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The Road to Manotea

by Michael Harper

My first significant recollection of tea is from about fifteen years ago when one of my best friends served me tea while I was visiting her family. Over the course of several days, we drank pots and pots of black tea, brewed lovingly in a porcelain teapot, with a "cozy" to keep the whole business from losing heat. I came away from that trip drinking black tea on a daily basis, experimenting with the different brands of tea bags available.

Within a few months, I found myself as probably the youngest member of the student body at UC Berkeley (at the ripe age of fifteen; it's a long story). My roommate, Jeff, was a very interesting guy and extremely accomplished guitarist (mainly jazz and classical, but he could slam out a Clapton lick in his sleep). He is single-handedly responsible for introducing me to Yes and for demonstrating to me that it's OK to listen to classical music. Another significant contribution he made during my formative years was my introduction to espresso at one of the nearby caf»s. Having been "broken in" on tea, I found espresso to be a little harsh, but palatable. From there, I developed a taste for espresso con panna and good coffee in general. Tea had fallen by the wayside.

Coffee was a mainstay for me for the next ten years. Indeed, my license plate read CAFIEND for four years. Upon my return to college at Cal Poly, I found it necessary to import coffee beans from Graffeo's in San Rafael, California. I even took an extended trip to England in 1985 and complained about the lousy coffee I was served there. I was instrumental in converting my in-laws-to-be from that "flavored with chicory" stuff to good coffee. After taking a job in San Francisco, there was good coffee to be found on every corner of the Financial District. I was hooked.

In the autumn of 1991, I had accumulated enough frequent flier miles for my wife and I to revisit the land where we first met: England. My first memory of being offered tea was at a hotel in Wales named "Maes-y-Neuadd." We were treated to a pot of black tea with an interesting device called a "tea strainer" alongside. Set on the table in the living room were biscuits, scones, clotted cream, and the like. It was not just the smooth, comforting flavor of tea that reawakened my love for tea at that moment; it was also the setting, the feeling, and the food. The trip resulted in two changes in my beverage choices: 1) I started drinking lots more tea instead of coffee, and, 2) I reduced my consumption of diet Coke to virtually nil in favor of sparkling water.

Too much of a good thing is not good for you, however, and I still have not recovered from overdosing on Earl Grey tea in the ensuing months. About a year later, in November 1992, I attended a seminar at Macy's in San Francisco given by Bill Rosenzweig, founder of The Republic of Tea. For forty-five minutes, he extolled the virtues of whole leaf tea, explained the process of harvesting and firing tea, and provided tastes of various Republic teas. I was treated to some of the best tea available, and I finally understood why it was so good. Now, I was really hooked.

Since then I have cycled through periods of light to heavy tea consumption, depending mainly on how stressed I am. I find that the simple task of stopping and making tea is a calming experience. I also find various types of tea to be conducive to my different moods. I especially enjoy an excellent Oolong tea when I'm "trying to think." I like to have a good Chai (when available) instead of capuccino. I find that tea is more of a beverage for my spirit, whereas coffee is a beverage for my physiology.

And my license plate? Well, today it reads MANOTEA.

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