It's hard to believe one plant can spawn so many different kinds of drinks over so many thousands of years. But that's what the tea plant has done.
Considered to be the second most widely consumed beverage on earth (second to water) tea occupies a venerated and ancient place in Asian cultures and somewhat a faddish one in Western. But, it seems to be a fad here to stay.
Many people’s idea of tea is a glass of iced Lipton at the local diner (sweetened in Canada and the American South) or one of numerous flavored teas that are churned out like Beanie Babies by big manufacturers.
There have been many health claims about tea in the last few years leading a manufacturing rush to include just about every food and beauty product possible with tea.
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Yet, few Americans bother to take the time to investigate what real tea is.
First, let’s get straight what tea isn’t. There’s only one plant in the world, Camellia sinensis, that grows tea leaves. The plant is finicky. While it can grow even here in the Pacific Northwest, it prefers certain climates and soils that limit it to equatorial regions in Asia, India and Africa to grow tea-worthy leaves.
While herbal teas are a huge market they are not, technically, tea. Peppermint tea? An infusion. Chamomile tea? Lovely, but still not tea.
The tea plant contains caffeine as does coffee, chocolate and other plants (see box). The lighter teas have less caffeine than darker ones. But most teas contain less caffeine than coffee. Nevertheless, a few cups will quickly add up. Proceed with caution if you are caffeine sensitive or have high blood pressure.
At Tacoma’s Mad Hat Tea Co., co-owner Tobin Ropes offers only whole-leaf tea in his convivial space filled with a tea bar, art, tea-making implements and a lounge.
While the tea plant has many varieties, the dramatic differences in tea come mainly from its processing, Ropes said. It can be as simple and light as white which is processed in a manner of hours by simply dehydrating. Or it can be as complex as Puerh, an oddity of a tea that is sold in compressed bricks and rings with only a few Chinese practitioners knowing the secret process that involves composting and yeast.
There’s one thing that all tea purveyors seem to agree on: The best tea is whole leaf. Tea bags are filled with dust and fannings, the leftovers of tea processing. Felix D’Allesando, who along with his wife Carol Welch owns Olympia’s Tea Lady, agrees. And they sell hundreds of teas by the bag. But the bags, he argues, are for convenience.
And convenient they are. Using whole leaf teas is a bit of a commitment. It requires measuring, an infuser and cleanup. D’Allesando calls it a ritual. But the result, Ropes says, is a world-class drink that can be made for pennies. Nothing can be beat the human hand, carefully selecting a bud and two leaves.
“Manufactured tea is like robots making wine,” Ropes said.
And wine is something Ropes knows a little about. He spent 20 years as a wine distributor, a world where a $200 bottle of wine sells for its reputation as much as its taste. It was a world that Ropes was only too happy to leave behind.
“I got over the whole ‘I’m right and you’re wrong (thing).’”
Now he chooses only what he and his customers like. But that’s not to say his wine background hasn’t taught him to be discriminating. He turns down five teas for every one that he chooses.
Both D’Allesando and Ropes agree that how you make tea is crucial to its enjoyment. First, use filtered water, not tap. Tea generally is a subtly flavored beverage and you don’t want chemicals to divert the flavor. Heat the water in a kettle, or pot; just don’t use a microwave. Different teas need to be steeped at different temperatures. Generally, the lighter the tea the lower the temperature. While the temperatures in the chart below are optimum, don’t sweat the digits. Just keep the water from boiling. Only pureh needs boiling water.
Generally, use one teaspoon of tea per cup. A benefit of tea is that it can be re-steeped. White, green and oolong can be re-steeped two to three times. Black teas can be re-steeped more.
Both Mad Hat and The Tea Lady have tasting bars where you can try just about any tea in the two stores.
Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541 firstname.lastname@example.org
Process: Leaves are briefly withered
Characteristics: Grassy, assertive
Color: Chinese is yellow, Japanese is bright green
Steeping temperature: 170-175 for Japanese, 180-195 for Chinese
Variety to try: Dragonwell (Chinese) and sencha (Japanese)
Process: Leaves are withered at length and heavily bruised
Characteristics: Strong, but less nuanced in flavor
Color: Amber to brown
Steeping temperature: 195-210
Varieties to try:
Darjeeling – the champagne of tea; Asam – strong; Ceylon – vibrant; Chinese – softer, forgiving, not brisk and Kenyan – the newcomer on the tea scene
Process: Leaves dried with heat
Characteristics: Soft, gentle, light, earthy
Color: Very pale green
Steeping temperature: 180-185
Variety to try: Pai Mu Dan
Characteristics: Extremely strong
Process: Secretive process involving composting and yeast.
Color: Dark brown
Steeping temperature: Boil
Process: Leaves are withered, bruised and heated
Characteristics: Floral to dried grain
Color: Green to amber
Variety to try: Ti Kwan yin (green) and formosa (amber)
Tea by type
This illustration details the different kinds of teas that are produced by different methods. Generally, the darker the tea:
• The more it’s oxidized (fermented in tea parlance)
• The stronger in flavor (tannic)
• The more caffeine it has.
• The more it can be re-steeped
• The longer it needs to steep
Other notables varieties
Flavored: Earl Grey (with oil of bergamot)
Matcha: A Japanese green tea made up of finely powdered tea leaves meant to mixed and consumed with hot water.
Sources: Tobin Ropes, Felix D’Allesandro
MAD HAT TEA CO.
1130 Commerce St./1127 Broadway, Tacoma
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
GREEN SPOT TEA HOUSE AND ART GALLERY
3318 Bridgeport Way W., University Place
Hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m., MondayFriday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday
2828 Capitol Blvd S.E., Olympia
360-786-0350, 877-330-7521, www.tea-lady.com/
Hours: Monday-Friday: 10 a.m.-6:30 p.m., Saturday: 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sunday: Noon-5 p.m.
15011 Meridian E. Suite C, Puyallup
Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Monday-Saturday