Tuesday, October 31, 2006


The heat of a sip flushes the lips and reluctant tongue as it washes down towards the dark of the throat. Muscles unclench releasing the last of the day’s irate contractions and the remaining traces of blunt telephone hours. Splash into the chest with a hot pain and then welcome emptiness. Good tea.

It’s hard to avoid haiku-like prose when describing tea – and why try? Tea in fact originates from and remains deeply associated in the West with Asian cultures. All true tea is from the Himilayan native Camellia Thea, a member of the Theaceae family of plants. The leaves of either the Camellia assamica or Camellia sinensis (or a hybrid of the two) form the basis for all tea. The two varieties are commonly referred to as Indian and Chinese teas, respectively.

As tea comes from Asia, and the West came to know the pleasures of tea on its early expeditions Eastward, Tea’s history is, of course, intricately connected to colonialism. It wasn’t until the late 17th century that tea drinking became popular in England. But oh when it did, the British East India Company engaged in a most egregious drugs-for-tea scheme that was as dark and indecent as anything afoot today. The scheme gave rise to the Opium Wars. There was also that regrettable tax put on tea in the American colonies and the reaction to it that forms a notable part of tea lore in this country to this day.

Tea has seen to the survival of its species through ingenious execution of a dual strategy of public and private existence. Tea is both a cultural phenomena and a most private experience. As with the dog (another species unessential to mankind’s basic needs that survives nonetheless by virtue of its place in culture writ large along with its place in the most personal chamber of the human thumping muscle), tea has assured its future along side our own.

Modern America was, on the whole, not particularly discerning about its teas. Industrialism brought with it a rank selection of bagged teas with little flavor and virtually no nuance. Much of “tea” in the bags is actually the leftovers of far superior leaf teas that are swept up from production floors. Those “tiny little tea leaves” are really nothing to be excited about. It’s the dust of real tea too plentiful for the trash bin. In the 1980’s herbal “teas” were widely marketed together with flavored black teas. The 80’s herbals were basically the same floor sweepings with some fruit peels for taste.

As for alternative rock music, the 1990’s were good for tea. Like a “Nevermind” of the palate, The Republic of Tea’s loose leaf selections and round bagged leaves brought the good stuff to the masses at just the right moment. In addition to writing a great memoir/case study on starting their tea company, “The Republic of Tea” (if you’ve ever even thought of starting your own food business you have to read this book!), Patricia and Mel Ziegler, the couple who founded Banana Republic, and Bill Rosenzweig, the guy who did all the work, understood that America was ready to stop gulping and start sipping (to paraphrase the Republic’s Ministers as they called themselves – hokey, indeed, but endearing in a nerd-cum-millionaire sort of way).

It’s unreasonably hard to find good loose tea for sale at local stores. Beware of any shop that stores or displays its tea in glass or clear plastic jars. Sunlight causes tea to lose its flavor. If they store it in transparent containers it is a clear sign they don’t know what they are doing. But the Internet has some really great tea vendors. Two of my favorites are the Assam Tea Company (for black teas) and Adagio (for green teas and tea making equipment).

The folks behind the Assam Tea Co. travel to tea estates in India and have brought back a most astounding array of fine black teas. Among my favorites are the Full Leaf Darjeeling and the Satrupa Golden Pekoe. The F.L. Darjeeling is like no other Darjeeling I’ve had. Usually these teas have a slight mustiness to them. Not the Full Leaf. This is a bright tea with definite fruity notes. It is full and has a slight depth to its aftertaste. It’s a wonderful tea. The Pekoe is bold and heavy. It has the sought after dark malt and smooth finish of a great breakfast tea.

Adagio has some very unusual and worthwhile green tea blends. One of the best is the Mandarin Green. Large green Camellia leaves are tossed with dried orange peel. The complex slightly vegetable flavor of the tea leaves are heightened by the bright sweetness and tang of the orange. It’s a nice tea to sooth at the end of a long day. Green tea has less caffeine than black tea (which generally has half as much caffeine as coffee), making it a good choice for before bed sipping. Adagio also has a terrific little one cup brewing device. It’s a plastic case that when placed on top of your tea cup automatically releases a well strained stream of tea into the cup. Ingenious indeed, they call it IngenuiTea.

The Assam Tea Company


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