By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
So I ask you: should I cry or laugh?
Drinking tea in a King's Cross caff ...
— Joe Jackson, “Down to London”
LONDON — Any visit to Britain’s sprawling capital requires a proper cup of tea or two, or 10. To leave London without having tea is like going to Seattle and not having coffee or fleeing Paris without having wine. The question is only this: What kind of tea drinker are you?
Centuries after British nobility infused the tea habit throughout their culture, tea drinking in today’s London can be enjoyed two ways: dressed up or dressed down. The daily teatime tradition still thrives throughout the city — unadulterated but also with some creative, sometimes wacky, twists. Whether you take your tea with pinkies out in the afternoon or at other times of day (early morning, late night, as part of happy hour) with no jacket required, Britain’s megalopolis still offers teatime tastes for every palate.
On a recent well-steeped jaunt, we found everything from classic tea at the Ritz (all silver pots and tuxedoed waiters) to more casual afternoon teas with whiskey, gin and nearly naked burlesque dancers. Old-fashioned or newfangled, here are two different paths through the world’s capital of tea.
Where to stay: If you’re going this way, go all the way. Avoid the bustling locations of most Mayfair hotels and splurge on the five-star glory of the Dorchester Hotel (Park Lane, 44-20-7319-7139, thedorchester.com) on the east edge of Hyde Park. The old girl has been renovated recently, and the spacious rooms and suites received a nice touch of brightness in addition to all the posh. Check the hotel’s site for frequent package deals.
Shopping: Start with some shopping along Piccadilly, an easy walk east of the Dorchester. Everyone will tell you to head north for the famous Harrod’s department store; do not listen to them. Harrod’s is a zoo, so crammed with tourists it’s nearly impossible to shop, or breathe. On Piccadilly is the more stately and elegant Fortnum & Mason (181 Piccadilly, 44-20-7734-8040, fortnumandmason.com). Each floor, from housewares to fashions, is roomy and easy to roam, and the store’s tea department beats Harrod’s hands down. Gaze at the big, gold canisters full of oolongs and darjeelings, then ask the friendly staff for recommendations.
History: Check out the first known Western-style teapot, from 1670, at the Victoria & Albert Museum (Cromwell Road, South Kensington, 44-20-7942-2000, vam.ac.uk), a splendid way to spend a few drizzly London hours. The collections here focus more on everyday art and crafts, including quite a bit of teaware, such as a lovely display of pots on two shelves in the Asia gallery. Then catch a cab due east and visit the Twinings tea store (216 The Strand, 44-0207-353-3511, twinings.co.uk/footer/our-shop), on the site of the original shop Thomas Twining opened in 1717. It’s a tiny little place but contains the full array of Twinings tea offerings, including new flavor blends and teas from South America, as well as displays of historic family artifacts, from paintings of the tea dynasty’s leaders to old advertisements and tea boxes.
Afternoon tea: Throw a teacup in central London and you’ll hit at least three hotels offering a traditional afternoon tea. Book your afternoon respite at one of these two (well in advance — like, weeks). There’s the Ritz (150 Piccadilly, 44-20-7493-8181, theritzlondon.com), allegedly the standard by which all afternoon teas are judged. “Tea at the Ritz is the last delicious morsel of Edwardian London,” Helen Simpson wrote about the experience of sipping and supping in the hotel’s golden, glowing Palm Court. The tea is fair (served in wonderful heavy silver pots), the service likewise. Because the experience is entrenched as a London must-do, the Ritz packs in five seatings a day. So you can’t exactly linger. (Seatings daily at 11:30 a.m., 1:30, 3:30, 5:30 and 7:30 p.m., from $39 per person)
For the best hotel afternoon tea experience for the price, go back to the Dorchester. Tea in the Promenade is magnificent — excellent food (including my new favorite word: the pre-dessert), superb service (they don’t just bring you hot water to revive your pot, they bring you an entirely fresh pot) and a much more comfortable setting (opulent and formal, of course, but considerably less stiff). A tip: The Dorchester’s tea is booked way ahead, like most hotels; however, the maitre d’ told me that when the weather in London is beautiful (a rarity, granted), he gets “20 to 25 percent no-shows.” The lesson, if you’re in town without a reservation: Stop by on a sunny day; they hold reservations for half an hour, and if a party your size doesn’t show, the table’s yours. (Seatings daily at 1:15, 2:30, 3:15, 4:45 and 5:15 p.m., from $35.50)
Where to stay: Just west of the West End, near the busy shops along Oxford Street, is the Mandeville Hotel (8-14 Mandeville Place, 44-20-7935-5599, mandeville.co.uk). For a small, boutique hotel, the Mandeville is smartly appointed, classy and comfortable. Its central location (and close to the Tube) makes it an easy home base for exploring London, but it also has a restaurant and full services for when you return. Check the website for holiday specials.
Shopping: For a contemporary view of the tea world, do not miss Postcard Teas (9 Dering Street, 44-20-7629-3654, postcardteas.com), a bright, sunny shop on a small, shadowy lane just off Bond Street. The owner, Tim d’Offay, has traveled the world for 15 years, imported tea for 11 years and had Postcard Teas open for five. Postcard Teas, get it? “In one sense, these teas are the postcards I send from around the world,” he said. The labels of each tea he sells are designed to look like postcards — the 50-gram postcard bags allegedly can be written on like cards and sent legally through the mails — with each cancel stamp listing the tea’s origin. The cheerful, chatty d’Offay cups teas for visitors to sample. Try his hearty Mayfair Breakfast blend, or the cocoa-y flavors of Yunnan Red Cloud, a second-pick summer tea (the first pick is used to make pu-erh).
Afternoon tea: London tea service isn’t all starched collars and prim protocol. Several places offer twists on the tradition, many of them geared toward attracting men. The Mandeville Hotel, in fact, offers a Men’s Afternoon Tea (3-5:30 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 1-5 p.m. Sun., $23.50). Instead of dainty finger sandwiches, you get stick-to-your-ribs appetizer fare, such as a sirloin sandwich with red onion and thyme jam (awesome), grilled veggies with brie on toast, a sesame beef skewer and chicken satay. Choose a stout tea to stand up to the stronger food flavors, like the smoky Mandeville Special Blend, made especially for the hotel by London’s Jing. It pairs beautifully with the whiskeys and bourbons on offer in place of the usual champagne accompaniment. The Palm Court at the Langham Hotel (1C Portland Place, Regent Street, 44-20-7965-0195, palm-court.co.uk), an easy walk east of the Mandeville, offers a daily G&T (seatings daily at 2, 2:30, 4:30 and 5 p.m., $41) featuring a menu based on the flavors of a gin and tonic, which is what you receive first, expertly mixed and in a nice tall glass. Then comes the tea, based on the botanicals of Beefeater 24; it’s a green tea base with added juniper berries, coriander, lemon peel and other whole ingredients, resulting in a strange but enticing tea, musty and musky, tasty with the munchies.
For something completely different, the Volupté Lounge (9 Norwich Street, 44-20-7831-1622, volupte-lounge.com), a self-described “decadent little supper club” hidden away in a basement near Chancery Lane, offers Tea & Tassels (about once monthly, $42), an occasional Saturday afternoon tea with entertainment: 1930s-style burlesque show. Dolores Delight belts show tunes (a stunning achievement given the tight corset), while Millie Dollar emerges in stunning gowns and then emerges from the stunning gowns, down to her pasties and tattoos. Through it all, a traditional afternoon tea menu of sandwiches and scones is served. Sounds odd? Zoe Fletcher, who created the program, says, “Well, that’s me. I like to have a gossipy tea with my friends, and I love burlesque, so it just fit.” Even stranger: I was the only male in the joint one Saturday. The rest of the crowd: all bachelorette parties. Don’t come for the tea (it’s not great) or the food — through, bizarrely, the pair of scones we got at Volupté was the best of anyplace we visited. There’s a joke in there somewhere.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
FOR ALL THE TEA IN CHINA: HOW ENGLAND STOLE THE WORLD'S FAVORITE DRINK AND CHANGED HISTORY
By Sarah Rose
Viking, 252 pages, $25.95
CHA DAO: THE WAY OF TEA, TEA AS A WAY OF LIFE
By Solala Towler
Singing Dragon, 176 pages, $16.95
By all means, do what comes naturally: Pour yourself a cup of tea as you curl up with a favorite book (and your favorite Books section, ahem). Watch the steam rise from your cup and smell the invigorating, earthy fragrance. Then pause to reflect that the tea you are enjoying is totally hot — as in, stolen! Nabbed! Ripped off! Nothing more than the subject of international corporate espionage!
This is the tale told throughout For All the Tea in China, the story of Robert Fortune, an ambitious Scottish botanist who was sent in 1848 to the interior of China to, no bones about it, steal tea. At the time, China had all the world's tea — and was tightly sealed off from foreigners. The British East India Company had just lost its monopoly on trading the carefully controlled output of Chinese tea and stood to lose a fortune, unless they could grab some tea plants and grow their own.
This was the basis for Fortune's daunting assignment. Not only was he charged with the mission of sneaking into a large, poverty-stricken country, in disguise, to steal several hundred young tea plants, he had to deliver them safely back to India in conditions and vessels not exactly hospitable to delicate shrubbery. He also had to convince some Chinese tea specialists to defect and come back with him, because he also had to steal the knowledge of tea. As author Sarah Rose explains, "Although the concept of tea is simple — dry leaf infused in hot water — the manufacture of it is not intuitive at all. Tea is a highly processed product."
Given this setup, we might expect For All the Tea in China to be a much more swashbuckling or at least daring narrative than it is. The Indiana Jones potential of this story never quite plays out, which likely owes more to the lack of detail in the historical record than anything else. What Rose provides, however, is a mostly engaging tale connecting the dots from the world's first cultivation of tea in China to its mass production and distribution by the British, once they "acquired" it via Fortune's clandestine journeys. Rose ably sets up the empire's great thirst for the tea bush, both economically ("Tea taxes funded railways roads and civil service salaries") and psychologically ("tea rapidly became a favorite way among the upper classes to signify civility and taste in the chilly, wet climate of Britain"), which fueled the quest for China's prized possession.
The whole story winds up framed in a way that makes it easy to understand in modern times; Rose explains that "the global imperial project of plant transfer ... was essentially the transfer of technology." Stealing tea and the blueprints for its production was akin to, in today's world, another government infiltrating the Apple campus and then producing their own iPads.
A considerably more peaceful story of tea is found in Solala Towler's Cha Dao: The Way of Tea, Tea as a Way of Life. Long before modern Britons developed their criminal thirst for tea, ancient Chinese not only enjoyed the beverage, they infused the experience of drinking it into their Taoist philosophy. (Oddly, in this book, Tao and Taoism are written phonetically as Dao and Daoism.) It's a valuable but slippery concept, this "tea mind," which Towler describes as "a way of being in the world, a way of living a life of grace and gratitude, of being able to see the sacred in the seemingly mundane." This is the heart of Taoism, and also — if everyone is in the right frame of mind — the experience produced by a cup of tea.
Towler see-saws between basic histories and anecdotes of tea and the Tao, comparing and contrasting, fortunately stopping short of turning the simple cup of tea into some kind of religious experience even while acknowledging that the Chinese tea ceremony developed into a ritual that "took the simple art of drinking tea to a sacred level."
Cha Dao is essentially a cozy primer for Taoism, using tea as a familiar experience through which the reader can begin extrapolating the philosophy. The connections are clearly drawn and easily understood, even the challenging idea of wu wei — the concept of "doing nothing" (which is not the same as apathy, nor is it the opposite of ambition). Towler writes, in describing a tea ceremony: "'Daoists follow nature,' said the [tea] master, 'and so Daoists like tea because it comes from nature. Tea is the flavor of the Dao.'"
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Birds caw and twitter in the jungle. Koi circle lazily in a small pond. We're sitting in an old barn transformed into an open-air studio, where Eva Lee is pouring some tea.
Lee wipes the rim of a large tea bowl, circling the teapot over its perimeter. She pours the light, bronze liquid into tiny porcelain "aroma cups." This is a gung fu cha tea ceremony, informal and chatty.
The new oolong we're about to drink had about only 50 yards to travel from bush to teapot. It grows under the shady canopy behind the studio. The proximity wouldn't be surprising in prolific tea-producing regions. But we're not in China or Japan. We're at Lee's home and garden in the jungle, just outside Volcano Village on the Big Island of Hawaii.
The 50th state is often celebrated for its Kona coffee, the premium beans grown on the Big Island's west side. But these days there's a new stimulating beverage on the island: tea. Actually, it's the oldest and second-most popular drink in the world, next to water.
Lee is one of the island's new breed of tea pioneers. She planted her first camellia sinensis bushes ("the mother block," she now calls them) nearly eight years ago in a semi-sunny spot outside the Volcano Village studio she shares with her husband, Chiu Leong, a potter and photographer.
Tea was introduced to Hawaii in 1887 but, over the years, farmers' fits and starts with the plant failed to produce a commodity-level product. Still, the Big Island's rich, volcanic soil and moody microclimates mirror many of the places where tea thrives — the slopes of China, the forests of India. Around the turn of this century, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and several state agencies gave interested tea growers in Hawaii a leg up in starting small-scale tea operations.
"The people behind the programs weren't as interested in turning tea into a big cash commodity for Hawaii. They wanted people who would experiment and play, developed something new and interesting," Lee says, between pours.
"My husband and I knew virtually nothing about growing tea before we started," she adds. "We were interested in starting something new that would have meaning to us, and we contacted Dr. Francis Zee [of the Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center in Hilo], who was really trying to get it going here. He was skeptical, but when I mentioned that Chiu was a potter, the door went wide open. He didn't want to turn to farmers for this, because they wouldn't take the risks artists would."
Seven years later and Lee — a founding member of the Hawaii Tea Society, around 40 members strong — is hosting tea ceremonies in her Tea Hawaii studio. It's nestled in the rain forest behind Volcano Village, a comfy tourist town on the edge of the still-steaming Kilauea crater. She samples her own teas, as well as those of neighboring grower Mike Riley, pouring them into handmade cups and pots made by Leong.
Like wine, tea plants take a few years to establish before real production can begin. Lee's plants are thriving now. Her teas are for sale around the island and are served — in creative recipes, as well as alongside them — at restaurants such as Alan Wong's in Honolulu (808-949-2526, www.alanwongs.com).
"We have just the right temperature, just the right humidity," Lee says of the Hawaii climate, as she pours another cup. "We grow ours here under the shade, under the canopy, which is slower but makes the tea sweeter — better for matcha," referring to the Japanese-style powdered green tea.
Other Big Island growers specialize in different varieties of tea. Rob Nunally and Mike Longo of Onomea Tea Co., west of Hilo, use the same plant to make darker oolongs, assams and other black teas.
"I love tea — good black tea," Nunally says, walking back from several newly planted rows of the dark-green bushes. "I grew up in Fiji, drinking tea as a kid. Once we realized this opportunity was available to us, and we had this land, we thought, 'Perfect!' "
Like Lee, Nunally and Longo had no dirt under their nails when they starting planting their 2,400 tea bushes four years ago around their cliff-top home overlooking Onomea Bay. Nunally sells computers and Longo is a chiropractor.
Also like Lee, the "tea boys" at Onomea Tea have no ambitions to become big commercial tea farmers. Theirs is a specialty operation, run on a small scale for boutique buyers.
"We just plant and pick. We do the wilting over there on our dining room table," Longo says, pointing. "Then we host teas for groups and tourists. It's the perfect-sized operation to be both a beloved hobby and a serious business."
The couple behind Mauna Kea Tea has slightly bigger goals. On the slope of another of the Big Island's towering volcanos (this one dormant), Takahiro and Kimberly Ino grow "a little oolong, really on the light side, some yellow tea, but our main thing is green tea." Still a young operation, planted just three years ago, the Inos have previous experience in organic farming and hope to make Mauna Kea Tea more widely available around Hawaii.
"We'd like to keep it a speciality, but we'd also like to provide commodity items for people on the island," Takahiro Ino says. "We like to be connected to the land and let people know they can enjoy that deeper connection, too, and it can be affordable."
Whether serving a niche market or a wide population, as Lee says, "there is room for all Hawaii tea growers."
By 2010, according to the Sage Group's yearly Tea Report — this year headlined "Specialty Tea Is Hot!" — annual tea sales in the U.S. are projected to double to $10 billion.
"When we traveled in China," Takahiro Ino says, "we were amazed by how Chinese culture is so connected to tea, and how it's a part of everyday life. It's like coffee is here. Everywhere there you find a teahouse. It's very natural to them.
"If we and the other Hawaii tea growers can influence that in this corner of the world or anywhere," he adds, "that would be great."
IF YOU GO
Most tea farms and gardens on the Big Island welcome visitors:
- Tea Hawaii is nestled in the jungle behind Volcano Village, a cozy outpost along Hwy. 11 at 4,000 feet, near the entrance to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Eva Lee welcomes visitors for tours and tea service by appointment; (808) 967-7637, www.teahawaii.com. Lee's studio and tea plantings also are part of a joint tour with the nearby Volcano Winery; the Wine & Tea package includes a guided tour of both places at 9:30 a.m. daily, $25; (808) 967-7772, www.volcanowinery.com.
- Big Island Tea is another upstart garden between Hilo and Volcano Village, in a town called Glenwood; (808) 968-1800, www.bigislandtea.com.
- Onomea Tea Co. also welcomes visitors and groups by appointment to its farm with stunning cliff-top views of the Pacific. It's west of Hilo on Hwy. 19 on the renowned Hamakua Coast, www.onomeatea.com.
- Mauna Kea Tea is further west on Hwy. 19 in Ahualoa, on the slopes of its namesake volcano. They host groups by appointment; (808) 775-1171, www.maunakeatea.com. Mauna Kea's tea fields are also part of a tour, organized by the Hawaii Tourism Authority, including two other Hamakua Coast farms (the Long Ears Coffee Co. and the Volcano Island Honey Co.) at 8:45 a.m. daily, $75; (808) 775-1000.
Between Hilo and Volcano Village, be sure to stop at the Hilo Coffee Mill. Despite the name, this shop also sells and serves locally grown teas. Owners of the shop also recently planted their own tea bushes out back; (866) 982-5551, www.hilo coffeemill.com. (A tip: For the coffee junkies in your party, drink the Ka'u brew here instead of Kona coffee. It's much smoother and more delicious.)
WHERE TO STAY: Hilo offers a few convenient, comfortable options. But Volcano Village is the snuggest spot to lay your head.
Kilauea Lodge has 12 roomy rooms and two cottages ($170-$225) just off Hwy. 11. It's homey, has up-to-date amenities (even WiFi) and sports a fine restaurant with rich dinners and fresh breakfasts; (808) 967-7366, www.kilauealodge.com.
On the other side of Hwy. 11, the Volcano Rainforest Retreat has four creatively designed, amenity-packed cabins nestled into the rainforest ($110-$260). Tranquil and cozy, these retreats pamper merely by the beauty of their natural and man-made surroundings. The hot tub during a rain forest rain shower ain't too bad, either; (800) 550-8696, www.volcanoretreat.com.
IN HONOLULU: No doubt you'll be flying into Honolulu before hitting the Big Island. Take the time for a Japanese tea ceremony demonstration at Urasenke Foundation, 245 Saratoga Rd., in the shadow of Donald Trump's Waikiki hotel that's under construction. In an exquisitely crafted teahouse, visitors are shown an abbreviated version of the formal gongfu ceremony (a full one would last up to four hours), complete with matcha tea and tasty treats. At 10 a.m. Wednesdays and Fridays; (808) 923-3059.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Tea is a lot like wine, really.
There are different varietals, different leaves. Like wine, a cup of tea is full of clues about the country and the climate in which it was grown. Wine-tasting stands on a certain ceremony, and rules also exist for the ideal storage, preparation and brewing of tea.
This means — just as there are starchy, snooty oenophiles — there are tea snobs.
They're a new breed. The availability of tea's numerous varieties and flavors is still a relatively new option for Americans. When most of us think of hot tea, we still think a mug o' Lipton.
But the broader availability of intriguing, mystifying tea types and blends is just as much an opportunity for everyday enjoyment and exploration as it is for the creation of a new class of specialists.
We know tea as a frightfully proper beverage, steeped in Old World repression and sipped delicately by old ladies wearing white gloves. Most teapots are ridiculously dainty. Find me a "tea room" that doesn't have doilies everywhere.
There's so much more than that.
There are bold teas out there. There are brisk ones, too — and they don't come in yellow boxes. Tea can be stimulating, thought-provoking, meal-enhancing, life-saving.
Tea can even rock.
"You can take any rock 'n' roller, and if he's from the U.K., he's drinking tea — pinky out, man," said pop singer Nathan Brant.
To prove that tea has a more rockin' edge to it, take a look at the fellows that joined me for a tea tasting recently: Brant and Davit Souders. Brant is a slick, Tulsa-based pop singer, usually scruffy-chinned and sporting crazy Foster Grant shades. Souders is a kingpin in Tulsa rock 'n' roll, a veteran concert promoter and a singer for the hard rock band DDS. His trademark fashion accessories: an authentic kilt and a doo rag. Myself, I'm the Tulsa World's rock critic. I not only still have all my skinny ties from the '80s, I still wear them.
Other than rock 'n' roll, our common bond is tea.
We're each a bit fanatical about it. Souders brought his own ceramic pot. It got chipped in the ride to my place, and he was visibly upset. I've got a rack of tea tins in my drawer here in the newsroom. I've found that darjeelings go best with jazz. Brant's got a baker's rack at home stacked with tea jars. He dreams of opening his own shop.
If others in the local rock 'n' roll community overheard some of our conversations — gushing over discoveries of new blends or, gulp, scheduling our recent tea party — we'd lose our street cred immediately. We'd never be taken seriously in a rock club again.
But we're just hearty heartland guys who found life after Lipton — and it wasn't a latte.
If anyone borders on being an aforementioned tea snob, it's Brant. His family name is really Barnes, so he's solid British tea stock. During our tasting, he showed Souders and I how it's done — insisting on milk with all the black teas ("whole milk is the best," he said, but keep in mind he's 21 and rail-thin), scolding me for my inexact brewing time, correcting our pronunciations (Ceylon is "salon," not "say-lon"). Like a curt sommelier, his knowledge was impressive and appreciated.
We're all three tea snobs to at least this one degree: We brew only loose-leaf tea. Tea bags have certainly improved in recent years, but for the most part the tea inside them is of vastly inferior quality. It's also ground up so finely that it infuses quickly but with less flavor and often increased bitterness. True tea lovers buy loose leaf.
However, that's not easy to do in Tulsa. The alarming majority of coffee shops and markets, if they sell tea at all, sell bags. It takes some digging — and often some Web crawling — but we found several locally or online that we enjoyed.
We first brewed a pot of Ceylon Lovers, a Ceylon blend from www.teashop.net, and tried it with a little milk. Ceylons are very basic teas, slightly more earthy than your average black tea blend (but not as musty and muddy as a Chinese oolong). This one, however, started our gathering with some raised eyebrows.
"This is so dark and sinister," Nathan said.
"And diabolical," Souders added. His company is Diabolical Productions.
We later tried another purchase from www.teashop.net, an Irish Breakfast blend with a little milk. Irish and English Breakfast blends take well to the milk, largely because they're quite stout. Irish Breakfast is the strongest of all, and this was no exception. It's a hearty tea that would make for a good coffee substitute in the morning (with less caffiene). Souders even pegged a slight liqueur scent and flavor.
Darjeelings are milder, and we sampled a "Gold Tip" variety purchased from the Mecca Coffee Co., 1143 E. 33rd St. in Brookside. It's got a pleasant, faint scent — cinnamon-sprinkled roses — and an equally easy-going flavor. We tasted this without milk, which was wise considering its subtle tones.
We also tried another variety from Mecca: the Lapsang Souchong tea from China. This is an unusual smoke-scented tea that smells like the hickory or mesquite chips used on barbecue grills. This scent had the smoke and the nostalgia of old fire coals. The smoky taste comes through in the cup, too, making this variety, we decided, a perfect choice for autumn evenings on the patio or deck.
"I feel like I'm drinking a steak," Souders said. "But that's a good thing."
We followed Souders' lead here and added sugar to this tea. I had only a dark brown sugar in the house, but that limitation led us to a marvelous discovery. The heavy molasses sweetness of the sugar was a perfect match for this robust tea. This was the only pot that we finished during the tasting.
A gold mine for local tea lovers is the Nam Hi Market at 21st Street and Garnett Road. This Asian grocery features an entire aisle of tea, from traditional Chinese and Japanese green teas to some unique floral varieties. We tried two of the latter and hit both ends of the enjoyment spectrum.
A jasmine tea from the Tea Master brand (in a tall, yellowish bag marked "Tra Bong Lai") was the most fragrant jasmine we'd ever smelled, much more intense than the diluted perspiration served at many Chinese restaurants. The aroma was matched in a strong flavor — strong but still couched in the oily texture of the flower itself. It had a fairly bitter finish that was no doubt magnified by the fact that we were drinking it without food.
Another floral tea from Nam Hi was an impulse purchase and thus a bust: honeysuckle tea. It brewed weakly, like chamomile, but — despite a delicate and sweet beginning — had a harsh flavor that was not unlike licking linoleum.
We got back to basics with an everyday kind of tea called Typhoo, available at Things U.K., 707-A S. Main St. in Broken Arrow. This basic black tea blend was enhanced by milk and also took sugar well.
"This is smooth," Brant said. "It's good all the time. It's a great basic tea."
"This would be a perfect anytime, fall-back tea," Souders said. "This might be my favorite. This would be perfect for that late-day cup that (my girlfriend) and I enjoy, when we just sit around and talk about our day. When we talk."
"That's the whole point of tea time," Brant said, "to just stop and take a minute."
Where to find tea
The three Tulsa-area shops where we found broad selections of loose-leaf tea are Mecca Coffee Co. at 1143 E. 33rd St. in Brookside, the Nam Hi market at 21st Street and Garnett Road, and Things U.K. at 707-A S. Main in Broken Arrow.
Mecca is a great source for all-around varieties of tea. It stocks big jars of black and green teas (a surprising selection of greens) and herbal infusions. Things U.K. also has a wide variety of black teas.
The Nam Hi market has a tea aisle that's the Willy Wonka factory for tea lovers. All kinds of Asian teas can be found, often large quantities at great prices.
Gloria Jean's Gourmet Coffee in Utica Square sells its own company brand of loose-leaf tea in the store. Oddly, they sell loose-leaf tea but serve tea bags. The loose tea comes in 3.5-ounce boxes for about $6.
Some supermarkets also carry canisters of loose tea from The Republic of Tea, a company that's sort of the next step beyond Celestial Seasonings. It's mostly good quality, and they specialize in green blends and herbal infusions. Wild Oats Market at 41st Street and Peoria Avenue has an impressive selection of these.
Restaurants and coffee shops in Tulsa, alas, all seem to serve bags. Some of it's quite good, though. The Gypsy Coffee House, 303 N. Cincinnati Ave. downtown, has a good selection, and the White Lion pub, 6927 S. Canton Ave. (just east of Yale Avenue off of 61st Street) has the very tasty PG Tips black tea bags. The new Starbucks is notable only because it serves the great Tazo teas.
Online may be your best source for the widest variety of teas. Our favorite sources: Tealuxe (www.tealuxe.com), a chain in New York and Boston that's basically a tea-centric version of Starbucks; Stash Tea (www.stashtea.com), an impressive supplier of every kind of tea from all over the world; and the Tea Shop (www.teashop.net), which leans toward good English black teas.
What kinds of tea
Black tea is what we're all used to. It's just the oxidized and dried leaves of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis.
Black tea blends include English Breakfast (Ceylon and Keemun), Irish Breakfast (mostly Assam) and Russian Caravan (usually Keemun with a little Lapsang Souchong). There are flavored varieties, too, such as Earl Grey, which is a black tea blend mixed with the oil of bergamot, an inedible citrus fruit.
Oolong tea is Asian black tea that is not allowed to oxidize as long as other black teas. It is often served in Asian restaurants and is noted for its floral aroma and peachy flavor. The finest oolongs are the Formosa variety, grown in Taiwan.
Green tea is simply tea that is not oxidized at all before drying. Thus, green teas are usually more herbaceous than blacks and oolongs. Green tea is noted for its healthy qualities; it contains loads of antioxidents which are being studied for their cancer-preventing possibilities. There are many different varieties, the most common being Gunpowder from China (strong and earthy) and the most valued being Gyokuro from Japan (rich, also called "Pearl Dew").
White tea is rare but interesting. It is made from the tea plants buds more than its leaves, both of which go through very little processing.
Where chai fits into it all
Chai is not a kind of tea; it is a drink made with tea. Chai — properly, Masala Chai — is a blend of black tea, spices, sugar and milk.
Chai became hip somewhere during the last few years, showing up in bookstores alongside all the lattes. Most commercial chais are sickeningly sweetened with white sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, making the beverage more of a soda than a tea drink. An exception to this is the plain, perfectly satisfying chai served locally at the India Palace and India Gate restaurants.
Chai is delightful when made at home. There are about as many recipes for chai as there are drinkers of it, and they are readily available now.
Here's a recipe from Diana Rosen (Steeped in Tea and other great tea books) for an easy mix that you can prepare early and keep in the refrigerator. It lasts a long time, and the flavor actually intensifies as it rests. The only challenge here is finding unsweetened condensed milk in the grocery store (but sweetened works just fine in a lighter concentration).
1 14-ounce can unsweetened condensed milk (low-fat or nonfat, if desired)
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
Pour the condensed milk into a clean, dry jar or a plastic container with a lid. Add the spices and mix. Cover, or seal with the lid, and place in the fridge.
Then, when you have a craving for chai, simply add 2 to 3 tablespoons of the mixture to a pot of strong black tea. Way easy and way good.
How to brew the perfect cup
First, use fresh, cold water. You want the water to be clean and oxygenated. That means, run the tap for a minute or two before filling your kettle; this flushes out any metals that the water might have absorbed while sitting in the pipe. Filtered water sometimes makes tea taste flat and should be poured back and forth between two glasses a few times to oxygenate it.
While boiling the water in the kettle, warm your teapot by filling or rinsing it with hot water. This will allow the water to maximize its brewing capacity without losing heat to the cold teapot.
Add the tea leaves to the teapot before the kettle boils. When figuring the amount of tea to add, the general rule of thumb is: one teaspoon per person, plus one for the pot. You can tweak that ratio in relation to your preferred strength of tea.
Ideally, add the leaves loose to the pot, then strain the water as it's poured into the cup. You can also use an infuser (clamps and tea balls are readily available), and many pots are sold now with infuser baskets in them.
Add the water to the pot just after it reaches a full, whistling boil.
Allow the tea to infuse for three to five minutes. Different teas call for different infusion times; read the package, but three minutes is average. The longer it infuses, though, the more bitter it can become. Stir or swirl the pot a time or two during infusion.
If you desire milk with your tea, add the milk to the cup before pouring the tea.
Pour the tea and enjoy!
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.