Tea parties: Bay area tea shops turn over a new leaf

Watch out, coffee: A nice cuppa tea is gaining ground.

In the U.S., tea is a lot like wine. Lauded and put on a pedestal, it's seen as a refined and elegant beverage more suited to the upper class than the hoi polloi, prepared with more paraphernalia than you might find in the closet of the most inventive pot smoker. Understanding tea seems to require the same knowledge of geography, varietals and blending techniques that makes many people cringe when presented with a wine list. They're afraid of it, so they opt for coffee — the beer of the non-alcoholic beverage world — or drop a bag of Lipton into a mug of hot water.

That perception explains why tea consumption in the United States was around 65 billion servings last year — with 85 percent of that coming from iced varieties — while the rest of the world consumed tea in such vast quantities it comes second only to water as beverage of choice.

A few years ago, we flirted with boba tea, sucking tapioca balls through giant straws, the next big thing. Now, the U.S. is ready for the big leagues. Serious tea — loose tea, with all the accouterments that go along with it — is on the rise. And the Bay area is rising to serve it. (See our "Tea Time" guide on p. 26.)

"When I got into it, it was a passion," says Piccolo Swamy, owner of Tampa tea distributor Teajo.com. "But other than that, I saw it as an opportunity. It's at the bottom, so there's plenty of room for growth." He sources tea for specialty tea shops and some retailers, as well as selling it on his website. He eschews the traditional tea room, however, for a more upbeat scene — modern cafes that treat upscale loose tea with the same easy-going presentation that coffee shops started 20 years ago. With a side of education, of course.

At Kaleisia Tea, Kim and Lan Phan have been training people in the basics of proper tea since 2005, pioneering the loose leaf tea scene in the Bay area from their cafe near USF. They hold regular classes on tea preparation and even cater private tea parties for people who want to introduce their friends to this ancient beverage.

Following in their steps are newer places like TeBella Tea Company and Tampa's Infusions Lounge (formerly known as Hooker Tea).

"I've always loved tea," says TeBella owner Abigail St. Clair. "The rest of the world is just catching up." Although St. Clair has a wildly varied work history — from whale trainer to planned development manager — her tea shop is built on classic coffee shop themes, relaxed seating in front and walls lined with hundreds of metal canisters filled with loose tea. Comfortable, but most customers need a little convincing to experiment.

"We have to show them why it's worth the extra effort, even though it's really not much harder than bag tea," explains St. Clair. She has a simple technique: ask what they usually drink, then make them a cup. "One guy came in and I told him, 'If it's not 10 times better, I'll buy it for you.' Now, he comes back every week or two to stock up."

St. Clair also has a talent for rapid-fire education, reciting so much information as she works that you can't help but come away more knowledgeable than when you went in. "I'm kind of a tea nerd," she laughs.

Infusions eschews the usual coffee shop design aesthetic for a tea-based bar scene. There's also glorious flatbread, quivering quiche and plenty of food to pair that tea with, along with a decent selection of craft beer. Unlike a devoted temple to tea like TeBella, Infusions integrates excellent loose leaf tea into typical daily enjoyments. Instead of educating the fear of tea away, Infusions seamlessly integrates tea into the world as if to ask, "What's the big deal?"

The two different styles suit different people. If you make your own coffee, care about your beans and rely on French press or specialty drip, then TeBella is where you'll go to get into tea. If you buy your coffee strictly from coffee shops — but care how it tastes — then Infusions is your tea destination.

Either way, St. Clair is right. Once you get loose tea into your mouth, there's no going back.

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