Tantalizing Teas
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Tantalizing Teas

Discover the wonderful world of premium teas -- and the best way to brew and serve them.

Is Tea the New Coffee?

New, hip tea shops reminiscent of coffeehouses are opening in cities throughout the country -- for a total of more than 2,200 of these tea hangouts. In these establishments, you can sink into a comfortable armchair, relax, and enjoy flavorful premium infusions . Or you can take your leaves to go.

But don't expect to find anything brewed from standard-issue tea bags at these newfangled salons. While all tea leaves come from the plant Camellia sinensis -- a warm-climate evergreen -- those that end up in bags simply marked "tea" are blends of many different types from around the world that have been mixed for consistency of taste, says David DeCandia, tea buyer and master blender for the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, a California-based company with more than 500 stores, including more than 250 overseas.

In contrast, says Joseph Simrany, president of the Tea Association of the U.S.A., premium products, whether loose or bagged, have specific origins (such as Darjeeling, from northern India) or a unique preparation (such as Earl Grey, in which the leaves have been flavored with bergamot oil, imbuing a citrus-like aroma). From season to season, says Simrany, these top-notch teas may vary slightly in flavor -- something that connoisseurs look forward to.

Types of Teas

There are four major categories of tea, each of which gets its distinctive characteristics from the way the leaves are processed. (Herbal tea does not usually include actual tea leaves, but rather is a mixture of herbs and other ingredients, such as dried citrus; it is not, strictly speaking, "tea.")

  • Black tea is made from leaves that are harvested and then dried. Exposing them to air causes them to oxidize (this process is often referred to as "fermentation") . The resulting rich, fill-bodied taste has made this the most popular tea in America: It accounts for up to 90 percent of total annual consumption. Assam, Darjeeling, Lapsang souchong, and Keemun are examples.
  • Green tea leaves are steamed to stop the oxidation process and then dried. This produces a fresh, grassy taste. Gunpowder, with leaves rolled into pellets, Genmaicha, and gyokuro are in this category.
  • Oolong leaves are allowed to oxidize partially before they're heated. This makes oolong as clear and fragrant as green tea but strong tasting like black tea. Names to look for include Wuyi, Ti Kuan Yin, and simply oolong.
  • White teas, including Silver Tip Pekoe and Silvery Oolong, are made from leaves and buds that have not yet fully opened. This type is processed like green tea, resulting in a light, sweet flavor.

Brewing the Perfect Pot

You'll need a kettle, a teapot, a timer, an instant-read thermometer and, for loose-leaf tea, an infuser and a measuring spoon. Elaine Terman, proprietor of Elaine's Tea Shoppe in Sylvania, Ohio, offers a method for making a perfect infusion every time:

  • Begin with fresh, cold water, preferably filtered to remove chemical tastes, such as chlorine. Bring the water to a boil in a teakettle. Pour some of the hot water into the teapot to warm it up (if you start with a cold pot, it will chill the water in which you steep the tea to a temperature that's below optimum). Swirl the hot water around, then discard it.
  • Place the leaves or bags directly in the warmed pot or use the infuser. The general rule is about one teaspoon (or tea bag) for each cup of tea, plus one for the pot to ensure that the resulting brew is full flavored.
  • Pour the hot water over the leaves or bags immediately if you're making black tea, or let the water cool slightly for other types. Oolongs should be steeped at 185 to 200 degrees F., and green and white teas at 175 to 180 degrees F.
  • Let the tea steep. Oolongs should generally sit for one to two minutes for optimal flavor, while green tea needs two to three minutes. Black teas typically require three to five minutes to be at their best and white teas five to seven minutes. The longer the steeping time, the more bitter the beverage will be. If you prefer a brew with some brawn, you should add more leaves, not more time.
  • If you've made black tea, you might try adding milk or lemon and a sweetener such as honey or sugar. Avoid using cream, which is heavy and overpowering. Experts say that Asian-style brews, such as green or oolong, are best enjoyed plain.

Bringing It All Back Home

Now that you know how to brew tea properly, you can make yourself a pot, share this comforting drink with a friend, or throw a party. Tea goes well with food ranging from light sandwiches, scones, and sweets to something heartier, such as a buffet of casseroles, salads, bread and cheese, fruit pies, and cake, says Elizabeth Knight, author of Tea with Friends. "Everything except the tea can be made ahead of time, so you can be a guest at your own gathering," says Knight. Your only responsibility when your visitors arrive is to relax and enjoy the occasion.

Good-for-You Brews

Health benefits are as much a driver of Americans' new interest in tea as is taste. According to the experts, drinking tea regularly may lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, help prevent certain cancers, boost the immune system, and reduce stress levels. Antioxidants found in tea are even said to assist in reducing body fat. And the drink contains only about one-third of the caffeine of a comparable amount of brewed coffee. "Today's consumers are looking for a healthy alternative to coffee, and tea is a great option," comments Kari Ginal, head of business development for Argo Tea, a four-year-old Chicago company with seven tea shops and an online store.

-- Additional writing and reporting by Kristen O'Gorman

For more information and tastings in your area, contact Info@teausa.org.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, August 2007.