In the early twentieth century, writer Kakuzo Okakura published a tome called The Book of Tea. The 1906 text explores the philosophy of Teaism; a belief rooted in the appreciation of everyday beauty. Tea has since become a symbol for the art of slow living, and for the desire to move through life with intention, reveling in the simple joy of being present and in the moment.
Nearly a hundred years later, Jesse Jacobs, a former tech and web developer, founded San Francisco’s Samovar Tea Lounge based on this concept. Though Samovar came into being in 2001, the concept of teaism is one that Jesse Jacobs has lived throughout his life, growing up in a macrobiotic community in Brookline, Massachusetts.
“Macrobiotics is a very traditional Japanese … lifestyle that incorporates both food and holistic living,” Jesse explains. His parents were drawn to the community for its notable philosophy on healthy living. “I think it offered [us] a unique approach,” Jesse continues, “a sense of discipline and Zen.” It was through this global community of macrobiotic enthusiasts that Jesse honed his interest in food and cooking. “I was cooking by the time I was seven. Cooking defines who we are,” he recalls, and so much of their “life circled around it: the sourcing of it, the making of it, and eating it.”
These skills, fostered from such a young age, would come into play again as Jesse slowly found himself disillusioned by the fast-paced scramble associated with the tech industry. He began sourcing and tasting tea from growers all over the globe thinking, “why not start a company focused on tea and making people present?”
Long before The Book of Tea, this humble, innocuous beverage has embodied the idea of harmony and the act of mindfulness. The great social unifier among different cultures from East to West, it is a widespread symbol for hospitality and friendship, and it’s easy to see this hospitality at play in a modern way as morning arrives in the Mission District at Samovar Tea Lounge.
The sun is peeking behind the buildings as the regulars start to arrive. I lean against the stone bench and watch as people make their way inside: tech people, people in suits, a dad with his baby, a mom and her toddler, and many others, urged into the warm shop by the cold San Francisco air.
The walls of the shop are lined with stone in a shade of soft cream speckled with a dusting of peppery spots; it reminds me of calligraphy ink splashed on parchment paper. Along the counter, a rainbow of teas gleam while steeping in modern glass tea presses standing at attention. The teas, whose colors are so brilliant and concentrated, seem to awaken curiosity, and some patrons veer from ordering their usual to try something new. In the window, a stack of books stand guard, which some patrons thumb through as they sip, while others sit contentedly on stone steps, catching up with friends.
The cool minimalism of the space is juxtaposed by the friendliness of the large copper vessel that keeps creamy chai – Samovar’s signature drink – warm all day, a welcoming steam rising from its brim. I order a cup.
Nineteenth century Chinese scholar, Lin Yutang, once said, “There is something in the nature of tea that leads us into a world of quiet contemplation of life.” Still, the first sip is always a gamble. In anticipation of the burning liquid, I carefully place my mouth on the edge of the cup, breathing in the steam. I tip the cup ever so slightly, letting my lip play pawn to test the temperature before I tilt the liquid further back. The tea is a gentle stream of flavor, pooling around my tongue. I pause, close my eyes and absorb the taste as it slowly reveals itself to me, teasing out the tender subtleties of its flavor, until I finally swallow. I feel its warmth travel down my throat, tracing the length of my neck, warmth blossoming in my belly.
“Tea is an amazing connector to this moment,” Jesse explains. “And if you strip away all of the unnecessary distraction and just focus on making awesome tea … your mind is free.”
A Perfect Pair
While a cup of tea on it’s own is lovely to meditate over, a cup of tea with something to eat is a true pleasure. Here are some of Jesse Jacobs’ favorite ways to enjoy the two together.
Green Tea + Eggs
Try: Soft-scrambled eggs with oyster mushrooms and chives + Matcha or Japanese green tea
Black Tea + Savory Sandwich
Try: Turkey sandwich + a smoky, full-bodied, Russian blend like the Tolstoy Sip
Fermented Tea + Hearty Meat
Try: Braised short ribs + Pu-erh tea
Herbal Tea + Desserts
Try: Apple pie + a mint tea
Bonus: Try this for a quick, impromptu dessert, in lieu of the Italian affogato: Vanilla ice cream and sliced avocado + Matcha tea poured on top = Mind Blown