These days, a coffee shop on every corner is the rule, not the exception. Here in San Francisco, I’m within spitting distance of a Peet’s, a Starbuck’s—make that three—and a smattering of other local caffeinating holes. But in the past few years, there’s also been a shift toward another type of beverage hot spot—tea shops.
It’s not just in the Bay Area; on my last trip to Seattle, I noticed at least two in a weekend, and friends in Portland, Chicago, and NYC are all familiar, if not well accustomed to, tea shops, lounges, gardens, and bars amidst the beans. Similarly, the variety and presence of tea on our grocery shelves seems to be increasing without abatement. But has tea really caught on as much as coffee, soda, and beer?
Brewin’ Up a Storm
America has long been low on the tea-drinking totem pole. While places like India, China, and the UK share a rich history with tea, ours is more recent and less imbued with culture and tradition.
And although we certainly haven’t adopted the traditional ceremonies or slow, loose-leaf brewing techniques that characterize authentic tea making, we have begun a shift toward it. Two American tea inventions—the tea bag and iced tea—have helped create a totally American style of tea drinking—fast and sweet. Eighty-five percent of tea drunk in America is iced, according to the Tea Association of the USA, and the rise of ready-to-drink beverages and sugary bottles of brew common in quickie marts and convenience stores has greatly upped our consumption.
Always looking for health-conscious choices, Americans have also latched onto the antioxidant benefits of tea—green tea in particular—catapulting it into the mainstream. Now we have green tea everything—cocktails, chocolate, ice cream, and body creams.
But the rise of tea shops represents a shift to the more traditional type of tea consumption—loose leaf, hot, and slowed down. While the foundation for these establishments couldn’t have happened without our taste buds tweaked toward specialty foods and the benefit of being able to drink our antioxidants, the new type of tea drinking is different. At the Numi Tea Garden in Oakland, for instance, there are more than forty different teas on the menu. At the Samovar lounges in San Francisco, you can choose from Russian, English, Japanese, and Chinese Tea services, and at specialty shops, like Cooks Shop Here in Massachusetts, purveyors shop the globe looking for the most exotic and high-quality loose leaf teas to offer to their consumers.
This is good news for tea lovers, who previously had to travel abroad to taste authentic brews. Outside the U.S., tea is sometimes hard to avoid. After water, tea is the most widely consumed beverage worldwide. Its use dates back before written history and its long standing prevalence among varied cultures is evident in its linguistic roots—no matter where you are in the world, the beverage will be referred to as either a variation on te (the, tea, teh) or a variation of cha (chai, chiya, sha).
All true tea comes from the same plant, the Camellia sinensis. Differences among tea result from terroir, or “taste” of the land on which it was grown, place of origin, and processing, including length of oxidation.
What we call herbal “tea” really isn’t—only brews made from the leaves of this c.sinensis, which contain caffeine, are true teas. Herbal infusions are made from seeds, barks, leaves, and flowers of plants and are without caffeine.
There are as many variations of tea as there are places where they are grown, techniques for roasting and processing, and methods in which they are consumed.
Despite differences, all teas share high amounts of antioxidants, like flavonoids and polyphenols, which can fight off cellular damage. The health benefits of tea aren’t completely clear, but some studies have indicated that drinking green tea may reduce the risk of heart disease and improve memory, and that black tea may have a role in cancer prevention.
Whether drinking to health or enjoyment, the five most popular teas to consider are:
Black tea, the most commonly consumed tea in America, is the most caffeinated, and is oxidized the longest, resulting in a strong flavor and color. Popular varieties are Assam, Ceylon, and Darjeeling. These teas hold up well to milk and sugar.
Oolong teas, oxidized for two to three hours, have complex flavors and can have a wide range of flavors and colors. Oolong is midway between black and green teas, retaining flavors and strength of both. It undergoes the most complex of processing and therefore contains the most complex and varied flavors. Many oolong teas are thought to be best after multiple steepings.
Green tea goes through no oxidization, so most closely resembles fresh tea leaves. High in antioxidants, green tea has been associated with increased immune system functioning. Flavors can range from sweet to earthy. It is mild in caffeine and traditionally consumed throughout the day.
White tea is a delicate tea with a mild flavor. The leaves are harvested in early spring, when only buds are present. Unprocessed, the leaves are characterized by soft white hairs and a sweet flavor. White tea has a small amount of caffeine and is high in antioxidants.
Relatively unknown in the U.S., pu-erh is an aged tea that is low in caffeine and has a deep, rich flavor. The leaf is often compressed into a cake, called a beeng cha, and sold as such. It is common in China as an aperitif.
In addition to the above, there are thousands of variations, including flavored black teas, like Earl Grey, blends, organic, scented, and yellow teas. No wonder they’ve created lounges just for them. So while I’m still sipping bagged tea on the go and a simple loose black at home, the fact that I have two tea shops within walking distance of my work makes my foray into pu-erh inevitable.