Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Teasanity, part 1

I had no idea when I took Dr. Andrew Weil's advice to drink more tea that I would enter a world of connoisseurs and obsession.

Prior to consciously incorporating tea into my daily regimen a few months ago, I drank it irregularly, mostly when I wanted a hot, non-caloric beverage without the caffeine hit of coffee. My brews were split between herbal tisanes and green tea, generally from a bag. Occasionally I would steep a loose leaf tea, such as gunpowder, in one of my small Xiying pots.

Xiying pot
With the nagging suspicion, soon to be confirmed, that my tea-making skills could be improved, I embarked upon a research project. My education continues, but I'll share the highlights so far.

After water, tea is the most consumed beverage in the world. In the United States, it is mostly brewed from bags and served iced. But for tea connoisseurs, the variety of brews available from the camellia sinensis plant almost could be compared to the variety of wines produced from cultivars of vitis vinifera.

To begin, I knew that tea came in various hues -- black, green and white -- and that the colors had more to do with the production process than with appearance. I also knew that herbal teas were misnamed and should be called tisanes or infusions. However, I wanted to get past my superficial knowledge of tea, so I went to class.

Dozens of online tea sellers provide educational pages about tea, and books are available as well. But I only found one source that made me take a quiz at the end of each topic. TeaClass is a fun way to satisfy your inner geek while learning about the history and culture of tea, the varieties of processing, and of course, how to steep the perfect cuppa.

Brewing tea with a bag could not be simpler, which is why most tea in the United States is sold in bags. Grab a mug, fill it with hot water, drop in the bag and wait a couple of minutes.

Those interested in exploring the full diversity of tea will eventually seek out the loose leaf. For that, you'll need one more piece of equipment -- a strainer. Any fine mesh strainer will work, so you don't need to rush out and buy a tea strainer. You can brew a teaspoon of loose leaf tea in one cup and pour it through an all-purpose strainer into another cup.

If you discover you enjoy brewing loose leaf tea, you likely will want to buy a dedicated strainer. Nearly every store with even basic kitchen supplies will stock various tea balls and infusers, most priced less than $10. I have a couple of those, but I prefer to use a teapot with a made-to-fit infuser; it brews enough for two cups of tea, which is ideal because I'm usually sharing with my daughter. For one cup, I'll use one of my smaller Xiying pots.

Tea shops and online purveyors offer a dizzying array of brewing vessels, from traditional Japanese cast iron to contemporary glass beauties. And those on the go can find travel mugs with built-in infusers. Fans enthuse endlessly about their favorite teapots on dozens of online forums. Any non-toxic vessel that holds water will work; tea may even be steeped cold in the refrigerator. For an eco-friendly brew, fill a clean jar with water and the appropriate amount of tea and leave it out in the sun for a few hours.

What to brew? The options can be even more overwhelming. Any well-stocked supermarket will offer dozens of varieties of bagged teas in black and green, perhaps even white, some with added flavorings, as well as herbals to address a range of moods and conditions. Some groceries will stock a few tins of loose leaf tea, but specialty stores generally offer a larger selection of those. Online tea stores may stock hundreds -- yes, you read that right: hundreds -- of tea varieties.

I've purchased tea from both a local company and a downstate retailer that specialize in carefully selected organic teas. And recently, I enjoyed a visit to a shop that surely must have one of the largest inventories of tea anywhere: TeaSource, which has three storefront locations in the Twin Cities area as well as an online shop. Seriously, if you're ever in Minnesota, skip the Mall of America and go to TeaSource; the Gap is the same everywhere, but there are few places that can offer you a choice from more than 200 teas. I'm grateful for the online ordering because I can see my small sample of chocolate cream tea will not last until I return in September.

Coming next: taking tea out of the cup.

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