One wouldn't expect the owner of a small chain of tea-centric restaurants to be particularly thrilled about Starbucks' entry into the tea market, with its purchase of the Teavana chain last year, but Jesse Jacobs, the owner of San Francisco's three Samovar Tea Lounges is surprisingly enthusiastic about it.
"It's a recognition that tea is the next big thing," says Jacobs, who opened his first tea lounge 13 years ago. "I see it as a good thing. It validates the growing market for tea."
And tea is trending with a capital T.
A quick scan of the aisles at the grocery store provides further proof, with a mind boggling array of teas encroaching on coffee's territory, including two Bay Area produced brands: Numi Organic Teas out of Oakland and Novato-based The Republic of Tea.
According to the Tea Association of the USA, the wholesale tea industry has grown from an estimated $2 billion dollars in 1990 to an estimated $10 billion in 2013, and that number is expected to almost double over the next few years.
The artisanal link
Speaking rapidly, partly because of his passion for the subject and perhaps because he'd just spent the morning sampling 30 different varieties of tea from Nepal, Jacobs indicated the increasing demand for tea is due in part to mounting evidence of its health benefits as well as growing interest in quality artisan foods and beverages.
But tea, with all its varieties -- from green to black to oolong to the somewhat funky, fermented pu-erh -- can be intimidating.
Christopher Coccagna is a San Francisco-based tea sommelier and owner of T-We Teas, where he crafts his own tea blends. Like Jacobs, Coccagna helps customers navigate the complexities of tea, teaching them how to taste, brew and even pair teas with food.
Even without access to a tea expert, there are plenty of resources for those interested in learning more about tea and food pairings. Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, the authors of "What to Drink with What You Eat" (Bulfinch, 2006), say those who enjoy wine are likely to also enjoy tea. Pairing it with food follows similar guidelines: Lighter, green teas pair best with things like seafood and chicken, while stronger black teas go well with beef and spicy dishes.
The growing taste for tea isn't limited to just what's sold in cups, either. Trend forecasts show it's spilling over onto dinner plates, and into desserts and cocktails in particular. Andrew Freeman & Company, a San Francisco-based restaurant and hospitality consulting firm predicts that "tea-tails" will show up on more and more beverage menus as mixologists turn to tea and tea-based liqueurs to expand their repertoire.
From the Earl Grey-infused gin used in a "Marteani" at Martin's West in Redwood City to the Lady Marmalade, a blend of Qi white tea liqueur, brandy and citrus at the The Village Pub in Woodside, tea is already proving to be a tasty addition to a tipple.
Tea cocktails can be as simple as brewing a pot of tea at home.
Coccagna created several winter cocktails using tea and milk for the Got Milk campaign because of the two ingredients' natural affinity. His favorite is the White Russian Caravan, a concoction of smoky Russian Caravan tea, vodka and coffee liqueur, with a milk float.
Master mixologist Jim Meehan has a recipe for a party-perfect green tea and rum punch that's little more than brewed tea, rum and lime juice.
On the plate
Chefs use tea leaves and brewed tea, not just because it's trendy but because the tannins in tea complement the fats in things like meat and dairy, while adding subtle flavor.
Tea has long been used in dishes like the classic Sichuan tea-smoked duck and tea-leaf salad, a popular offering at Burmese restaurants in the Bay Area. At Samovar, Jacobs uses tea in rubs for fish and poultry, as well as the basis for a brothy, Japanese-style soup.
Tasting menus at the Michelin-starred Baume in Menlo Park and Manresa in Los Gatos have both recently featured tea. Manresa's David Kinch serves squab with prunes in black tea, and his much-heralded first cookbook, released last year, features a few recipes using tea, including smoked salmon roe in a black tea and bonito jelly.
Creamy and chocolaty desserts are a common vehicle for tea as well. Green tea ice cream is almost standard at Japanese restaurants, and green tea macarons are popular at Chantal Guillon shops in both San Francisco and Palo Alto.
Bergamot-laced Earl Grey tea also makes regular dessert menu appearances, popping up in panna cotta at San Francisco's Fifth Floor and in the crÃ¨me Anglaise served with the chocolate souffle at The Village Pub. And chocolatier Julia Anderson infuses ganache with Earl Grey for one of the chocolates offered at her Los Gatos patisserie, Fleur de Cocoa.
But for devotees like Jacobs and Coccagna, tea is more than an ingredient in a dish or even a drink. It's a lifestyle.
"In an era dominated by distraction and cell phones, tea helps us connect with our humanity," says Jacobs, whose menu invites people to turn off their gadgets and spend time communicating face to face over a cup of tea.
Coccagna echoes that, saying tea is about community and collaboration.
"Typically you share tea with someone," he says. "There's beauty in that exchange."
Oh, how times change. Once, we associated tea with Colonial rebellion -- and frilly finger sandwiches. Now Earl Grey and his black, white and green cohorts have turned trendy. Chic tea lounges and boutiques brim with global offerings, and mixologists and chefs have begun infusing those fragrant leaves into cocktails, desserts and other dishes. Turn the page to explore more.