A Guide to Tea Appreciation (or Why is all the Coffee Gone?!)
I have to be honest; I’m not a big coffee drinker. I do love it, but usually only if it’s really cold outside, or I’m getting up unnaturally early (before noon, for example). It’s just not a drink that’s worked its way into my normal routine.
So what does a wayward, coffee-less person such as myself choose to drink for my daily drink? Tea. I love it. In a very real and meaningful way. It’s true that tea doesn’t have the same amount of caffeine as coffee, but for a lot of people it’s still the pick-me-up of choice.
There are a few reasons for this. First, there’s a kind of ritual to tea that separates tea time from the rest of your day. The prep time lets you take a few minutes out from your hectic life to steep your tea and anticipate the drink. Second, there are so many varieties and flavors available in tea (and I’ll get back to that in a bit). Third, there are just times when you don’t need the caffeine equivalent of rocket fuel to get going. Sometimes you just need a little tweak. Tea has a lot of caffeine levels, depending on which type you choose.
When you think of tea, you may picture endless, crusty, old broads wearing strange hats and trying not to clink their spoons as they stir. You may also picture the dreary dunking of a weird little bag into scalding water to produce a bitter, brown, watery cup. That’s a good indication that you may not be doing it right. Tea can be fun and interesting. Furthermore, things like water temperature and steeping time vary from type to type. Here’s a description of the different varieties of tea you might encounter in your travels (and what to do with them).
Black tea – This is the tea that most of us think of when we picture a cuppa. This is also the easiest to ruin. Why? Because black tea has a lot of tannin in the leaves, and steeping it for too long or too hot can leach those tannins from the leaves and make the resulting infusion bitter. Black tea should only be steeped for two minutes max, at a temperature of about 195 degrees. It has roughly 20% of the caffeine of coffee. Most of the varieties that you may be familiar with, like Earl Grey (hot) or Irish Breakfast, will be black tea.
Oolong tea – Oolong is less fermented than black tea, so it has a more mellow, flowery flavor. The tea you get in Chinese restaurants is usually oolong. The tea itself is usually a lighter amber color, and it’s a bit more palatable for people who don’t know that they love tea yet. It should be steeped around 195 degrees for about three minutes max. It will give you about 15% of the amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee.
Green tea – Green tea is filled with antioxidants and can even help you lose weight. At least, that’s what I hear [looks at waist]. It has about 5-10% of the amount of caffeine that coffee does. Green tea has a lighter flavor than black or oolong teas, and you can find it with a lot of fruit or floral flavors added. To properly brew green tea, you’ll need to steep it at about 175 degrees for one minute.
White tea – White tea has only recently begun gaining popularity here in the US. It’s the most delicate of the teas, and is also a great way to introduce non-believers to the wonders of tea. However, because it is so delicate, it’s also really easy to ruin with those darn tannins. You would only want to steep white tea for one minute at 175 degrees. Otherwise, the resulting bitterness can overwhelm any other flavor present. White tea has just a very tiny amount of caffeine, so you can even drink it before bed without worries. It’s the least processed (fermented) of the teas.
Red tea – Red tea is actually a misnomer, since it doesn’t come from the camellia sinensis (tea) plant at all. It is also called rooibos and is grown primarily in South Africa. It’s loaded with antioxidants and is caffeine free. It has a naturally sweet flavor, which means that it works really well with a lot of other fruity flavors. Flavored rooibos teas can be spectacular! Also, since it’s not strictly tea, the brewing rules change here. To brew a great cup of rooibos, you can steep it at 208 degrees for five to six minutes.
Mate – Mate is another non-tea from the yerba mate plant. It’s a suitable coffee replacement, as it has about the same amount of caffeine as coffee, but with a lot of the same antioxidants of other steepables. It’s also more strongly flavored than other teas, and it can hold up to more robust spice, chocolate, or other flavoring. I highly recommend chai mate if you’re in the mood for something with a punch. To brew the best cup of mate, you’ll want to steep the leaves for five to six minutes at 208 degrees.
Herbal tea – Herbal teas are also called tisanes, and pretty much anything that doesn’t come from the camellia sinensis plant falls under this heading–even rooibos and mate. Most people refer to the non-caffeinated varieties as herbal teas, however. Often, herbal teas are consumed for the various health benefits of the ingredients. Since you don’t have to worry too much about tannins with herbal teas, a general rule of thumb is to steep them at 208 degrees for about four to five minutes. There are a ton of different varieties, so be sure to check each one for any more specific brewing guidelines.
So now that you know the score, you may be wondering where to find some of these fabulous teas. Or you may be visualizing the tea aisle in your local grocery store. BAD READER! NO! While it’s true that there are some pretty good teas that come in bags, the mass-produced bags of stale leaves that you’ll find in your local grocery store are not going to give you the best tasting cup.
Some better stores; like Wegmans, Whole Foods, or even farmers’ markets may yield better results for you…but if you really want to try something delicious, find a specialty tea retailer. Teavana is a great place to start. Some of my favorites are Spice of Life white tea (a blend with a savory undertone that is unique and relaxing), Zingiber Ginger Coconut rooibos (tropical and sweet), Jasmine Dragon Phoenix Pearls green (this is a great green tea alone, but it also works great when blended with a rooibos), and Matevana herbal tea (chocolaty and rich). There are also a ton of seasonal blends that show up throughout the year, so be sure to look for those!
Some other great retailers are Adagio Teas, Art of Tea, and 52 Teas. But please, for the love of the tea gods, give yourself a chance to love tea by purchasing only the loose-leaf, gourmet varieties. Usually, if a tea has been bagged, it’s going to be lower quality. That’s because you won’t be seeing what’s in the bags, so they can put any old crummy tea in there. But by seeing the beautiful loose-leaf varieties, you’ll know that you’re getting something fresh and delicious. There are a few exceptions to my distrust of bagged teas, but for the most part, just be safe and buy something good. It will be worth it–I promise!
The only drawback to brewing these delicious loose-leaf teas is that you will need some specialized equipment. This can range from a tea ball, to do-it-yourself tea bags, to a dedicated tea-infuser, which are available through Teavana or ThinkGeek. If you want to go absolutely crazy with the gadgetry (and who wouldn’t), you can buy dedicated tea spoons, expensive brewers, and an array of double-walled glass tea cups to keep your brew piping hot. I could write another article altogether about the sweetening options for your best cup. (Phantom likes German rock sugar, I prefer simple white sugar cubes.)
[PhantomV48’s proofreader note: I like German rock sugar because it also makes a tasty snack. It’s pretty much just uncolored and unflavored rock candy. Plus, I get to shriek “GERMAN RAWK SUGAAAAH” in my best Dio/Dickenson/Halford/etc. when making tea.]
The most important thing to remember in brewing a great cup of tea is to buy quality, and keep an eye on the temperatures and brewing times. If you follow the guidelines above, you may just find out that you’re a rabid tea fan too!