Brewing Conversation

At a proper teahouse, tradition and communion are at least as important as the libation

In 519 A.D. the great Indian sage Bodhidharma entered China, where he attained enlightenment while sitting in front of a stone wall. According to legend, fatigue caused the Zen master's eyelids to droop only once during his nine-year-long meditation, but that was enough to prompt the Bodhidharma to immediately sever the offending parts from his body and cast them to the ground. It was from his discarded eyelids that the first tea tree is said to have grown.

Of course, there is tea folklore that reaches much further into history: Nearly 3,000 years before Christ, the Second Emperor Shen Nung (Divine Healer) is thought to have sipped from a bowl of boiled water in which a leaf from the indigenous Camellia sinensisplant had fallen, thereby adding the discovery of tea to an already substantial list of his contributions to society, among them millet, medicinal herbs, and the plough. It is known, for a fact, that tea followed the migration of faith in the East in much the same way that wine did in the West. Like wine, which for centuries remained the dominion of Catholic monks, tea was coaxed and cultivated in Buddhist temples throughout China. Both potations acquired ritual significance and became symbols of status among devotees. However, unlike wine, tea remained ever a sober elixir of wakeful tranquility, and the ritual of preparation and ingestion led to its becoming a spiritual practice in its own right. In 780 A.D., Lu Yu wrote the first comprehensive treatise on tea,and the Way of Tea was firmly established.

Lightweight cakes of tea traveled through Tibet, along the Silk Road into Turkey, India, and finally Russia, where the beverage began to take root in secular communities. Eventually, by way of the Portuguese and then the Dutch, tea arrived in Europe, and the British went mad for it. Initially it was considered a luxury item, with a government-imposed tax of 200 percent, but by the 18th century tea had become the staple of the British working man, replacing even the much-beloved ale as the drink of choice. The first newspaper, and thus modern-day journalism, was the product of a British-style teahouse. One might even say it was the people's love of tea that spawned the American Revolution. Today, tea is second only to water as the most widely imbibed beverage in the world; it crosses boundaries of class, culture, race, and geography, and yet, in a city as diverse as ours, I can count the number of teahouses in San Francisco on one hand.

"Caffeeeeine," sneers Karter Louis, an effervescent homme de cour of tea who left his successful partnership in Chicago to source tea for the newly opened Samovar Tea Loungein the Castro. "Everybody's so concerned about caffeine these days. The fact is, oolong has half the caffeine of black tea, green tea has half that amount again, and white tea -- even for someone like me who can't drink coffee without shaking and breaking out into a sweat -- it couldn't keep you up if you wanted it to. And we're not even talking about herbal infusions yet, just tea. People in America just don't understand tea."

Louis is not people. As a child growing up in a poor family in Kentucky, his greatest reward was a fresh box of Celestial Seasons tea; his goal was to one day have every kind of tea represented in his tea cabinet. When his successful work in musical theater took him to England as a teenager, a whole new world opened up. Today, he speaks of his tea sources with pointed ambiguity and weighty vagueness, mentioning rare cakes and dwindling caches as if he were part of a band of holy relic hunters. Through him, Samovar lays claim to the last four pounds of a well-known tea brick from 1982 and five of the last 10 cakes of a 1930 pu-erh, a full-bodied Chinese tea that can easily substitute, in richness and vitality, for coffee.

"The 1930 pu-erh is like our Louis XIV top-shelf tea," explains Jesse Jacobs, one of Samovar's three well-traveled proprietors, "but it's still very accessible. It has to be. Anywhere you go in the world, tea is offered to new friends. It engenders greater social intimacy through relaxation and a sort of pulling back and inward, something you can't get with the frenetic energy of coffee. But it must be an affordable luxury."

So, for about $10 you can taste the Chinese revolution in a steaming pot, accompanied, perhaps, by a bergamot pudding or fresh-made tea-infused shortbread.

And that's just the beginning. Under Louis' eye, Samovar has built one of the most impressive multicultural menus in the country, from Yerba Mate, an herbal beverage from Paraguay that is traditionally served in gourds and passed hand to hand around a circle (here, it's served in a gourd-shaped vessel and sipped through a metal straw with a built-in filter) to Tiequanyin oolong, whose rarity and wonder is suggested by the addition of "Monkey-picked" to its title, Iron Goddess of Mercy, to the Wild Rose Silver Needle, a delicate white tea strewn with tiny pink rose buds, to thick, spicy chai made from real tea leaves and served in claylike mugs (don't ask for soy milk because you won't get it). Eventually, Samovar will provide "cultural teas," incorporating all the implements of the corresponding regions, from the ornate service of Russian czars to the simple offerings of Japanese Daoists.

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