As the popular winter song says, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” So what better time to talk about hot tea?
As a tea enthusiast in a nation of coffee drinkers, I often feel like an oddball for preferring tea. This is especially so as I not only drink hot tea in all seasons, but I also do not drink iced tea. This type of tea is much more familiar to Americans even though it only came into being in the early 20th century, which is quite recent in the history of tea. Tea is the most frequently consumed beverage worldwide, yet iced tea is virtually unknown outside of the U.S.
I welcome opportunities to raise awareness about this neglected beverage, and perhaps even inspire future tea consumers with what tea means to me. There’s something about a good cup of hot tea that makes everything just a little bit better. Tea contains theanine, which is an amino acid that can help calm one’s nerves.
(In all fairness, it does also contain caffeine, although I’ve found that tea does not affect me in the extreme way that coffee does. Still, I have started decaffeinating tea—you can get much of the caffeine out by pouring enough hot water over the tea to wet the leaves and then waiting about a minute. Pour this off and steep the tea normally. You will preserve the flavor but get rid of most of the caffeine that was released with the first contact with the hot water.)
I’ve started going back to a women’s writing group, and it’s interesting that tea is very much a part of the group’s routine. There are references to making a cup of tea and getting comfortable in your spot to start writing. It’s possible that tea is popular there because it’s easy to have a carafe of hot water and a buffet of tea bags, rather than making coffee and having to clean out pots afterward. But I think there is a general perception of tea as a civilizing beverage. Certainly the English would agree with me, as it is very much a part of their culture and their perception of themselves as the leaders of civil behavior and the inventors of afternoon tea.
So maybe I’ve motivated you enough to want to make a foray into the world of tea. Where do you start? Maybe you don’t know oolong from oobleck. (The former being a kind of tea; the latter was the troublesome ooze featured in the Dr. Seuss classic Bartholomew and the Oobleck.)
There are all sorts of special accouterments for steeping loose tea. There are tea balls, tea sacks, and special pots with infuser baskets. But before you make an investment in any special apparatus, you might try different tea bags to pinpoint what you like.
I think tea is often overlooked because it is misunderstood. If all you’ve had are a few generic tea bags dunked in a lukewarm mug you heated up in the microwave then no wonder you haven’t felt a need to investigate further. It’s important to pour the water over the tea rather than add a tea bag to hot water. There’s probably some principle of physics as to why this works better but I don’t know what it is; you’ll just have to trust me that this is the way to do it.
As far as brands go, Bigelow is an American company that has been run by the same family for three generations. They also have a tea plantation near Charleston. They are known for their popular Constant Comment, an excellent spiced tea.
If you care for something from across the pond, Twinings has even more history. They’ve been owned by the same family for 300 years. They have also been in the same location in London all that time; after the city was bombed in WWII the Twinings family set up tables in the rubble of their shop within hours after the attack so that they could show that business would continue as usual. (Remember, the British are the same people who gave us “Keep Calm and Carry On.”)
A word about herbal teas. They’re not really tea. Tea is a specific plant—Camellia Sinensis. If it doesn’t have this plant in it then it is not tea. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t have these herbal drinks; there are many that may have medicinal benefits, and it’s nice to have a completely caffeine-free alternative. But this type of beverage shouldn’t be called tea. Technically, it would be an infusion, or a tisane if you want to really show you are in the know. And if you’re looking for a variety of tasty herbal choices then Celestial Seasonings is the way to go.
That’s enough for Tea 101. I will leave you to discover the truth of this ancient Chinese proverb: Better to be deprived of food for three days than tea for one.