Forrest Blackwell, who calls himself "Mr. T," serves Chinese tea at Sophie’s Cuppa Tea in the Montclair district of Oakland on Aug. 1,
Forrest Blackwell, who calls himself "Mr. T," serves Chinese tea at Sophie's Cuppa Tea in the Montclair district of Oakland on Aug. 1, 2014. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

OAKLAND -- Sophie's Cuppa Tea recently joined the Montclair streetscape, bringing the imported Chinese tea experience to the village.

While tea shops are plentiful, Sophie's Cuppa Tea's style is different, owner John Brown said. Brown and his business partner, Xiaobei Wei, spent five years studying what makes a cup of tea in China different from anywhere else.

"I believe that the U.S. tastes are ready for (our) tea. My goal is to educate people about tea," said Brown, who personally greets each customer who enters the shop and explains the characteristics of his teas in detail.

Brown and Wei have brought the Chinese tea leaves and method of preparation and have adapted it for the American market. Pots are warmed before the preparation of each brew and temperature. The length of time that the leaves are steeped is carefully monitored and varies depending on the type of tea selected.

Tea in China is served in small cups, with the server refilling from a pot at regular intervals. However, a cup of tea at Sophie's will be served in American proportions of 12 or 16 ounces.

"U.S. culture is busy, and they love their beverages big, but they don't want to be bothered," Brown said. "We are bringing the flavors of China in U.S. quantities.


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"We use very precise measurements. We studied from the tea masters in China and experimented for about a year with the large cups," Brown said.

Sophie's offers no milk, sugar, lemon or honey. Their teas stand on their own merits. Tea preparers wear no makeup, lotions or perfumes that might mix with the delicate flavors of the tea. Artisanal pastries and Tara's Organic Ice Cream are available to accompany the brews.

Customers have 25 unique teas to choose from, and the selection will increase to 50 varieties this fall, a mere fraction of the 7,500 teas grown in China.

Prices range from $3 for a 12-ounce cup to $8.75 for a cup of Scarlet Robe, a rare tea that was originally reserved for heads of state and, popular lore says, was offered to President Richard Nixon from Chairman Mao Zedong in 1972.

Brown has been doing business with China for more than 40 years, and lived in China from 1978 to 1982. Wei was born in China and owned a restaurant before coming to the United States.

Brown and Wei traveled to China this past spring to buy their teas directly from the source. They only buy spring teas because of their superior flavors and the fact that they have not been heavily sprayed with pesticides, Brown said.

China produces 40 percent of the world's total tea, Brown said, but only about 10 percent is exported. Most Americans have never tasted high-quality Chinese tea because so little ever makes its way to the United States, he said.

According to World Tea Association polls, tea is increasing in popularity at a brisk 20 percent a year and will actually catch up in popularity with coffee by 2018. Brown and Wei scoured the Bay Area for possible locations before choosing Montclair Village.

"I know this community well," said Brown, a former Montclair resident who lives in Piedmont. "We think this population will appreciate our product."

"Montclair is going through a generational, change and we are reaping the benefits of the new generation that are dedicated foodies," said Tim Clow, a Piedmont resident.

The Montclair store is the first of what Brown hopes will be several stores, and will serve as an incubator for what Brown anticipates will be a larger project.

"It's a new take on our beverage culture and a nice connection to the Pacific Rim, which is a lot of our cultural heritage in this area. It's nice to have a Chinese cultural phenomenon right here in Montclair," said Howard Neil, who comes to Sophie's Cuppa Tea every morning on the way to his office in Montclair Village.

"It's all very well thought out. It's a good reason to come to Montclair," Neil said. "As the adage goes, 'You get what you pay for.' "

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