In China a few years ago, a recognized tea master, the owner of a small tea shop, informed me that his countrymen recognize seven distinct variants of tea: red, black, green, white, yellow, flower and oolong.
All teas actually hail from the same plant, a certain Camellia sinensis; its taste, strength, caffeine level and color are altered by different oxidation processes. Throughout the world, four variations—black, white, green and oolong—have been canonized, but for centuries, the drink’s versatility has inspired great flights of creativity. In Japan, tea makers mix it with roasted rice and popcorn for a broth-like concoction. In Kenya, chai drinkers take it with a hint of black pepper to 'warm' the body. There isn’t a culture that doesn’t know tea and embellish it with spices, essential oils or flower blossoms. If you grew up equating a cup of hot tea with a sore throat, you’re probably an American. Globally, it ranks second only to water in popularity, even as in the US it has long played a distant second fiddle to coffee. Recently, though, a handful of American companies have begun producing top quality brews of all the staples while mixing in some innovative twists all their own.
Anyone who had ever been to a Chinese restaurant is familiar with jasmine tea, an easygoing cup that matches well with sweets and savories. But that’s not the same as experiencing Jasmine Blooms by Adagio Tea, an infinitely more refined version of the perennial standby. Elegant and subtle, its flower buds gently soften what some perceive as green tea’s edge, a grassy flavor that can overpower those unfamiliar with its nuances. Instead, Jasmine Blooms offers up a medium light body perfectly in balance with its fragrant perfume, a sophisticated complement to a tray of elaborate confections. Moreover, though, this tea also comes with its own Q factor. Comprised of individual, hand-woven pearls of young leaves hiding a string of white blossoms, it gracefully reveals its decorative potential as the ball spontaneously unfolds in hot water. It’s ideal for adding a charming and unexpected touch to social gatherings.
Three Servings a Day
Of all the true teas (herbal infusions are rightly called tisanes, as they do not contain a single leaf of Camellia sinensis) black varieties contain the most caffeine. Despite that fact, though, any cuppa still lags behind any mug of joe in that department, which helps to explain why coffee came to seize the bleary-eyed imagination of most sleep-deprived Americans.
California-based Mighty Leaf Tea, however, has created a potent alternative. Even the strong bouquet emanating from Breakfast Americana, their blend of the traditional English breakfast teas - Ceylon, Darjeeling and the more bracing Assam - gives a heads up that this lightly malty brew packs a punch. Not a sipping tea, Breakfast Americana’s woodsy flavor fills the mouth with a rich and tingly feel, while its smaller leaf pieces release a modestly higher serving of caffeine than flow from large, whole leaves. I typically use turbinado sugar in my teas; in this blend, it brings out a hint of caramel for a particularly unique and more complex taste combination.
Mighty Leaf takes a true artisan approach to tea making, crafting beverages as multifaceted as wines. So why not try this at a dinner party: surprise your guests with a mug full of Ancient Trees Pu-Erh to accompany their entrées. Considered a medicinal elixir in its native China—lore maintains it aids in digestion, especially of fats, and works to purify the blood of toxins and scientific studies are beginning to back up these claims. Pu-erh has a history dating back more some three thousand years, yet in the west, it is barely known. Technically a black tea, pu-erh nevertheless deserves a category all its own. Compressed and dried (which is why it is sold as bricks rather than in a loose leaf form), it’s then traditionally stored underground to age, sometimes for more than 50 years, although most are between one and four years old. With its deeply earthy aroma, delicate peaty flavor, and tangy notes, Ancient Trees pairs excellently with savory meat dishes, standing up to rich sauces and piquant vegetables.
But tea as a dessert? Actually, that’s possible too. Okay, to be perfectly honest, none of the following are teas exactly—they’re tisanes made from fruits, chilies, spices, and, oh yeah, chocolate.
To end any meal on an unpredictable note, consider serving one of Mighty Leaf’s truffle teas, such as Masala Chocolate Truffle or Mayan Chocolate Truffle. The latter uses South America as its muse, blending dried apple and strawberry bits in with cocoa and carob nibs and a hint of red chilies for a light, pleasant sting that wakes up taste buds already lulled by several courses. As it steeps, all but the fruit morsels melt into the brew, and those plump back up into tiny bites of crisp flavor. The Masala is not quite a chai, but it’s delightfully close. A sensual mélange of real chunks of cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves alongside flecks of ginger and pepper—all of which somehow make their presence felt without any bite on the tongue—it also sports a hint of chocolate. Like chai, it really comes alive with a hearty dash of milk, but unlike its Indian cousin, this Masala contains no black tea, and is thus serenely caffeine free.
Octavia Tea also makes a stellar entrant into this last category. Their Winter Mint is based on South African rooibos, often called red tea, because that’s what it looks like. For those who are sensitive to caffeine or just trying to unwind, rooibos has become immensely popular for its naturally stimulant-free properties, even as it boasts a full load of anti-oxidants and anti-aging abilities. Octavia’s Winter Mint is a merry band of complementary tastes, including vanilla chips, which add a creamy lilt to its warming dance of real chocolate lead by round mellow peppermint.
All teas have health benefits. Some teas just have more than others. White tea comes from the buds of the plant harvested early in the season. Tender shoots are abundant in nutrients; unlike oolongs and blacks, these fresh leaves are then barely processed, thus retaining the highest levels of the plant’s much sought after anti-oxidants. Octavia Tea goes one better, with a line of these teas that’s organically grown.
Silver Needle is the recognized queen of white teas and Octavia’s Silver Needle is among the finest. Even without sugar, it has a clean sweet quality and soft mouth-feel; it’s thirst-quenching hot or iced. Infused with Ginger Peach, it has an invigorating summery quality and is both uplifting and satisfying.