Nicole Schwartz has 18 tea plants growing at her apartment. "A year ago, I probably had 50 or 60," she says. "I lose a few more every few months."
Growing Camellia sinensis, or tea, plants is purely a hobby for the Blacksburg, Virginia, resident, so she's not upset when they occasionally succumb to pests or disease. But she is quite serious about tea. Starting as a tea blogger, about five years ago she became the owner of the Devotea USA, an online tea blending company. She refers to it as "mostly a very expensive hobby, but one that has allowed me another perspective that I did not have as a blogger."
Earl Grey drinkers, beware: Tea enthusiasts are deeply committed to their preferred drink and some have little patience for anyone who doesn't understand the finer points of pu-erh (a fermented, aged green tea), Darjeeling ("the Champagne of teas" from West Bengal, India) and matcha (a finely ground, shade-grown green tea).
Lesson No. 1: All tea is descended from the same ancient Chinese plant, Camellia sinensis. (This does not include herbal teas, which are not teas at all but tisanes.)
Lesson No. 2: Don't ever forget Lesson No. 1.
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At a recent master class in vintage and rare teas at the Tea Cellar at the Park Hyatt hotel in Washington, there was an audible groan from a few of the 20 highly knowledgeable attendees upon hearing a retelling of the legend of Monkey-Picked Golden Oolong tea, fabled to be gathered by acrobatic trained monkeys who clamber up wild tea trees to secure the tender leaves.
But for the Park Hyatt's tea specialist Christian Eck, such stories are part of the magic of tea. "I'm a history guy," Eck says. "Every tea has a backstory. You can spend your entire life reading tea lore and still understand nothing."
Although tea is enjoyed by billions of people worldwide each day, its nuances are perhaps only starting to be recognized in the United States, where more people are drinking green tea for its antioxidants, and 85 percent of all tea consumed is iced - which is considered an abomination in many countries. Our slow journey toward tea appreciation is perhaps not a surprise; this is, after all, the country that traces its revolutionary history back to colonists' rejection of a British tax on tea in 1773, rendering tea-drinking unpatriotic and leading to a rise in coffee consumption.
"This was once a tea-drinking nation," third-generation professional tea taster Bill Hall says. "Now I'm seeing much more interest in high-end and unusual teas. People want to know where their tea comes from."
Hall holds a particular distinction in America's tea industry as the founder of what is the largest commercial tea plantation in the United States, the Charleston Tea Plantation on Wadmalaw Island in South Carolina. After rigorous training in London as a tea taster - which involved sampling some 800 cups of tea per day, five days a week, for four years - Hall worked in the tea industry before becoming intrigued by the idea of growing tea. He began farming tea just outside Charleston in the 1980s, eventually partnering with David and Eunice Bigelow, of the family behind Bigelow Tea, in 2003 to expand to a 150-acre operation.
"We're a tiny fraction of the tea grown in world," Hall says. "But in America, we're huge."
There are small-scale tea plantations scattered across the country, particularly in the coastal Southeast and Hawaii, which offer conducive growing conditions, including sandy soil, high humidity and lots of rain. Most other tea-centric businesses are focused on procuring ingredients for proprietary blends, such as those made by Schwartz of Devotea USA and by Beth Johnston, owner of Teas Etc., a wholesale tea manufacturer in Jacksonville, Florida.
For Johnston, it was a cup of loose-leaf mango Ceylon tea that she had while on her honeymoon ski trip in 1998 that inspired her to start her own company four months later. "I was hooked from that very first experience," she says. "I drank tea that entire trip."
With a lengthy list of offerings, including Canadian Maple Green Tea, Dulce Blanco White Tea and Fig Formosa Oolong, Johnston says, "We start with raw ingredients and develop our blends and flavors from scratch. Our 'secret sauce' is our approach."
Indeed, tea flavors can be surprisingly wide-ranging when you consider that all tea is derived from one mother plant. Factors that set one tea apart from others can include terroir and growing conditions, or undeniably human elements: when it's harvested; if the leaves are dried, steamed, smoked or roasted; and what other ingredients are added that affect the flavor profile.
As an example, the Park Hyatt's Eck points to a blood orange sencha, a Chinese green tea with dried blood orange peel added to the blend. "You'll taste minerality and citrus notes," Eck says. "The tea and the blood orange heighten each other's flavors."
To take it one step further, he makes a reduction of the same tea and pours it into a glass of sparkling wine. "It's a little bit of an epiphany, that flavor combination."
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Troy Knapp, executive chef at the Park Hyatt's Blue Duck Tavern - also a tea specialist who explores tea and food pairings - calls it "intentional happiness."
Happiness, tranquility and serenity are terms that frequently accompany conversations about tea, which is purported to have calming attributes and an equitable distribution of caffeine that releases slowly throughout the day, rather than the almost immediate caffeine jolt characteristic of coffee. As Knapp observes, "Our lives are ruled by technology, but tea has a timeless quality."
Tea experts agree that the best way to become educated is by sampling different varieties to assess what you like. Tea retailers generally provide samples and even classes, and online purveyors often sell small quantities. Johnston advises against shopping based on price alone. "Not all teas are created equal. If something is priced too low or too high, I would pause and consider why."
Within each category, you'll find a dizzying array of options - silky smooth matcha without a trace of bitterness, deceptively sweet white tea with the floral note of litchi blossom, and a perfectly balanced black tea called Royal Keemun, said to be a favorite of Queen Elizabeth II. Some come hand-tied in silk sachets, opening up like a flower in water, while others are compressed into thick chocolate-colored bricks, stamped with intricate designs.
Coffee starts to seem quite pedestrian, by comparison.
Some teas can be extraordinarily expensive - the Park Hyatt has one that will set you back $350 for a single pot - but, unlike coffee, a quality loose-leaf tea can be brewed over and over again, and sometimes improves with subsequent brewings. Eck says he typically gets eight to 15 cups of tea from the same ounce of leaves, calling it "the gift that keeps on giving." Some tea drinkers become quite competitive about how many brews they can get from their tea, claiming up to 30 cups. Once Eck thinks he has extracted as much flavor as he can, he puts the leaves in a Mason jar filled with cool water overnight to make a batch of cold brew.
Schwartz, the tea blender, cautions against investing in too many gadgets. "A simple strainer and normal pot to boil water will do just fine," she says.
But tea aficionados will wax poetic over temperature-variable electric tea kettles, comparing notes about how to score the most coveted brands from Japan. Different types of tea require specific water temperatures, ranging from 175 degrees for white tea to 212 degrees for pu-erh. And steeping times to achieve optimal flavor vary. There are even special pots designed to keep the tea from scorching and turning bitter while steeping.
Still, don't be afraid of getting it wrong. Just grab some leaves and start brewing.
"Tea can seem intimidating," Eck says, "but every cup has elegance and a story behind it."
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If you're ready to venture beyond the generic English Breakfast tea you've been buying in bulk, here's what you need to know. Tea experts advise visiting a tea retailer to sample different teas in person, or, if buying online, get one-ounce samples.
Tea has caffeine in it, but the nature of tea can make it difficult to measure caffeine levels. But even black tea, which has the highest levels of caffeine, still has about half as much as coffee.
In general, tea caffeine ranges from 30 milligrams in an eight-ounce cup of white tea to 90 milligrams in some types of black tea. Coffee has 150 to 200 milligrams of caffeine per cup.
As a rule, plan on 1 teaspoon of tea leaves per four ounces of water.
Types of tea
Black: The leaves are withered, then fully oxidized and dried, with dark colors and robust flavors. Steep with fully boiling water (212 degrees) for three to five minutes.
Green: With a more herbaceous flavor, these leaves are toasted, roasted or steamed, but not oxidized, thereby preserving the green color. Oversteeping can make it bitter, so steep in water that's 160 to 180 degrees for up to two minutes, tasting every 30 seconds to check the flavor.
White: Young and/or minimally processed tea leaves, with delicate and more floral flavors. Steep in water that's 175 to 185 degrees, for no more than three minutes.
Oolong: Falling between green and black teas, oolong is partially oxidized and features a wide range of flavors, from fruity to smoky, depending on how long it was oxidized. Steep in water that's 180 to 190 degrees for one to five minutes.
Pu-erh: Like wine, pu-erh is fermented. The aged green tea has a rich, earthy flavor. Steep for 30 seconds in boiling water, then discard that and add more boiling water, this time steeping for 45 to 50 seconds. The leaves can be reused, but add 15 to 20 seconds for each subsequent steeping.
Tisane: Not a true tea, a tisane is made from herbs, flowers, spices or grains such as chamomile, rooibos, honeybush or peppermint. Steep in boiling water for three to five minutes.
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Hartke is a District of Columbia-based food writer and editor.