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!
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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.