Why Not Tea?

Tea is one of the joys of my life. Here in the Midwest, the fact that I prefer tea to coffee is looked at as an oddity, something mildly amusing and a little confusing. Those who don’t drink coffee in the morning are more likely to opt for a Diet Coke than a cup of tea. Tea is the most-consumed beverage in the world after water, but most Americans don’t have much appreciation for it, their experience being confined to the iced variety and Lipton tea bags.

Tea consumed in the U.S. is almost always of inferior quality, even in coffee shops where one might expect a higher standard. Establishments will spend thousands on the best equipment to make a variety of coffee drinks, while their tea selection is limited to tea bags from Tazo or Republic of Tea. I have no major beef with either brand, it’s just that the quality of tea prepared from bags will never match that made from good-quality loose tea. Shouldn’t they know that?

Green tea from a tea bag vs. whole leaf green tea

The world of tea I know and love is a vast, constantly changing landscape. I recently heard a BBC Radio program that said the Chinese claim to have 10,000 different types of tea. This may be an exaggeration but the number is certainly very large. And that’s not even counting teas from other places around the world: India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Africa, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan. The Chinese have a long-standing tea culture enjoyed by young and old, rich and poor, and it seems clear that they’re linked in to something that much of the “civilized” world is missing out on.

Tea production has been likened to that of wine, and the comparison seems apt. Similar to wine companies that blend wines from different estates, tea companies like Lipton and Twinings blend teas from different suppliers to achieve a consistent (but undistinguished) product. More distinctive, better tasting teas tend to be from single estates or a single region, and are very carefully tended and produced. Also like wine, teas from the same region vary from year to year or crop to crop depending on changing conditions. So the Makaibari Estate Second Flush Darjeeling from 2009 will be different, perhaps very different, from the 2010 Makaibari Second Flush Darjeeling. Like any agricultural product, tea has its good years and bad years in both quality and quantity.

I pretty much embrace all types of tea: black, green, white, oolong. Between my wife and I there are sixteen different types of loose tea in the house right now:
  • Indian Assam black tea
  • Indian Nilgiri Orange Pekoe
  • Two different Indian Darjeeling Second Flush teas
  • Chinese Black Yunnan Shui Jiu
  • Chinese Black Panyang Bohea Supreme
  • Chinese Green Yun Miao Cui
  • Chinese Jasmine Ja Zhang Select
  • Thai Green Tea
  • A Chinese yellow tea I got from Dobra Tea in Madison, Wisconsin
  • Chinese Peony Reserve White tea
  • Decaffeinated Earl Grey
  • Decaffeinated Darjeeling
  • Decaffeinated Vanilla
  • Decaffeinated Apricot
  • Decaffeinated Black Currant

Some teas on the list get more attention than others, but they all have their time and place. In the morning I generally go for one of the caffeinated black teas from India or China. I like green teas in the afternoon, white tea in the evening or any time I want less caffeine. My wife prefers the decaf teas, though being a dedicated tea-lover she’s open to just about anything. In six months half of these teas will be gone and different teas will have taken their places.

The teas I buy cost more than typical supermarket varieties, but even the most expensive are not particularly pricey on a per cup basis. Most in my pantry cost between $.10 and $.20 per cup. The most expensive tea I might buy (and rare teas can be very expensive), comes out to about $.50 per cup. On the other hand I currently have a tea I enjoy very much that is only $.06 per cup, and there are many good teas in that price range.

Preparing loose tea is simple, but each tea has its own character that needs to be taken into account to get the best flavor. For personal consumption I favor a teapot with a removable basket, so the steeped leaves can be removed promptly when the steeping time is finished. The amount of loose tea to water, the water temperature and steeping time will vary depending on the individual tea. Most tea distributors offer recommendations on each package that serve as guidelines; of course these can be varied to suit your own taste, which is one of the great things about loose tea!

I realize that tea is a relatively subtle pleasure that may never gain the widespread appreciation of, say, coffee (which I love but don’t like to drink on a daily basis). In the U.S., tea is perceived as something one drinks to de-stress rather than get pumped, something sort of wimpy and light, which is a misperception because there are plenty of eye-opening teas out there (try a really strong Assam). Anyway I don’t understand the appeal of imbibing large quantities of caffeine every morning to get oneself up to “working speed.” Is that really necessary?

I'm heartened by the rising number of tea drinkers and purveyors of good tea* in the U.S., which has probably been fueled by reports of the health benefits of tea. My small city has thirteen establishments that consider themselves “coffee houses.” Is one tea shop too much to ask?

*I can recommend Upton Tea Imports, www.uptontea.com, and Tea Gschwendner, www.teagschwendner.com. Both have excellent teas and excellent web sites. I was also pleasantly surprised to come across Dobra Tea in Madison, Wisconsin, www.dobratea.com, a rare bricks-and-mortar tea shop that gives tea the consideration it deserves! All three web sites sell tea and have a lot of general information, including preparation guidelines.