There’s a special kind of person that comes into our store, sometimes—the kind of person who marches past all those jars of coffee beans with hardly a second glance, and goes right for the tea.
We really can’t blame them. Tea is a very ancient, very special beverage, often ascribed with near-mystical health benefits and wrapped up in its own mythologies and traditions. It’s equally at home in a small, warm cup or a tall, cold glass; it can be flavored or sweetened or left alone to let its true taste shine through. And not all teas are created equal!
So, just for today, we’ll set aside our obsession with the coffee bean and show a little love to the other side of Coffee City USA—the tea side.
A Brief History of Tea
The first cup of tea was brewed in China, most likely as a medicinal beverage (there’s a fun legend about dried tea leaves accidentally landing in a cup of boiling water served to a Chinese emperor around 2700 B.C.) and in the 1500s traveled west in the hands of Portuguese merchants and priests.
In the following century tea became fashionable among the British, who started growing it in earnest in India (and haven’t shut up about it since), and tea is now—besides plain ol’ water, of course— the most-consumed drink in the entire world.
What Exactly is Tea?
In simple terms tea is a beverage made by pouring hot water over the cured leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant; the way these leaves are processed after harvesting yields the various teas we all know and love.
- Black tea is the most processed; the tea leaves start out green but are left in the sun to wilt, then go through a fermentation process that turns them the familiar black. They are then dried and packaged and ready for flavoring, if desired. (Most of our 60+ flavored teas are black teas that we’ve flavored to order.)
- Darjeeling tea comes from a specific province of India (the Darjeeling Province, believe it or not!) and is well-known to be a delicately flavorful and high-quality tea. The climate and soil of this province is responsible for this flavor and Darjeeling’s lovely bouquet—you can’t grow it anywhere else and get the same tea (sort of like true Champagne coming only from that one place in France.)
- Ceylon tea is grown in multiple districts in Sri Lanka—its flavor varies from light and flavorful from being grown at higher altitudes to fuller-bodied the closer you get to sea level. (Try our English Breakfast for a nice blend of Ceylon and Indian teas!)
- Oolong tea is processed similarly to Black tea in that it goes through a withering stage, although the fermentation process is cut short (and when this is done determines if your Oolong leaves look dark green or black.) Oolong is full-bodied and the tea you’ll probably be served in a Chinese restaurant.
- Green tea is unfermented during processing; it is either steamed or pan-fired and, while not completely decaffeinated, does have less caffeine than a Black. Green teas are rolled into different shapes (such as the fine strands of a Japanese Sencha or the roundish pellets of a Gunpowder) and contain antioxidants and polyphenols; the health benefits of Green teas are often touted—they might improve your cholesterol levels and low blood pressure or even aid in preventing certain cancers, although the research is currently inconclusive.
- Scented teas have been around since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644); these teas may use a Black, Green or Oolong as a base and have a strong, blended bouquet of rose, lychee, osmanthus or jasmine (the most popular.) They are traditionally drunk with bold-tasting foods to balance out their powerful aroma.
- Herbal teas are not really teas at all—remember, all true tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant—but are steeped and enjoyed in much the same way. Herbal teas are made from herbs, roots, fruits, seeds and other naturally-decaffeinated botanicals; we carry a few popular varieties such as Raspberry Hibiscus and Chamomile.
What About Tea Bags?
You may have noticed that we don’t carry a whole lot of tea bags—the jars in our store are full of loose leaves that we measure out by the pound and send home in a brown paper bag. Loose-leaf teas are a mark of higher quality; tea bags usually have some tea “dust” and other small pieces, and may lack the full and subtle flavor that you get from a good loose-leaf (although they make up for this is convenience!)
Using loose-leaf teas isn’t much different from using bags; you can put the leaves directly into your teapot and fish them out when done, or hold them together with an infuser (a plain spring-handled one works great, but we also carry something a little more fun!)
Let’s Make Some Tea!
The last step before you can enjoy a good tea is, of course, the steep. Measure out 1 teaspoon of leaves for every 5-7 ounces of water (you might want to use more for the larger-leaf varieties such as Greens and Oolongs).
Heat your (preferably filtered) water in a kettle and transfer to a teapot for steeping. Add your tea and look over the chart below—the two main variables to control here are water temperature and the steeping time itself, although you’ll notice that the guidelines below aren’t terribly precise. Personal taste trumps all, and if your tea comes out a little weak for your tastes use more leaves next time, rather than increasing the steep time.
|Tea||Water temperature||Steeping time|
|Black||Boiling (or just under)||3-5 minutes|
|Darjeeling||Around 175°||3-4 minutes|
|Oolong||Around 195°||2-4 minutes|
|Green||Around 175°||2-3 minutes|
|Herbal||Boiling (or just under)||6-7 minutes|
Prefer convenience over control? You can also brew tea in your drip-style coffee brewer (use two paper filters and run the water through twice—you may also want to use a separate filter basket so as to not risk making coffee-flavored tea!) For iced tea use 1 ounce of leaves per gallon—steep in the usual way, then add to a pitcher of water and put it in the fridge.
Tea is a fascinating and delicious part of the history of the world. The next time you want something warm or comforting to sip on—or cold and refreshing to gulp—keep this ancient tradition going and brew up a little tea.