If you are like me, finding a new tea shop is thrilling.  So when I discovered TeaFountain in Mill Valley (San Francisco Bay Area), the clouds parted, celestial music played, and all things were right with the world.  Nearly half the store is stocked with directly imported teas from around the world and custom-designed blends, including herbal and fruit tisanes.  The other half offers an excellent stock of tea – and some coffee-related – brewables, cups, pots, and more, with one of the best book selections I have found – I get the same thrill when find a new bookstore, so this experience was doubly fun!

Rover Benecke owns TeaFountain and has been in the tea business since 1975.  His history about how he got involved in the tea business is one of those “kismet” stories.  When Rover was 19 and living in Northern Germany, he discovered the flavor of the precious Darjeeling teas.  It was hard to find those “Champagne of teas”, so he connected with tea wholesalers, who sold him up to 10 kilograms at a time.  After a few years, one wholesaler offered to supply Rover with a variety of teas – over 100 –  on the condition that he would open a tea shop.  The gamble paid off.  “I opened the shop and paid him back in full in one year”, Rover said.  He was 24 years old.

“Some changes I initiated in the world of the European tea business included the blending of herbal ingredients with traditional blends of green and black teas, because back then, with the exception of spiced (Chai) teas, it was not common to add anything to tea blends except extracts of selected fruits, plants, and spices,” Rover explained. “I began to add and mix ginger, candied mango pieces, flower blossoms, caramel bits, and whole berries.”  The rest as they say is history.  Many flavored green and black teas on the tea market today include ingredients to add visual attraction or a slightly enhanced flavor.

TeaFountain carries over 350 teas and custom blends and only uses top grade, natural ingredients.  One entire wall of the shop is filled with Rover’s private label blends, all in lovely collectable silver canisters with beautiful labels.  Rover explained that TeaFountain uses only Fair Trade ingredients and all are pesticide and herbicide free.

The number and variety of blends amazed me – take Rover’s Earl Grey Blue Knight.  This is a black tea with a light dash of Mediterranean Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) and blue cornflower petals.  I bought this one to try at home and it was delightful.  Rover suggested not using milk in this tea blend.

I bought an excellent black vanilla tea, blended with cut pieces of the real and potent Madagascar vanilla planifolia.  The vanilla flavor was just right, neither overpowering nor wimpy, as has been my experience with vanilla tea blends from other purveyors.  “We use only top-grade Madagascar vanilla beans,” Rover explained.  I bought a nicely blended vanilla honey for this tea and the combination was delicious.  Rover sells both caffeinated and decaffeinated versions of his vanilla tea blends.

The teas also make great iced teas, ideal for the summer months ahead and long lazy days in the hammock.  Rover suggested using almost twice the amount of tea when brewing teas that will be served with ice cubes.

“A popular selection for iced tea and a best seller over three decades is “Summer in the City” (TeaFountain # 1749),” Rover said. “Due to its Southern Indian tea base, it makes a great iced tea and stays clear when you add ice or serve it over ice.”

I asked Rover if he has any tips about brewing his teas and blends, and he did.  He suggested brewing a pot of tea as one normally would, doing it in the classic way.  “Once you have served the first pot, you can add more hot water to the leaves of most of our high-grade teas and tisanes and brew a second round,” he explained.

Earl Grey and vanilla are obviously not the only teas that TeaFountain carries; their selection includes white teas, red and green rooibos, yerba mate, oolong, herbal infusions, fruit teas and tisanes, and so on.  It will take me many happy years to sample all their teas and blends, and I am looking forward to sipping for a long time.  Next I am buying the black jasmine and peach blend, and trying a white tea, something I have never brewed.

TeaFountain is located at 363 Miller Avenue in Mill Valley, California.  Not in the hood and cannot stop by?  No problem.  TeaFountain does a thriving mail order and wholesale business.  Visit the TeaFountain website or call (415) 381-7100.  You can order online and have your teas, honeys, cups, books, and other accessories mailed directly to your home or office.

Note: TeaFountain has a fact sheet about tea so if you want to know more about where tea comes from, the origins of oolong, or other factoids, ask for a copy.  You’ll learn about whole-leaf grades, broken-leaf grades, and fannings.  TeaFountain also offers a frequently updated list of their selections – the latest one called “Tea List Spring 2009”.