BC-NXT-TEA:SJ – lifestyle (900 words)
Tea is hot
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By Susan Steade
San Jose Mercury
SAN JOSE, Calif. – For a long time, it was listed on menus just
by color. Then, suddenly, there were tastings and classes, talk of varietals,
origin, terroir. Like wine 20 years ago, tea has become the drink to
Any beverage that’s been around for 3,000 years can hardly be called an
overnight success. But even those who have been in the tea business for decades
acknowledge a recent spurt of interest.
The reason? Part of it is a
perception that tea has health benefits, particularly when compared with coffee.
Part is a desire to be soothed in rocky times. And part of it is an appreciation
of the increasing quality and variety of hand-crafted teas – what Gary Shinner
of Marin County, Calif.’s Mighty Leaf Tea calls “an upgrade in sensory
Jesse Jacobs, who last week opened his third Samovar Tea Lounge
in San Francisco, cites the farmers’ market effect: an interest in seasonal,
artisanal products from family growers. “The quality of the tea we’re getting
now is unprecedented. Partly, that’s because we’re getting it faster, so it’s
fresher. But the new demand is also making it possible for a farmer to produce
and sell some wonderful teas in small quantities.”
Descriptions of these
high-end teas read like a rhapsody on a Bordeaux: thundering, nutty, silky,
hauntingly ambrosial, “warm apricot marmalade on toasted English muffin.” It’s a
lot like wine, Jacobs agrees – “except, with tea, you can always have one more
for the road.”
So how does a tea novice – a two-latte-a-day die-hard, for
instance – enter this world? With a glossary, a few caveats and some
What’s the best way to find the right tea?
“Sample two or
three from each category,” Shinner advises. “Explore as you would with wine.
What are the flavors you appreciate?” Jason Simpson, director of coffee and tea
education for Starbucks, elaborates: Consider acidity, body, flavor.
For a
coffee lover, the first step might be something like Yunnan, a black tea –
robust, with a slightly roasted undertone – that takes milk and sugar
Don’t rely on the name of the tea, as that can be misleading, cautions
Eliot Jordan, director of tea for Peet’s Coffee & Tea. “There are no
conventions in naming, and you get a lot of creativity. Is this jasmine tea the
traditional green tea, or is it a black tea, or an herbal, or is Jasmine just
the name of their dog?”
So taste, first, across the four categories of tea.
(Some say five; we’ll deal with that later.) All come from the same plant, the
tree Camellia sinensis; the difference is in the processing.
At the center of
the tea world are black and green, Jordan says. Black is the thicker, darker
brew that took hold in countries that use dairy in cuisine, like India and
England. Green is the standard in areas with less dairy tradition – Japan,
China, North Africa. Oolong covers the wide range of spectrum between those two,
and white is a lightly processed variety that 10 years ago was barely known in
the West.
How they’re processed:
– White. Leaves are picked, sometimes
lightly steamed, and then dried, and that’s it. Simpson describes it as vegetal,
– Green. Withered, then steamed (for more delicate, herbal flavors)
or pan-fired (for a heartier, aromatic quality) before drying.
– Black.
Withered, then rolled – which breaks open the leaves and allows oxidation – and,
finally, dried to stop the oxidation.
– Oolong. Also withered and rolled but
not fully oxidized. The oxidation is sometimes stopped and started more than
once, as a lot of change can occur in just an hour. With a smooth, aromatic
character, it’s a favorite of many tea professionals, Jordan says, and it’s hard
to find a good, inexpensive one because of the work involved in crafting
The sometimes-fifth type is pu-ehr, an aged tea often sold in compressed
cakes. A secondary fermentation gives it a very dark, earthy quality. In China,
where our black tea is called red, pu-ehr is known as black.
Wait, what about
Tea has to be from Camellia sinensis. Any other infusion is
technically a tisane (“ti-ZAN”).
Loose tea good, tea bags bad?
necessarily. There are good-quality teas in bags, especially with the recent
advent of whole-leaf tea bags, which let the leaves expand and the water flow
through. With the loose tea, though, you pay less for packaging, and you get the
experience of the tea-making ritual.
The most flavorful teas are whole-leaf,
which, though they shrivel when dried, will unfurl in hot water. Large broken
pieces aren’t bad; what you want to avoid is finely crushed leaves and dust.
Also, tea’s flavor fades as it ages, so consider how likely it is to be fresh.
(Pu-ehr aside, of course.)
(c) 2009, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose,
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AP-NY-03-24-09 1559EDT

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