of as well. One local Chinese matron scolded him the first week for �charging such extravagant prices for tea that could be bought elsewhere in Chinatown for reasonable money!� Little did she understand that Roy was selling rare teas not offered anywhere in America and San Franciscans were eager to pay any price for them.
Roy�s preferred method of brewing oolongs is Kung Fu (sometimes referred to as Gongfu.) "Everybody's heard of Kung Fu martial arts,� he reminds us. �But Kung Fu actually applies to almost everything in life. It represents anything that takes patience, practice, or skill to achieve."
A nearby resident and tea writer, James Norwood Pratt, wandered by the first week and was subsequently name Honorary Director of the tea house. He is fond of pointing out that �only in San Francisco can a boy from the North Carolina countryside become affiliated with the first authentic teahouse in the western hemisphere.� Imperial Tea Court became an extension of Norwood�s home and anyone who visited his abode on Green Street was soon taken to meet his brother in tea, Roy Fong. Like the Chinese, Roy and Norwood believe that tea is a civilizing force. "Let's be human beings and drink tea," they are fond of saying.
Over the years, hotels, restaurants and tea retailers have turned to Roy to supply their specialty oolongs and green teas. His wholesale tea trade grew rapidly and he opened retail locations in The Ferry Building and in neighboring Berkeley. It became harder and harder for him to devote time to his original Chinatown location. He realized it had been his pulpit for fifteen years but he needed to let it go in order to move forward with his greater mission.
Always re-inventing himself, this godfather of tea and Taoist priest now devotes his time to firing oolongs, looking after his growing wholesale trade, and dreaming of new ways to infuse tea into America�s veins. Sadly, the Imperial Tea Court in Chinatown is no more but Roy Fong�s influence continues to be felt throughout the Bay area and across America.
The Bay Area Phenomenon
Why has tea found such a receptive audience in San Francisco and the surrounding area? Tea�s prolific growth is planted in the fertile Bay Area soil and nurtured by its ethnic diversity. Tea packagers such as Republic of Tea, Leaves, Mighty Leaf Tea Company, Numi, Peets, Red&Green and Silk Road all had their roots here, not to mention the venerable importer G.S.Haly Company and new local tea businesses like Red Blossom, Poleng, and Vitatea.
Gaetano Maida is the executive director of the Tea Arts Institute in Oakland and a cast member of the movie �All This in Tea.� He has witnessed tea�s bloom here over the past decade. "The Bay Area is the center of the current tea renaissance,� he claims. �No other city has this range and depth."
He may be right. Jennifer Sauer certainly agrees with his pronouncement. A professional photographer and aspiring student of tea, she chronicled nearly every tea venue in the area for her 2007 book, �The Way of Tea.� She claims that San Francisco, with its 18 tea rooms and tea shops, is �home to the world�s most eclectic tea party.� And that doesn�t include all the grand hotels that have been serving up stylish afternoon teas since the great fire of 1906.
She writes, �The San Francisco Bay area is home to some of the most profoundly knowledgeable tea experts on the planet, from Roy Fong at Imperial Tea Court to May Hung, a descendent of Confucius as well as a licensed Chinese Tea Examiner, to Alice Cravens, formerly tea maven at Chez Panisse and the proud owner of Modern Tea, to Urasenke Foundation�s Christy Bartle, to whom people travel from Japan in order to study Japanese tea ceremony.�
Her colorful and comprehensive guide book is quietly bringing the Bay area tea phenomenon to light and savvy tea lovers from across the globe are traveling here with tea on their mind.
The Asian Influence
Across the Bay Bridge, tea is hotter than ever in Berkeley, thanks in large part to young entrepreneurs like Winnie Yu. Winnie's passion for tea began at a young age in Hong Kong. She developed a taste for a wide range of teas from green to black. After moving to the United States, she found it difficult to purchase quality and unblended teas. She decided to import the teas herself.
�I wanted to offer some of the best teas available and support small growers,� she said. �Our mission is to introduce and revive the art of drinking, preparing, and appreciating traditional, whole leaf teas.�
She shares her tea finds and dispenses tea brewing advice at Teance, her tea bar and store located in one of Berkeley�s most popular retail areas. Like the captain of ship, Winnie Yu commands this tea emporium from the center of a sleek concrete and copper gaiwan-shaped tea bar where she steeps and pours winter-picked wulong (oolong) tea. The wulongs arrive from a Li Shan estate in Taiwan, one of the world's foremost centers of this endlessly complex type of tea.
Or, she might offer a floral Formosa Baochong oolong or a rare Lu Shan Clouds and Mist green tea. If you see something on the retail shelve that intrigues you, Winnie will steep it. Taking a cue from the vineyards to the north of San Francisco Bay, she offers tasting flights of tea, ranging from $5 for a single tea to $15 for three or four teas. With temptations like this, few customers leave empty-handed.
The other tea maven of Berkeley is Donna Lo. For ten years, she has operated Far Leaves Teas on College Avenue. This is a comfortable, unpretentious Asian teahouse where guests sit casually on tatami mats or at tables while drinking Gongfu teas.
Donna�s mission is to offer an affordable but high quality tea experience. She also believes in tea�s calming powers. �Making tea is a process of meditation,� she says. �If you pay attention, you can clean your mind. In order to pay attention, you also have to slow down.�
Like her neighbor at Teance, Far Leaves offers an ever-growing stable of teas from the best growing regions of China, Taiwan, Japan and India, as well as herbal infusions from all over the world. Her top sellers include: Blood Orange Herbal, Monk's Blend Black, and Pearl Jasmine. However, the store�s unique treasures are the 13 oolongs and 17 green teas offered for tasting or purchase.
Northern California�s insatiable thirst for quality Asian teas has not been overlooked by foreign tea purveyors. Lupicia Fresh Tea Leaf, with 80 Japanese locations, has opened two tea shops in the Bay Area and one in San Jose. Showcasing 400 teas available throughout the year, this Japanese tea giant has the largest offering of Japanese teas in San Francisco.
Wulong is again one of the top selling teas here, as is Gyukuro (Japanese green). "Our customers don't buy one bag of loose-leaf tea, they buy five to eight," says John Meneses, manager of the Westfield San Francisco Centre store. Green tea�s healthy reputation is one of the major factors motivating sales to new customers.
The shops offer daily samplings of both hot and cold teas. Colorful wrapped packages of tea are displayed for easy gift giving.
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 find a mix of young professionals, college 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 diner drinking a pot of lapsang souchong and nibbling away at a three-tired stand of English afternoon tea sweets and savories. The popularity of this hospitable tearoom 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 puehr to flowery Earl Grey, there is a tea on the menu for every palate. Each is steeped and served according to tradition. Packaged teas bearing the Samovar Tea Lounge logo are the favorite take-away item at both locations.
Don�t think that 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 clich�.
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 restaurants, 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.
Jennifer Sauer issues an invitation at the conclusion of her introduction to �The Way of Tea.� �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 Norwood 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.�
Copyrighted material by Fresh Cup Magazine.
The is article first appeared in the April 2008 issue of Fresh Cup magazine. Copyrighted material.
Afternoon Tea at The San Francisco
Your guides to seeing the city with tea on your mind!
Following the success of his colorful Great Tea Rooms of Britain, Bruce Richardson has crafted a stunning collection of color photographs and recipes from 20 outstanding tea venues across The United States and Canada. This large format hardcover book contains over 175 color photographs and lots of touring suggestions!
Four new tea rooms appear in the 2008 edition. Bruce has added a Great Tea Shops section and 20 pages of recipes appear in their own chapter.
|Home | About ElmwoodInn | Press Room | Books | OnlineStore | Seminars | WholesaleProducts | Contact Us|
Elmwood Inn Fine Teas, Danville, Kentucky
Copyright � 2012, All Rights Reserved.