Sunday, November 04, 2007

No Dumping at This Tea Party

A few nights ago, I was invited to a tea event put on by Lupicia Fresh Tea at the Westfield San Francisco Centre on Market Street. I’ve raved about this tea store from Japan awhile ago, so I didn’t need much convincing to stop by for a night of tea and conversation.

The store was closed for the night and San Francisco-based authors James Norwood Pratt and Jennifer Leigh Sauer (who’s primarily a photographer) were the featured guest speakers, talking about tea and their respective books on the tea experience.

BTW, all the brass was out for Lupicia, which interestingly added “fresh tea” to their names as an added emphasis on the quality of their tea. Lupicia, which I was first introduced to in Hawaii, has now grown to five California stores in just the past two years. Just at their San Francisco Centre location, they offer more than 200 varieties of tea—both pure and flavored. And I’ve noticed that they’re starting to even identify the tea by the plantations that produced them, almost like identifying fine wine by the vintners.

When I first arrived, I was greeted by this huge bowl of this tea refresher. It’s made with mango oolong tea, fresh mint and vodka. Who knew you could spike your iced tea with vodka? It was really refreshing. Just as refreshing was the non-alcoholic offering ….

... This beautiful drink made with green tea powder and grapefruit juice. I’m still not really sure how they kept the grapefruit juice and green tea separated, but it was very tasty.

Along with the drinks were a variety of tea cookies. On the extreme right is the “matcha roll,” which is a sponge cake made with green tea powder (the “matcha”). Next to it is a regular vanilla cookie and a genmaicha cookie (made with the toasted green tea) and finally a shortbread cookie with chocolate and black tea. They all looked delicious (but sorry to say I didn’t sample any of them since I was full from an early dinner).

Here’s James Norwood Pratt speaking about the “cult of tea.” He’s written several books on tea, including the “New Tea Lover’s Treasury” and “The Tea Lover’s Companion.” He’s very much the tea professor, and he says that when he first started writing about tea in 1982, sales of tea in the United States amounted to only $500 million. Today, he says, sales are projected to reach $8 billion next year. Interesting stats aside, I kept staring at him speak and thinking, why isn’t he sweating? The store actually closed its doors but it didn’t seem like the air was running because I was burning up and was doing my best not to do a MO (that’s a Marie Osmond for people not familiar with my lingo). So I kept thinking, that Pratt is cool as a cucumber. Aaah, a cucumber drink. That would be nice right about now.

Jennifer Leigh Sauer is actually a photographer who fell in love with tea less than two years ago. She was so inspired that she went around San Francisco taking pictures of different types of tea lounges and published “The Way to Tea, Your Adventure Guide to San Francisco Tea Culture.” Drinking tea and taking pictures. Girrrl, how did you get that job?

Lupicia set up various tea stations where we could try 10 varieties of tea, from black to red to green to herbal. I love the cute small porcelain cups used to taste test the tea. You know, in old martial arts movies I saw growing up in Hawaii, these were the same type of mini cups the swordsmen used to drink Chinese wine. Just some weird trivia from my childhood.

Here's an herbal tea called Adagio that has African roobios tea with grapefruit and lemongrass. Right next to it was one of my favorite teas, another herbal tea called “Sweet Dreams.” It had a slight citrus undertone that was very … zzzzzZZZZ.

I asked Pratt what is his favorite tea of the moment, and it so happens, he says, that it’s Darjeeling from India, which is what he’s taste-testing in this photo. I have to agree that the Darjeeling served by Lupicia on this night was especially good. It may become my tea of the moment too. What’s nice about these private events is that the sponsors often share things they wouldn’t normally share to the general public. So on this night, Lupicia busted out these high-grade award-winning oolong tea from Taiwan. This tea took the grand prize at a recent world oolong competition, beating out more than 4,800 different oolong teas. It’s called the Dongding Oolong Tea from the Lugu Farmers Association, and as a test of its rarity and purity, the producers package the tea with a DNA cotton swab that you rub against the can to ensure that you’ve received a can directly from the farm. (When you rub the right swab with the right can, a blue label is supposed to appear.) Above, Lupicia’s Tea Education Director Loreen Toji works to authenticate the tea.

The Dongding Oolong tea was so delicate and complex at the same time. It was perfectly brewed by the Lupicia staff and it was served with a sniffer bottle to allow us to enjoy the tea’s fragrance before drinking the tea. The tea itself had almost a nutty flavor, almost like almond. It was yummy, but I probably won’t be getting any because it sells for $1,000 per 100 grams.

It was a fun, enjoyable evening hearing tea lovers talk about tea and getting to taste some first hand. If you’re ever in the Westfield Centre, you should stop by Lupicia (or any of its other California locations) to try some tea yourself. The staff is very accommodating, and you may discover you’re a tea lover too!

Lupicia Fresh Tea, San Francisco Centre, 845 Market St., San Francisco. (Second location at Stonestown Galleria.) PH: 415.227.0533.


agent713 said...

That sounds like fun. I'm not a huge tea fan but with a guided tour like that I'm sure I could find something I'd like.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Ben how did u get a special invite? I want to go to one of these too!

Chef Ben said...

You know, the invitation just popped into my in box email. I guess I'm on some mailing list of food bloggers. Start a blog and you'll get an invite too. ;-) But don't compete against me! LOL

foodhoe said...

great information! I haven't heard of this place, but must make an effort to visit since I'm a big fan of japanese green teas. There certainly are a lot of specialized tea places around. This looks like it was a lot of fun and informative too.