A couple of hundred years ago, the Brits figured out the utility of tea. In China where the tea plant is native, tea had been an important human companion for thousands of years. Aside from its refreshing properties, tea offers the opportunity for a satisfying ritual.
Americans need tea time.
It was with that in mind, as well as the beverage’s healthy attributes, that I included 50 loose leaf teas in fulfilling a personal dream of opening a café.
Yes, this blog post has nothing to do with current events, politics, or social disorder.
Trailside Café & Tea Room gained success almost immediately upon opening in March 2009. The old Quonset hut building where it was housed transformed from an out-of-the-way eyesore on the outside to another place in time on the inside. Peaceful pale apricot walls, crisp white tablecloths, and framed images of people taking tea in Arabia, China, Paris, and other parts of the world helped shape an atmosphere of world community centered on tea.
Since the café closed in December 2011, I have on occasion tried to continue my gospel of tea. There’s a terrible hurdle in this effort, however. Everyone thinks they know about tea.
What Americans know about tea – Camellia sinensis – is a tea bag-stained glass of water heavily flavored with lemon and sugar. Friends, that’s not tea.
Well, it’s tea, but not really what tea has to offer.
Consider, for example, the many types of tea. When tea leaves are plucked from their bushes, they are spread out to dry. With no further ‘curing’ process, this become white, yellow, or green tea.
Currently there is no generally accepted definition of white tea and very little international agreement; some sources use the term to refer to tea that is merely dried with no additional processing, some to tea made from the buds and immature tea leaves picked shortly before the buds have fully opened and allowed to wither and dry in natural sun, while others include tea buds and very young leaves which have been steamed or fired before drying. Most definitions agree, however, that white tea is not rolled or oxidized, resulting in a flavor characterized as “lighter” than most green or traditional black teas.
In spite of its name, brewed white tea is pale yellow. Its name derives from the fine silvery-white hairs on the unopened buds of the tea plant, which give the plant a whitish appearance. The unopened buds are used for some types of white tea.
Oolong comes in many styles, my current favorite cup every morning being the Iron Goddess of Mercy oolong. In general, oolong is
… a traditional semi-oxidized Chinese tea produced through a process including withering the leaves under strong sun and oxidation before curling and twisting. Most oolong teas, especially those of fine quality, involve unique tea plant cultivars that are exclusively used for particular varieties. The degree of oxidation, which varies according to the chosen duration of time before firing, can range from 8–85%, depending on the variety and production style.
What most Americans think is ‘tea’ is black tea. Sadly, most teabags sold in stores contain leaf dustings and fragments after the quality leaves have been diverted to more discerning consumers.
Black tea is more oxidized than oolong, green, and white teas. Black tea is generally stronger in flavor than other teas. While green tea usually loses its flavor within a year, black tea retains its flavor for several years. For this reason, it has long been an article of trade, and compressed bricks of black tea even served as a form of de facto currency in Mongolia, Tibet and Siberia into the 19th century. Black tea accounts for over 90% of all tea sold in the West.
After the harvest, the leaves are first withered by blowing air on them. Then the leaves are processed in either of two ways, CTC (Crush, Tear, Curl) or orthodox. The CTC method produces leaves of fannings or dust grades that are commonly used in tea bags but also produces higher (broken leaf) grades. This method is efficient and effective for producing a better quality product from medium and lower quality leaves of consistently dark color. Orthodox processing is done either by machines or by hand. Hand processing is used for high quality teas. While the methods employed in orthodox processing differ by tea type, this style of processing results in the high quality loose tea sought by many connoisseurs. The tea leaves are allowed to completely oxidize.
Next, the leaves are oxidized under controlled temperature and humidity. (This process is also called “fermentation”, which is a misnomer since no actual fermentation takes place. Polyphenol oxidase is the enzyme active in the process.) The level of oxidation determines the type (or “color”) of the tea. Since oxidation begins at the rolling stage itself, the time between these stages is also a crucial factor in the quality of the tea; however, fast processing of the tea leaves through continuous methods can effectively make this a separate step. The oxidation has an important effect on the taste of the end product, but the amount of oxidation is not an indication of quality. Tea producers match oxidation levels to the teas they produce to give the desired end characteristics.
Then the leaves are dried to arrest the oxidation process.
Finally, the leaves are sorted into grades according to their sizes (whole leaf, brokens, fannings and dust), usually with the use of sieves. The tea could be further sub-graded according to other criteria.
The benefit of black tea processing methods is that by mixing, tea leaf flavors are combined, allowing product standardization. Which takes a lot of the fun out of tea.
Finally, there’s pu-erh (pronounced ‘pooh-er’). I never gained much appreciation for pu-erh. It’s an acquired taste and largely considered medicinal among the Chinese.
Fermented tea (also known as post-fermented tea or dark tea) is a class of tea that has undergone microbial fermentation, from several months to many years. The exposure of the tea leaves to humidity and oxygen during the process also causes endo-oxidation (derived from the tea-leaf enzymes themselves) and exo-oxidation (which is microbially catalyzed). The tea leaves and the liquor made from them become darker with oxidation. The most famous fermented tea is pu-erh.
Experimenting with tea to find one or more favorites doesn’t just require finding a source. (My go-to place for quality teas is Upton Tea.) One must appreciate and meticulously follow proper preparation techniques in order to gain the full flavor of the tea. This involves heating good quality water in a tea kettle (not microwave), the appropriate amount of tea leaves placed in a strainer large enough to permit full expansion of the leaves, careful timing of steep time, and avoidance of adding flavor killers like sugar, milk, or lemon.
PLEASE! Give the tea a chance!
For example, boiling water (212°) is required to steep a black tea, but absolutely ruins green or oolong tea. For those more delicate leaves, the tea kettle should be pulled from the stove when it first starts to steam, around 190°. Steep time for a Darjeeling black tea is only 2-3 minutes whereas an oolong is best at 4-5 minutes. And so forth.
Tea not only offers the stimulation of caffeine, but also of theobromine (also found in chocolate) and theophylline (also found in chocolate and when isolated, serves multiple pharmacological purposes). Additionally, tea contains useful flavonoids, EGCG (believed useful in reducing LDL-cholesterol), and other flavins (with complex health benefits).
The preparation and serving of tea to oneself or a small gathering of friends can be a soothing ritual of human-scale attention to detail. The process invokes a sense of timelessness and caring. No wonder early Americans continued this tradition of their British brethren. And no wonder that King George’s 1773 outrageously high taxation of tea became the rallying point of our revolution. After that, it became unpatriotic for Americans to drink tea, instead diverting the need for a social drink to coffee.
I’ve found tea far preferable to coffee, which makes me jittery and upsets my stomach. I enjoy the variety of teas beyond my current Iron Goddess phase. I keep some good quality Darjeeling on hand as well as some Jasmine pearls (green tea scented with jasmine flowers). And my first love in tea is never far from my mind, unsweetened black tea on ice of which I once could drink gallons until I figured out why I couldn’t go to sleep at night…
At my age, tea drinking must take place before noon in order to not lie awake at midnight, which explains why the Brits can have tea time at 4 p.m. and then attend late night parties without suffering. I’ll probably never adopt the British/Irish/Scottish habit of super-strong blends like Irish Breakfast or the practice of steeping a full pot of tea with the leaves left in. As one wag noted, such preparation made tea strong enough ‘to trot a mouse over the surface.’
I haven’t even mentioned flavored teas – smoked, blended with bergamot (Earl Gray), or combined with citrus, spices, or fruits for a wide variety of flavors. Or you might one of a few Westerners who enjoy tea Tibetan style mixed with Yak butter and salt.
Consider experimenting with tea for your new year!
Related blog post on Tea and China here.