Sri-Lanka, India, and Nepal Tea Tour – 2008

It’s hard to believe that it has been five years since I journeyed to Sri-Lanka, India, and Nepal for a tea tour that spanned key tea growing regions in those three countries.  I discovered the tour in a copy of Tea Magazine.  There it was, a World Tea Tours trip to India for people in the tea business or folks like me who are just passionate about tea.

A Tea Tasting - a myriad of colors and leaf types

A Tea Tasting – a myriad of colors and leaf types

It was an amazing trip.  The tour included the tea regions of Nilgiri, Assam, and Darjeeling in India as well as Nepal and Sri-Lanka.  We visited tea estates and plantations, learned how to do a tea tasting (think wine tasting – lots in common), attended a tea auction, met with Tea Boards, went into the fields and picked tea, etc.

We dined at private homes, often the estate manager’s home where we got a first hand look and taste of the regions of India.  And of course, we visited a number of the traditional sites like the Taj Mahal, Jaipur, temples, city sites in Kolkata and New Delhi, etc.

Picking tea

Picking tea

But it was mostly a tea immersion trip – a trip to learn about tea, where and how it is grown, harvested, processed, sold, and shipped.   Indeed I was, and still am, a novice.   My fellow travelers, many of whom are in the biz were busy taking notes and photos throughout.  I was trying to keep my head above water and not be overwhelmed.

Carrying the harvested tea to the scales

Carrying the harvested tea to the scales



Our lodgings were consistently excellent.  A number of India’s old tea estates have been turned into wonderful lodges or hotels.  By far my favorite lodging was the Wild Mahseer Lodge in Assam which had an elegance and decor that was sublime.  I could have stayed for several days enjoying day trips to the various estates in the region, as well as the luxurious setting.    Wild Mahseer is one of the nicest places I have ever stayed on any continent.

Mahseer Lodge sitting room

Mahseer Lodge sitting room


Mahseer Lodge Breakfast Room - so inviting

Mahseer Lodge Breakfast Room – so inviting


Dan Robertson is the owner of World Tea Tours as well as The Tea House in Naperville, IL. He’s a remarkable person and I feel quite fortunate to have taken my first tea immersion trip under his leadership.   He continues to grow and expand his trips and itineraries and I plan to participate in one of his China tours.


2nd Annual San Francisco Tea Festival – Educational and Fun

Roy Fong, James Norwood Pratt, Michael Spillane, and Rona Tison - Speakers at the Second Annual San Francisco Tea Festival

Roy Fong, James Norwood Pratt, Michael Spillane, and Rona Tison – Speakers at the Second Annual San Francisco Tea Festival

The Second Annual San Francisco Tea Festival was held on Sunday, March 10th at the Ferry Building by the Bay Bridge.  What a delightful, educational and special day.  I attended 3 wonderful talks by long-standing San Franciscan tea veterans – Michael Spillane, Rona Tison, and Roy Fong. James Norwood Pratt, whom I had heard just a few weeks ago at the Heather Gardens fundraiser introduced all three speakers. (His excellent “Tea Dictionary” is now my ‘go to’ book for tea information and research.)

The first talk, History of Tea in the US, was given by Michael Spillane.  Mr. Spillane’s family has been in the San Francisco tea business since prior to the Great Depression.  As the gateway to the Pacific, it is no surprise that San Francisco dominated the US Tea business up until WWII, when it moved east to NYC – my other favorite North American metropolis.  A couple factoids that surprised me:

  • 85-90% of the tea consumed in the US is iced
  • 85% of tea purchased continues is in tea bag form, not loose tea
  • Snapple, introduced in 1987, drove much of the tea growth in the US
  • In 1987 tea was a $1.2 Billion dollar business: in 2012 it was a $12 Billion business and is expected to grow another 25% in the next 3 years
  • Pre-WWII, most tea consumed in the US was green tea; During WWII and thereafter, it has been black tea.
  • The tea thrown overboard in the Boston Tea Party was green tea

The next talk was by Rona Tison, Sr VP of Corporate Relations for ITO EN (NA) Inc.  She spoke about Japanese tea history, processing, and culture.  I learned that Japanese teas are ‘steamed’ to stop oxidation vs. the pan firing or roasting that is done for Chinese teas. That steaming step is what creates the significant flavor difference between Chinese and Japanese green tea.  I’m used to keeping teas for a long time but she stressed that green tea is best consumed within 4-6 months of purchase.  I’m looking forward to tasting ITO EN’s  Ginger Tangerine Green Tea that can be purchased online.

Roy Fong and yours truly  - am I happy or what?  Great Talk!

Roy Fong and yours truly – am I happy or what? Great Talk!

Perhaps my favorite speaker of the day was Roy Fong, owner of The Imperial Tea Court (ITC) in the Ferry Building and in Berkeley.  Mr. Fong opened his first store on July 4th, 1993 in San Francisco’s Chinatown.  I lunched at the ITC in the Ferry Building -  a lovely Beijing pork stew accompanied by an even more lovely Jasmine Pearl Tea.  The fragrance was wonderful.  His talk was later in the day and when I learned about the commitment and hard work that goes into making a good Jasmine Pearl tea, I was even more in love with the tea and came home with a small pouch.  I purchased Mr. Fong’s book Great Teas of China and found that he takes a tour to China every few years.  If you are in the Bay Area and are interested in Chinese tea, Mr. Fong is speaking at the Commonwealth Club on March 11th.  Hopefully that will make it into a podcast for those who are interested.

Alex Harney at the Harney & Sons exhibit

Alex Harney at the Harney & Sons exhibit

Finally, I have to comment on the wonderful exhibition.  I got to meat Alex Harney, John Harney’s grandson, who had recently returned from India where he coaches ice hockey (you’ll have to ask him, not me).  IMG_0436I tried and purchased a delicious Soba Roasted Buckwheat tea – caffeine free and, yes, it tastes like buckwheat.  And also finally got one of the Ambessa teas – the Earl of Harlem – which I am looking forward to savoring at home.

Another delight was purchasing Glenburn Darjeeling Tea – bringing great memories of my trip to India with Dan Roberston’s World Tea Tours in 2008.  All in all, it was a most remarkable day and I am looking forward to the third annual festival next year.  These festivals are popping up in major cities around the country and well worth your time if you are interested in learning about tea history, culture, and trends as well as sampling wonderful teas from around the world.


Tea Rooms – Two to Celebrate and Enjoy

Visiting tea shops is one of my great pleasures – whether alone or with friends.  I try to find at least one in every town I visit and more in cities.  Early on, I wasn’t very picky but now, quite frankly, I want my time and my money to be spent in a terrific experience. Whether it’s basic or elegant there are a few things that are important to me.

The shop needs to be comfortable – the chairs, tables, and overall space all have to feel good.  I’m not interested in sitting with my friends for one to two hours and not being comfortable. I’ve been in ‘adorable’ places with wonderful antique furniture but have found myself feeling cramped and squished in, the tables too rickety. It’s fine, and even quite charming, to be shabby chic but if my table is not stable or my chair makes me feel like I’m not sure it will hold up, oh my, suddenly even a great cup of tea is not so great.

Please provide a good selection of tea, not just one, two, or three, but a good number to choose from. I may not be in the mood for English Breakfast or the establishment’s special blend.  A good selection of both caffeinated and decaffeinated is a must these days. And the tea needs to be hot, really hot, not just very warm.  Tea cozies are welcome if it’s a shared pot and we will be lingering over our food.

Speaking of food, it’s more fun if the food is interesting and even adventuresome. I love English afternoon style tea with tea sandwiches (please not all white bread), scones, and small tidbit desserts but to me, it’s even more delightful to find something different to savor with my hot tea. Alice’s Tea Cup in NYC does a wonderful job of serving hearty sandwiches and soups as well as the traditional 3-tier services.  I visit the one on West 73rd Street when in town.  It has a wonderful rambling feel with folks stopping in for lunch, snacks, traditional English tea, etc.  If you want a hearty dessert to share or to hoard, their cakes are beyond wonderful.  Yes it is a trendy place but the overall quality is well worth it.  For those of us who cannot get enough of a good thing, their cookbook is a delight – a great gift for a tea loving friend.

Harney & Sons has two wonderful tea rooms, one in Soho and one in Millerton, NY, about a 2 hour drive north of New York City.  While I love the Soho venue, the Millerton shop is so warm, intimate, and delightful.  I had the great pleasure of having tea and lunch with a childhood friend, my brother, and his wife at the Millerton tea room earlier this year.  It was my childhood friend’s Mom who introduced my family to Jackson of Piccadilly Earl Grey tea that started my long love affair with tea, making this an even more appropriate place to meet.  We talked for several hours, savoring the tea, the food, and the company.

The food at this shop is wonderful, I particularly like the smoked salmon with capers and cucumbers on baguette.  But more than that, it has everything I like, a tea shop to sample and buy tea, a tea bar to sit and savor, wonderful tea products and tea accoutrements to browse and buy, fabulous food, and a warm inviting staff.

Both of these shops represent the best characteristics of a good tea room for my taste – warm, comfortable, interesting food, great tea, good shopping and the freedom to relax and savor the moment.