I was excited knowing that behind the beautiful lakefront of the Palace of Fine Arts — homeplace of wedding photoshoots and B-roll from the 2005 TV show “Bones” — I would be greeted by something other than mist and rush-hour traffic. Awaiting me was the 2019 San Francisco International Tea Festival, a gathering of over 42 vendors from around the world. As I shuttled in, I was immediately greeted with my own child-size complimentary tea cup, embossed with tea leaves — I was ready to sample all the tea the world had to offer.
Having come straight from working an event earlier that morning in San Francisco, I came in wired — and ready to test the limits of my caffeine tolerance. As I shuffled from vendor to vendor, tea cup in hand like a child in a Costco on a Friday afternoon, I discovered the world of tea-lovers and vendors, young and old. I was swept with immense nostalgia for the tea I had grown up drinking with my family, from the rice-roasted sencha of Ito-En to the samplings of Imperial Tea Court oolong from all altitudes and oxidation levels. Particularly cute was the one-man shop of Lian Cha Herbal Tea, recently acquired by Brooklyn Crafted and set to hit the shelves of 99 Ranches across the United States. He took pride that every step of the process he ran on his own, from fine-tuning the recipe to practicing his pitch to finally making it big.
To start, I followed the massive crowds to the Harney and Tea stand that, by 4 p.m., had sold a large amount of their stock, including a blue-colored, pseudo-medicinal-looking indigo tea. One of the vendors sat at a low table, a half-dozen tea set-ups serving different types of oolong to festival-goers sitting in camping stools. As I sat down, I quickly realized I had no clue what was going on, as folks talked shop about differences between a $15 and $28 oolong tea. I left the table having written down the vendor’s secrets: three to five seconds steeping 20 grams of tea in about 175 mL, ready to reenact the strategies with Columbae’s loose-leaf teas and mismatched mason jars.
Beyond the tea my grandmother would drink, I witnessed the influence of the Bay Area, from the politically charged “Impeachmint Tea: Mueller Edition” and “LGBTea” series to the newly trendy CBD and THC-infused teas, promising everything from peaceful sleep to sensual “sexy-time” (with quite a few people opting in for the latter). The Tea Festival followed up on offering a huge array of novel-teas, from Sonoma County-based Sporgy, which boasts of mushroom-based teas and coffees, to Wize Monkey, which sells coffee leaf teas based out of Vancouver.
By the end of the event, I had finished my Christmas short-list and learned enough vocabulary to pretend like I knew what I was talking about. In the same ways that sommeliers practice their adjectives, I learned about buttery versus bitter teas, that tea bags were in fact “sachets,” and that it was possible to find non-white people selling ethnic teas. In the last few minutes, I had a chance to taste the L.A.-based Esteemed Tea’s fire-roasted oolong, my favorite of the afternoon. While the vendors prepared their final calming GABA, an oolong known for its calming properties, they asked what flavors the tea evoked (I said it tasted like vegetables). I left the event feeling a little bit warm, a little bit nostalgic, and very grateful for the experience.