Long before shorts, talls, pumpkin lattes, and frothy half-caf frappuccinos, America was a nation of tea totallers.
Colonists drank black tea with abandon, renouncing it only when Britain's unjust taxes inspired the Founding Fathers to dump their tea into the ocean. Tea didn't completely disappear, but it was eclipsed by another caffeinated beverage. "Coffee was closer and cheaper in the 1800s," says Mark Pendergrast, author of Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World. Unlike tea leaves, beans could be obtained from the �Caribbean or from Latin America.
It's taken two centuries for tea to make a comeback, but over the past few years, the market has changed. From 1990 to 2006, wholesale tea sales more than tripled to an estimated $6.5 billion, according to the Tea Association of the U.S.A. And that's not all bottles of Snapple. Sales of high-priced "specialty teas," which start around $5 per �quarter-pound and can cost thousands, grew more than 250 percent from 1990 to 2006. The Tea Association expects sales to increase 10 percent annually over the next few years.
Starbucks may not have a tea salon on every other corner, but this phenomenon expands beyond home brewing. (And the coffee chain did acquire Tazo in 1999.) The Park Hyatt Hotel in Washington, for example, has built a special tea cellar, stocking it with more than 50 rare varie�ties. The highlight of the collection is a selection of fermented and aged Pu-erh, a specialty of China's Yunnan province that speculators trade for tens of thousands of dollars. At the Park Hyatt, a Pu-erh from 1985 costs $300 a pot-making your venti latte look like a relative bargain.
Before you take a $10 sip, try these tips on navigating the world of tea:
The Herbal Remedy
At a store, you may see dozens of varieties of tea-many of which are not technically tea. Tea is made from the leaves of the �evergreen shrub Camellia sinensis, which grows in mountainous regions around the world. Herbal teas, also called tisanes, are made from the flowers, roots, or leaves of other plants, like chamomile or mint. They usually don't contain caffeine and aren't considered tea by connoisseurs.
By the Bag
More than half of all tea sold in the U.S. comes in bags, according to the Tea Association. Bags are usually a sign of low quality, since they can hold broken leaves or leaf dust, says David Gregersen, tea-cellar manager at the Park Hyatt. But over the past few years, companies have introduced higher-quality tea bags. Tea Fort�, for one, fills its silky, pyramid-shaped bags with whole leaves.
Reading the Leaves
There are five main types of tea: black, green, white, oolong, and Pu-erh. The difference lies in how the leaves are treated after being picked. White and green teas are handled very lightly to avoid bruising and oxidizing, which changes the taste of the tea. The darker varieties, black and oolong, are intentionally bruised or cut to encourage oxidation, which changes the leaf's color and produces fuller-�bodied flavors. Pu-erh can be aged for many years. There are also �numerous variations-jasmine tea, for example, is usually green tea that has been scented with jasmine.
Grandma might pour it into bone china, but it doesn't really matter what kind of cup you drink from. The only rule, according to Joe Simrany, president of the Tea Association, is that the inside should be white so that you can discern from the color of the tea that it has been properly steeped.
Hold the Milk and Sugar
For connoisseurs it's not even a question. Add whatever you like to cheaper varieties, but when you drink better specialty teas, avoid adding anything but water. "You want to taste the tea," Simrany says.
Brewing It Right
Just as with espresso, there are rules for making a "proper" cup of tea. First, heat the water-which isn't as straightforward as it sounds. Experts say that you should use boiling water for black tea. For more delicate green or white tea, Sebastian Beckwith, co-founder of the Connecticut-based specialty-tea seller In Pursuit of Tea, suggests letting the water cool for a few minutes. "You lose a lot of flavor if you put boiling water on white or green tea," he says.
Always add the water to the leaves instead of the reverse. How long you let the tea steep depends upon the variety and how much you're making. Beckwith suggests using four grams of tea-about a heaping �teaspoon-for an eight-ounce serving and letting it sit for two minutes. If it's too weak for you, let it go for a few more. And though it may seem parsimonious to use tea leaves more than once, high-grade tea can be brewed multiple times-the flavor evolves with each pass.
Leaf It Alone
When stored in an airtight container, out of direct sunlight, tea can last for quite a while. White and green teas can be stored up to a year but are best drunk relatively quickly. Darker teas tend to hold up better, Simrany says. Limit the amount of air in the container; a rolled-up Ziploc bag works well. Don't bother with the refrigerator, since the leaves can pick up odors and flavors from other foods.
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