Three Buckets of Tea
No, this is not a saga about getting lost and found in Afghanistan.
It is how I see “tea” falling into three buckets: raw tea (green tea being the best known and most popular), processed tea (black tea and oolong, for example), and all sorts of other infusions which have nothing to do with what grows on tea bushes (and which we’re not going to talk about today).
All real tea comes from the same type of plant. What makes the tea in your cup different depends on the quality of the tea leaf when harvested (the smaller the better and more expensive), how it was processed, whether not processed at all, or wilted, fermented partially or fully, how dried (heat or smoke), whether rolled or crushed, and, of course, how it was brewed.
Portuguese traders were the first to carry tea throughout the world, and it is they who introduced it to England, who took such a liking to it (as well as silk and porcelain) as to create a massive trade imbalance with China. To address this, the Brits started selling huge quantities of opium to the Chinese. The societal problem that caused, plus their general dislike of foreign traders, led to the Opium Wars.
Most tea names have to do with production processes (black tea, oolong). Sometimes they are named for where they were grown (Assam and Darjeeling, both regions of India), or for their appearance (shotgun, tea leaves rolled into tiny balls and dried), or for flavorings. Some are blended to a corporate style, such as Twinings versus Bigelow having different flavor profiles in their identically named English Breakfast teas, or Lipton versus Tetley.
Among the flavor enhanced teas, Earl Grey is one of the best known (flavored with oil of bergamot, a type of bitter orange), related to Lady Grey (like the Earl, but with lemon and additional kinds of orange rind). Smokey flavored Lapsang Souchang is a personal favorite. Constant Comment is an example of a spiced tea, with notes of orange peel.
Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous is a product called “Monkey Picked Oolong”, which might actually be wonderful but reminds me of the stale jokes about a wine snob sniffing a glass and opining that it was “picked by a blonde fraulein named Brunhilda in the early afternoon.”
The innumerable types of Chinese and Japanese teas are traditionally consumed with neither milk nor sugar nor lemon, although Indian teas tend to use dairy and a sweetener, probably resulting from English habits adopted during the Raj. Chai tea, often served as a cold latte, is a descendent of this, seasoned with Indian masala blend spices.
Two of my favorite tea concoctions are green tea ice cream and its relative, Starbucks Green Tea Frappuccino, effectively a green tea ice cream milk shake. No, consuming green tea this way is not a healthy choice.
The Japanese Tea Ceremony is well known but little understood, more about an elaborate traditional ritual and showing respect to one’s guests, than anything special about the tea itself, whisked from a fine powder and quite bitter.
There is a perpetual debate regarding teabags versus loose tea, the latter supposedly being better because “they hide the bad tea in the bags”. For commercial brands, this is really a matter of the packer’s quality control. The newest container is the H-Bag, made by Bigelow for Keurig machines.
Very serious tea shops are sprouting up, offering wide selections of the best available teas brewed the exact number of seconds to be perfect, “cuppings” (a fancy word for “tastings”), and tea friendly menus. Two excellent examples are The Steeping Room in Austin, TX (www.thesteepingroom.com) and Savvy Tea Gourmet in Madison, CT (www.savvyteagourmet.com).