At Samovar, a tea bar on Valencia Street in San Francisco, white ceramic mugs line white walls, and the seating is one long bench, also white. Behind the counter, attractive men sport bespoke canvas aprons while tending to elegant glass contraptions that look like tall, thin French presses. Heaps of scones and croissants sit under glass domes in front of the tablet registers. It has the reverential air of many neighboring third-wave cafes in the Mission: Four Barrel, Ritual, Sightglass.
People often come into Samovar looking for a cup of pour over coffee (although none is available–only tea). That it’s frequently mistaken for a place that sells a particular grade of coffee is no accident. Jesse Jacobs, who has a tiny tea empire that spans three locations throughout San Francisco, calls his six month old Valencia Street spot the “Blue Bottle of tea.” “Coffee has become cool,” says Jacobs, at a quick clip for someone who works in the tea business. “Tea,” on the other hand, “has an image problem. Most people’s experience of tea is through a tea bag: watery, weak, limp, unimpressive,” he adds, sipping a bright green tea in Samovar’s Yerba Buena location.
Jacobs, a slim 44-year-old with small, bright eyes and a shiny, hair-free head, has been working to improve tea’s reputation in America since the dot-com bust, when he opened the first Samovar in the Castro. The restaurants were conceived as lounges with sit-down tea service, where people could “inhabit the present moment, to disconnect in order to connect.” That has turned into a successful $25 million business that draws San Francisco celebs like Kevin Rose, Tim Ferriss, and Mark Zuckerberg. About three years ago, however, Jacobs realized that tea still doesn’t have the same cachet as coffee; the newest location Samovar, which opened this July, is an attempt to change that.
The leap from third-wave coffee to third-wave tea isn’t a stretch. “There’s an emerging trend around coffee, around these artisanally driven experiences,” said Tony Conrad, an investor in Blue Bottle who also has a much smaller personal investment in Samovar. “Can you do that same concept for tea? That was the thesis of my personal investment.”
Jacobs isn’t the only one who thinks the answer is yes. From fancy restaurants to startups to tea-centric cafes, tea obsessives are spreading the gospel of tea up and down the foodie food chain. That said, this isn’t the first time that tea lovers have tried to propel tea into the same ballpark as coffee in America; the third wave has had a few false starts. Can tea ever inspire as much consumer passion as coffee?
To understand third-wave tea, it’s helpful to understand third wave coffee, which you could characterize as an obsession with tiny, granular details. First wave coffee meant Folgers. At a second-wave establishment like Starbucks, a patron might request non-coffee additives like soy milk, two pumps of sugar-free vanilla, and their name spelled correctly. Third-wave coffee drinkers are more concerned with process, and the coffee beans themselves: What’s the best extraction method? A pour-over? A vacuum pump? What’s the ideal water temperature? Oh! And if you aren’t using a conical Burr grinder, what are you even doing with your life?
If first-wave tea was Lipton coming to the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century, and the second wave was the spread of mall emporiums like Teavana, third-wave tea in the U.S. is, like its coffee predecessor, a return to form, with an emphasis on purity and accessibility. It’s simply tea, unadulterated and directly sourced from farmers, usually from Asia.
“All tea, with the exception of herbals, comes from the same plant,” says Jeffrey Ruiz, the tea curator at Atera, a two-Michelin star restaurant in Manhattan. He’s talking about camellia sinensis, the ancient shrub that green, black, and white tea are all plucked from. “It’s super important and sometimes I feel like a broken record saying this to the guests.” But, he said, “It was news for me, too.”
Third-wave tea is trying to redefine tea as only the stuff that comes from camellia sinensis. “Teavana is like, Let’s put coconut and chocolate in ours,” says Chris Day, the dining room manager at Eleven Madison Park, New York’s celebrated three-Michelin star temple of fine dining, who started a tea program there in 2011. “Whereas people like the suppliers we’re working with are like wait a minute, we don’t need to taint tea with anything. It’s oolong tea. And see how great it is. That’s kind of the next step.”
His contemporaries agree. Teavana is “not Blue Bottle,” said (Samovar’s) Jacobs. “That’s basically Starbucks, which there’s a space for. Third-wave is about the craft and accessibility.”
Atera is hidden behind two unmarked doorways on a quiet Tribeca street, underneath an apartment building with an elevator. Inside it’s cozy, with 12 seats arranged around a square stone countertop. On one of the walls is a lush hanging garden, like ivy creeping up an old castle tower. Two small whiskey tumblers filled with ice sit on the counter, with what looks like fresh-cut grass clippings sprinkled on the cubes. In over an hour, the ice will melt to make a cold-brewed gyokoro, a fragrant, delicate, and expensive variety from Japan that spends a good portion of its life growing in the shade.
In a dark tailored suit with a lavender spread-collar shirt and a perfectly manicured beard, Ruiz is brewing loose-leaf tea in a white porcelain cup with a lid. “This is phoenix oolong,” he said, flipping the lid up to release the aroma. It smells earthy, with faint hints of charcoal. Once the leaves are wet he throws out the first steep, and refills the cup with hot water for a second brew. Ruiz says to let the a gulp coat your tongue. It is delicious.
Atera joins other celebrated restaurants in Manhattan, like Eleven Madison Park and Brushstroke, as high-end dinner destinations with a table-side tea program. A typical table-side tea service at Eleven Madison Park entails the following: Guests pick from one of five varieties, hand-selected by Day. There is, for example, the High Mountain Oolong from the Nantou Province in Taiwan, priced at $32 per pot. Or the 16-year aged Tieguanyin, from the Fujian Province in China, which is fired gently in a giant stone bowl for $26. For big spenders, you can opt for a pot of Hawaiin A’a Black, an ultra premium single-batch grown from just a few bushes in Mauna Loa, Hawaii, for $65. “My desert island teas,” he said.
Through these elaborate tea services, waitstaff can engage with their foodie clientele on a new level, spinning a yarn about where the tea they are drinking comes from. With hand-shaped ceramics and minimalist kettles, the beautiful tea sets are eye-catching, particularly when the wait staff rolls a cart from the kitchen to the dinner table in front of other curious customers.
Of course, most Americans aren’t regularly having tea at Eleven Madison Park. Day theorizes that tea’s re-surging popularity correlates with the rise of foodie culture, where diners are conscious about where their meal comes from. “I want the guests to walk away with having learned something, but also having tasted something delicious,” says Ruiz. “The latter is the most important, but hopefully they walk away with something cool that they didn’t know before… to change the way they think about not only food, but tea.”
Restaurant trend watchers, like Kathy YL Chan at Eater, say programs like those at Atera and Eleven Madison Park point to broader emerging consumer themes and a growing “general curiosity and knowledge in tea.” “The timing is perfect for tea to have a turn in the spotlight,” she writes.
At this point, third-wave tea believers are a much smaller minority than coffee snobs, but that’s because tea is still, in their estimation, playing catch-up. “A few years ago, I used to say that tea in America is where wine was in the 1970s,” says Day. Four decades ago, customers exercised little discretion, and were happy enough sipping wine from cardboard boxes. Eventually, American taste shifted to Berringer and white Zinfandel, and later to higher-quality offerings. “Tea is every bit as complex as wine,” says Day, who claims to have observed a “seismic shift” in the tea business in recent years, with restaurants caring more about where they’re sourcing from. “And we’re slowly creeping into that territory now, where it’s like, wait a second! There’s more to it.”
Most all tea people (naturally) seem to agree: Something new is brewing. There are, however, notable dissenters, including one man who claims to have seen it all before.
“Pioneer,” “iconic,” and “amazing” were some of the words used by fellow tea freaks to describe Sebastian Beckwith, the founder of In Pursuit of Tea, which supplies tea to about a hundred New York cafes and restaurants, including Eleven Madison Park and Atera. (He also has a healthy direct-to-consumer business.) “He looks like he just stepped off a dusty trail in the Himalayas,” said Day, fondly describing the tea importer. Since founding the company in 1999 following a stint as a travel guide in Nepal, India, and Bhutan, Beckwith has worked to bring quality tea from “origin”–the blanket term used to describe where tea is grown–to American palettes.
With slicked-back white hair, skinny jeans, and a black gingham Ralph Lauren button down, Beckwith looks more like a model in between shoots than an adventure guide. Before traipsing around Asia, he worked as a location scout for Annie Leibovitz, and as an art handler, carrying Andy Warhol paintings through Manhattan’s busy streets. His career could be its own Dos Equis commercial.
But today, Beckwith is a foremost authority on tea, and is skeptical that the third-wave tea trend will take hold. “If you look back on the history of tea, it’s probably the one hundredth third wave of tea,” he says, meticulously preparing cups of high-grade ceylon and pu-erh, a black tea that is typically aged between 10 to 15 years. “Tea goes in waves,” he added, noting that a few high-end tea shops, including a brick and mortar In Pursuit of Tea in Soho, opened up in New York a few years ago and have since all closed.
And then there’s the caffeine. Compared to coffee, tea’s effects are more subtle. There is some scientific evidence that suggests an amino acid found in tea, L-theanine, has a direct effect on your mental activity without the crash of coffee. But it doesn’t pack the same wallop. Coffee is utilitarian. Tea is less so.
To say tea isn’t a thing at all in the U.S., however, would be an enormous understatement. It’s a $10 billion business. Coffee is still bigger, at $30 billion a year in the U.S., but tea is growing. Americans drink 20% more tea than they did in the year 2000, although most of that is via little white tea bags and at home. Starbucks, which is betting on the drink as part of its future, purchased Teavana for over half a billion dollars in 2012, and has focused a considerable amount of its effort on getting people to view tea more like a venti macchiato. “I previously shared our intent to reinvent the tea category, just as we did the coffee category, and we are making meaningful progress against our plan to do so,” CEO Howard Schultz said during a July earning’s call. In 2013, Starbucks opened its first ever tea bar in New York City, with locations now in Los Angeles and Chicago.
And yet, tea as a serious foodie beverage has yet to take off in this country. In a 1999 articled titled “Tea with a Latte Attitude,” the New York Times described $10 cups of tea and elaborate tea services a lot like those at Atera at some of the city’s best restaurants. It didn’t quite work: “Too much information,” the article begins. Then there were those cafes Beckwith mentioned. The ones that are still around don’t have the cultish reputation of Blue Bottle.
Tea is complicated. Like coffee, different teas have different notes and flavor profiles. Unlike coffee, the preparation instructions significantly differ among certain tea types, of which there are many. The water temperature and quality are “hugely important,” per Beckwith. So is steeping time. A $400 per pound tea can taste like a bitter pot of liquid garbage if steeped incorrectly. That scares a lot of people and restaurants away. Even Conrad, Samovar’s investor, admits that tea “is a very long and involved process.”
Beckwith thinks the aversion is cultural. Possibly insurmountable. “One of the biggest problems is the Western sense of having to do it right,” he said. Beckwith has spent significant time traveling and tea tasting. When people from one tea culture try and fail to make a tea from another part of the world, they throw the batch out and try again. Americans can’t handle that, he thinks. “If people could just be more chill,” he said, then maybe tea could take off.
Or maybe tea needs to be more chill. “The challenge is getting people to understand, to break them out of that mold of tea is this very long and involved process,” said Conrad. The borrowed aesthetics at Samovar are just the first step in shifting drinkers away from a jolt of espresso to a soothing cup of oolong. When people inevitably come into Samovar asking for lattes, a $4.25 cup of milky chai is suggested instead, a move that converts 9 out of 10 customers, Jacobs claims. Inspired by the theater of pour over, Jacobs installed Alpha Dominche steampunk crucibles to showcase the tea brewing process. The small menu is also a nod to coffee culture, which essentially has four choices: espresso, drip, cappuccino, latte. Tea comes in hundreds of varieties. But Samovar serves only eight: black, green, herbal, two types of chai, matcha, and two types of iced.
The new Samovar so far only serves hundreds of customers a day, but Jacobs sees himself at the beginning of an impending movement, just like Blue Bottle when it first opened 10 years ago. In Jacobs future, third-wave tea shops will speckle hip urban enclaves. “There will be other players for sure.”
And there are: Outside of the Christopher Street 1 train station in New York’s West Village is a new cafe called Chalait, which specializes in matcha, tea, and espresso. The space is small and minimal in a Tumblr-ready way, with unblemished white walls and a menu of hybrid drinks like green tea americanos and lattes, heart shapes in the foam and all. It serves pour-over coffee, too, and each beverage is relatively pricey at about $4. Like Samovar and its $4.25 chai, the hope is to lure in customers with familiar tastes, simple menus, and a coffee-friendly vocabulary, and perhaps one day convert them. In a race to become the Blue Bottle of tea, coffee still sets the bar. Coffee, like brushing your teeth, is ingrained as a morning ritual. It’s a caffeinated smack to jolt you out of your morning fog. Coffee is a convenience. Tea is enjoyed.
For Samovar and other third-wave tea shops, the challenge is to make the tea experience as much like the coffee experience as it can be, without losing the essence of tea. “Can you build tea into people’s daily habit?” asks Jacobs. He thinks yes. “If it’s accessible, affordable, delicious, fast–people will buy into it.”