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.
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.
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). I 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.