Tea rooms give fans a place to sip that sweet infusion

IN A PROPER WORLD, a conversation about tea needn’t involve that other black brew.

Alas, we do not live in a proper world. We must politely share it with jittery hordes guzzling bitter liquid, liberally doused with sugar and cream, whipped with foamy milk or dunked with jelly doughnuts.

Surely this false dichotomy of tea or coffee needn’t exist. We tea drinkers are merely forced into a defensive position by the overly caffeinated who perceive taking tea as an effete pastime. Our calmness is mistaken for meekness, our elegant settings viewed as foppish. Some have never gotten that 1767 Townshend Revenue Act (and the harbor dumping that eventually followed) out of their craw.

This post-colonial mindset has improved, albeit at an excruciatingly tedious pace. Tea, after all, follows only water in world beverage consumption. A 10-year iced tea revolt has stirred up the American marketplace. The Sage Group, a Seattle market research company, just released its third edition of “U.S. Tea is Hot” report. Tea bags alone this year should ring up $1.3 billion grocery dollars, while the ready-to-drink variety accounted for more than $2.6 billion and bulk loose-leaf teas sold a respectable $39.4 million.

As a menu item, tea has steadily moved up from 7 percent to 10 percent of drinks ordered in the last three years. Still, while elegant cups of espresso are the norm at fine restaurants, those same establishments serve darkly foul tea one atom removed from dirty mop water.

We graciously endure these indignities, even when a well-intentioned Starbucks calls its admittedly addicting concoction Chai tea latte (translated: “tea tea milk”). That mighty chain, by the way, plans to revolutionize tea with its tiazzi, a blended juice tea, just as its frappucino did with iced coffee. However, we know, as many Bay Area shops have long known, that tea is not some trend but an inevitability.

Tea comes from one plant, the Camellia sinensis. The process, not the origin, determines whether it is green, black or oolong. The tea bush favors acid soil and heavy rainfall; it grows at sea level or up to 7,000 feet above in areas such as China, India, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Indonesia, Vietnam and Russia. A lone American tea plantation is in South Carolina.

Principally, fermentation decides the classification. Green leaves are either pan-fried or steamed, not oxidized; oolong leaves wither in shade before they are pan-fried, rolled, twisted, briefly oxidized and refired. Black leaves are withered longer, rolled, sifted, oxidized longer, fired and finally sorted. The world preferred green until the 17th century; today, black accounts for 98 percent of tea exports while China and Japan still prefer green.

Flowers, nuts, spices and herbs may flavor tea, but herbal infusions or tisanes belong in their own category: Instead of tea leaves, these might be chamomile, elder flower, rosehips and chrysanthemum (commonly served in Chinese dim sum restaurants).

How do you make that perfect cup? First, get an earthenware or china pot. Rinse that and the cup with boiling water, then measure one-half to one teaspoon per cup. Add just enough water for the leaves to float; cover and steep for three to six minutes, then fill up the pot with boiling water. Try to refrain from adding milk, sugar or the like to delicate Chinese black, oolong and green teas; the general rule in restaurants is if the cup doesn’t have handles, don’t add anything. For a proper cup, you can always visit the experts.

Tyme for Tea and Company (37501 Niles Blvd., Fremont, 510-790-0944. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday) has been filling teapots since 1996 in the historic two-story Wesley Hotel. Tables spread with linen and fresh flowers are scattered amid antiques, garden accents, vintage jewelry and tea-related goods for sale.

Both proprietors Diane Calvin and Darla Fisher hold full-time jobs the first a Kaiser Permanente senior clerk, the other an Oakland preschool teacher. The tea venture came about while antique-shopping. They happened upon the empty building and its “for sale” sign. Fisher says they both thought, “wouldn’t it be just a nice place for tea?'” Six weeks later, they were in the business.

Teatime is limited to noon-3 p.m. Fridays and weekends, although private parties can be held in the off-hours. Each customer gets a different place setting (some even trade cups with one another or off other tables). You can order individual items or the full Victorian tea for $12.50, which entails a scone, lemon curd, blackberry preserves with creme fraiche, finger sandwiches and desserts. About 12 different loose-leaf teas are available, including Harney and Son and Republic of Tea. The latter only is sold in bulk, although the store may package its own teas in the future.

Tyme for Tea is planning to expand its evening live jazz music and provide wine. Fisher says that despite the hectic schedule, the rather impromptu enterprise has been fun. “We’ve met some really nice people. I think that’s the most enjoyable part, interacting with customers.”

You may need to negotiate some detours while Park Street Bridge undergoes reconstruction to get to Alameda Antiques (1519 Park St., 510-523-0895. 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday; 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday). The name barely hints at the daunting array of services that owners Fred and Linda Gruenert provide. The couple brought their limousine business and wedding shop to the former antique collective in 1996. Hopeful brides outfit themselves in the upstairs wedding salon while browsers shop downstairs among antiques, collectibles and gift items.

In the triple-duty wine parlor, customers may taste wine and champagne, buy bottles of beer or relax with a $1.50 pot of honey ginseng tea. Other popular loose-leaf teas from Lindsay’s, a South San Francisco importer, include apricot, Earl Grey and a fruity one called Blue Eyes. Should a sipper get a hankering for new or antique teapots, the store happens to have some on hand. With enough notice, Alameda Antiques will arrange a small tea party with the appropriate savories. Says associate Jaime Rydman: “Whatever there is a market for, whatever needs to be done, Fred and Linda do it.” Don’t worry if your guests sneak off and become a little tipsy wine tasting on the side; you could always get a nice limousine ride home for a reasonable price.

Leave your doilies and shrapnel napkins at home when you go to Berkeley’s 5-month-old Nfusion, where you can eat tea with a spoon (2068 University Ave., Berkeley, 510-704-0882. 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-midnight Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday). You can tell a cafe by its magazine covers: Spin, Detail and other mags with attitude are spread out on the ice-cool, green-tea-colored counters.

Owners Deborah Lee and Christine Siador stir up rapturous blends, such as the $3 Jasmine Cream: jasmine tea hot or iced, a sinful dollop of green tea ice cream, a redeeming shot of Chinese ginseng and a whipping of fresh cream. Abandon restraint for a tea shake, straight up. Purists, tempted by blackberries or raspberries infused in black tea, may choose to find solace in the $1.25 loose-leaf teas from Asia, South Africa and Kenya. More temptations come in the form of jasmine or lapsong souchong chicken salads and genmaicha (Japanese rice tea) buckwheat noodle salad ($4.75).

“We look at tea as more of a sensual drink, ” explains Lee, a former journalist and nonprofit consultant. She and Siador , who had worked in public health, decided they had peaked in their professions and wanted to enact change in their own way: East Bay drinking habits.

A stay in Asia and frequent teahouse visits inspired Lee, and the two noncoffee drinkers decided their Berkeley hangout would be the ideal venue to modernize the teahouse concept. Their “tea bar” indeed attracts varied followers: professionals, families, folks caught up in the “whole gothic, Rocky Horror thing.” Lee observes, “The majority of our customers are men. We were very surprised.” Late Saturday hours make it an ideal stop after a show at nearby U.C. Theatre or the Berkeley Repertory.

Nfusion has started a mail-order business, and future plans include a Web site and future dreams include expansion. Fortunately, it doesn’t need to conquer the world, just America.

A world away lies the genteel cottage Lisa’s Tea Treasures of Lafayette (71 Lafayette Circle, Lafayette, 925-283-2226, www.lisasteas.com.. Summer hours 11:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, noon-5:30 p.m. Sunday). Founder Lisa Strauss no longer owns the chain of stores which have either closed down or broken up into independently operated stores. Fortunately, current owner Doreen Walbracher continues to maintain this space of sweet civility.

Clients come from all over for a lacy respite, says manager Margaret Northall, driving in from Livermore, Modesto, Roseville and Yuba City. The store in Victorian shades of cream and rose carries porcelain, silverware, jewelry, gourmet foods, books and more than a hundred kinds of loose tea. The teas travel even farther than the customers and come from China, India, Kenya, Japan and South Africa.

Cinnamon and spice flavors predominate during holidays, but year-round delights include blackberry jasmine and the unusual pistachio oolong. All teas are averaged to $2.50 an ounce.

Tea time featuring petite sandwiches, savories and desserts occurs thrice daily, except in the summer when the shop closes down Mondays. Reservations are recommended for the 45-person seating.

“I’ve probably noticed more people being interested in tea and tea etiquette, ” observes Northall, who traces her own love of tea to South African Dutch immigrant parents. Customers bring children and grandchildren, both male and female. Northall believes “we can be a kinder, gentler nation with a little bit of finesse.” She has even advised her regulars, “If you are on a hot date, bring them.” One 13-year-old boy, who insists on celebrating his birthdays at Lisa’s, has already promised to bring his, when he gets one.

Across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, inviting wood-and-brick tones, spacious seating and dozens of teapots ranging from the sublime to the absurd provide a setting good enough for a relaxing sip or a movie. Tea-n-Crumpets has provided for both, although owners Jena Rose and Norman Barahona had to be demoted to waitstaff to appear in an upcoming independent film “Jane” (817 4th St., San Rafael, 415-457-2495, www.tea-n-crumpets.com. 7:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Saturday).

Despite the shop’s naming order, Rose says “we’re a crumpet bakery first and foremost.” The only other American crumpet bakery is in Seattle. Then again, “what better to go with crumpets than tea?” They serve more than 150 loose leaf teas as well as jams, tea accessories, candies and specialty items.

The two opened the shop in December 1974. Barahona had baked crumpets for the English Tea Shop in San Francisco. After 15 years, owner Bill Uhlman retired and Barahona and Rose decided to continue a Bay Area crumpet tradition.

Men and women both frequent the shop, Rose says. “It’s not just older generations; we get all kinds of people. We get kids, we get punks.” Consider this testimonial: Staff members from Novato-based Republic of Tea come in to have meetings over a teapot. Tea-n-Crumpets, besides stocking Republic of Tea, carries brands such as Fortnum and Mason, McGrath’s Irish breakfast and the amazing Silk Road from David Lee Hoffman, the only American allowed to grow organic tea in China. Currently on the shelves is the gold medal-winning tea from the annual competition in China. Tieguanyin, an oolong tea, weighs in at $280 a pound. However, the leaves can be steeped over and over, and one teaspoonful can yield about six cups. If you calculate it, Rose says, even a $300-a-pound tea can yield a cup equivalent to the cost of a can of Coke.

Coming up will be its own line of teas and jams. That, and a guest appearance in the next Sundance and Mill Valley film festivals.

This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times