|Tea is not coffee. But it frequently gets lumped into the coffeehouse category because of what the two beverages have in common. They’re both liquids. They both might or might not contain caffeine. Both can be served hot or cold. And both can be prepared and served incorrectly.”It’s not about to replace coffee as the beverage of choice in the United States,” admits Mike Harney, one of the sons of Harney & Sons Fine Teas, which specializes in high-quality loose-leaf teas, tea bags, iced teas and Chai concentrates. “But things are looking up for tea.”
Tea is the kinder, gentler coffeehouse beverage. With coffee, you pop into a cafe for a quick fix and chug down an espresso in two or three hurried gulps. Or you linger over a latte or a grande mug of brew — but unless you’re drinking decaf, you’re likely to leave invigorated, buzzed, and ready to take on whatever life flings before you. Tea, you sip. Tea, properly prepared, you pour from a small pot at your table. Teapots, you cover with “cozies.” Tea, you might savor in a “Tea Garden.”
“The best-quality tea must have creases like the leathern boot of a Tartar horseman, curl like the dewlap of a mighty bullock, unfold like a mist rising out of a ravine, gleam like a lake touched by a zephyr, and be wet and soft like a fine earth newly swept by rain.” So wrote Chinese sage Lu Yu in 780 A.D. in the first-known tea tome, the Ch’a Ching (The Classic of Tea). But the story of tea supposedly started in 2737 B.C. According to legend, an early Chinese emperor, Shen Nung, is credited with teaching his subjects the divine art of “husbandry,” requiring that all water be boiled before drinking. While his servants were boiling his water one day, some dried leaves from a nearby bush blew in and were infused into the liquid. The emperor declared the resulting drink preferable to plain hot water, and so tea drinking was born.
Mike Harney travels the globe to find good teas, frequently finding himself in India, Taiwan and China in the process. “You could spend your whole life going to China,” he says wistfully, remembering the many great, underappreciated teas he had the pleasure of sipping there recently. “The problem is, the Chinese haven’t shown Westerners how to make tea for about 250 years. It’s a national treasure and a resource for them.” Harney, however, wants to share the treasure of tea from all countries with consumers and connoisseurs in the United States.
Back on American soil, he crusades to educate anyone who’ll listen about tea, and to battle the myths that prevail in his business. “The best way to learn about tea is to approach it like wine,” says Mike. One of the most important things is to “hang out with people who know.” Catalogs, books, magazines and Internet “tasting rooms” also provide ample opportunities for good education.
One of the battles Mike Harney fights every day is what he calls “Mass versus Class” — the tightrope he tiptoes between providing consumers with the ease of tea bags in popular flavors (Earl Grey, for example), and offering high-quality loose-leaf teas and herbals for proper preparation. “With convenience,” says Harney about tea bags, “something’s lost.” And what’s lost is not just flavor, but the romance of preparing it.
Tea’s keys? Fresh boiling water, a preheated teapot (so the water temperature doesn’t dip), good tea and five minutes or so of steeping. Green tea is the exception, as the delicate libation prefers just-below-boiling water and only three or four minutes of brew time.
Most of the tea-brewing problems people encounter are water related, says Mike. Water that’s not hot enough, full of minerals, heavily chlorinated or tainted by coffee can destroy a pot of otherwise delightful tea.
Like both wine and coffee, tea comes from a variety of regions, each known for its own unique flavors. Within these regions, teas can be designated as coming from specific tea estates. And breaking it down further, as with single-vineyard wines and rare coffees, a tea can be denoted as coming from a specific garden, where up to 1,800 varieties may be grown. Unlike coffee and wine, tea is harvested nearly every week throughout the year.
Tea may not be conquering coffee’s share of popularity in the United States, but according to Harney, its time has not yet come. “People said the nineties would be the decade of tea,” he says. “But just wait another nine years — tea will be even stronger.” With a reported 18 to 20 billion six-ounce cups of the stuff consumed daily around the globe, it’s already staked its claim as the second most popular beverage in the world. What’s number one? Water.
What is Tea?
There are three basic categories of tea — black, oolong and green — differentiated by processing methods. In fact, it’s possible to make all three types of tea from the leaves of a single bush; however, a district or estate will generally specialize in one type or another as a matter of practicality, tradition and expertise.
Teas are often blended or infused with flavors. For example, the very popular Earl Grey tea is a black-tea blend usually tinged by oil of bergamot. Passionfruit green tea would simply be a green tea flavored with passionfruit. Jasmine is a tea scented and possibly blended with jasmine blossoms.
Herbal “teas” are not really teas at all: in fact, not a single tea leaf is used to produce them. Rather, herbals — or tisanes, as they’re often called — are made of single herbs, such as peppermint or chamomile; or blends that contain any combination of herbs, fruits and even spices; which are brewed just like tea. Unless they’re meant as stimulants (as with specialized blends that include yerba mate’), herbals usually don’t contain caffeine.