There’s nothing quite as annoying to a confirmed tea lover as living in a Coffee Nation. Coffee is the default drink everywhere you go. This is never more obvious than when attending a banquet. Near the end of the meal, almost every waiter you see will be smiling and carrying a coffee pot. When I stop one and ask for tea you can see the gears in their head grinding to a halt as they rapidly think “Does the kitchen even have tea? Where is it hidden? Can I pass this on to another waiter?” Eventually the tea does appear but it’s usually a bag of generic black tea that may have been in the cupboard for a year or more.
Types of Tea
Black Tea – When most Americans talk of tea, they are referring to black tea from Asia. This is what is in the ubiquitous bag of generic tea. Black tea is made from fermented (or oxidized) leaves of Camellia sinensis, an Asian member of the camellia family. Of all the teas, this type is fermented for the longest time and usually has the strongest flavor.
Oolong Tea – Also made from Asian tea leaves, oolong is not fermented as long as black tea but still gives a dark color to the water when brewed. The flavor is somewhere between teh strength of black tea and the subtlety of green tea.
Green Tea – This darling of natural foods fans is not fermented and still has some of the original green color of the leaf. It also has more anti-oxidants and less caffeine that black or oolong tea. My personal tastes lean heavily toward green teas, especially my all-time favorite Chung-Hao Jasmine.
White Tea – A recent addition to the American tea scene, white tea is made from immature leaves and unopened buds of the tea bush. It has the highest levels of antioxidants of any tea available so this is the one for those of you working on longevity. Despite the name, white tea does tint the water a light green. For my money this type of tea is highly overrated.
Red Tea – This is an African tea made from rooibos (Aspalanthus linearis), a member of the broom family native to the western parts of South Africa. This tea is caffeine-free, reddish-brown in color, and somewhat sweet with a flavor reminiscent of cinnamon.
Maté – From South America comes another steeped beverage known as maté. The leaves of the yerba maté tree (llex paraguariensis) are infused in hot water through a rather complicated process that I won’t get into here. Maté is said to enhance physical endurance and aid digestion.
Herb Tea – And finally we come to herb tea, the a catch-all name for any beverage made from steeping leaves not from China tea (black, oolong, green, and white teas). Strictly speaking all herb teas are tisanes, a word that fell out of our vocabulary sometime in the last 100 years. Herb teas predate China tea in the Western World as they were originally consumed more as a medicine and not as a beverage for pleasure or thirst quenching (a task usually relegated to beer or ale).
Creating Your Own Herbal Tea Blend
A few decades ago herb teas could only be found in hole-in-the-wall natural foods stores. Today even the most basic food stores will have some herb teas. Many of them still retain the medicinal influence by encouraging sleep, calming nerves, or boosting energy. If you grow herbs or have access to dried herbs you might want to experiment with making your own blend.
Combining two or more herbs into a tea blend is a little like painting – you have to have some idea of where you want to go. Interested in a calming brew for a quiet evening? Or do you want a real eye-opener for early morning consumption? Start with the first flavor that comes to mind.
Let’s focus for now on a soothing tea blend for sipping while reading a good book with your feet up. Start with a lemon-flavored herb – lemon thyme, lemon balm, or lemon grass come to mind. Now add in a flower note. How about chamomile or lavender? You might want to add in some oomph (my technical term for “something with a strong flavor to give it body”) to make it interesting. I’m thinking cinnamon basil, or rooibus, or perhaps…well, I’m sure you get the idea. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the more popular herb tea ingredients.
- Flowers – chamomile, lavender, rose, hibiscus, bee balm
- Roots – ginger, ginseng, licorice, hawthorne
- Leaves – lemon balm, lemon verbena, basil, thyme, peppermint, sage
- Spices – cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, anise, fennel
Start with equal parts of the herbs you want to combine – probably a tablespoon each. Now do a taste test, with and without sweetener. Then try it with different proportions. Once you’ve got a reasonable basic flavor, imagine how it would taste with a spice or fruit added in – cinnamon, cardamom, orange peel, dried cranberries. Do another round of taste tests. Keep a pencil and pad handy through the process so you can record what worked and what didn’t.
Time For Tea
Well, I’ve certainly said quite enough about my favorite drink. I hope you discovered a thing or two in the process. So next time you feel like a nice cuppa, break away from the “coffee syndrome” and try something new.