Tea: One Plant Is the Basis for a Multitude of Flavors

By Sailor, Craig | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, February 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Tea: One Plant Is the Basis for a Multitude of Flavors


Sailor, Craig, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


It's hard to believe one plant can spawn so many different kinds of drinks over so many thousands of years. But that's what the tea plant has done.

Considered to be the second most widely consumed beverage on earth (second to water) tea occupies a venerated and ancient place in Asian cultures and somewhat a faddish one in Western. But, it seems to be a fad here to stay.

Many people's idea of tea is a glass of iced Lipton at the local diner (sweetened in Canada and the American South) or one of numerous flavored teas that are churned out like Beanie Babies by big manufacturers.

There have been many health claims about tea in the last few years leading a manufacturing rush to include just about every food and beauty product possible with tea.

Yet, few Americans bother to take the time to investigate what real tea is.

First, let's get straight what tea isn't. There's only one plant in the world, Camellia sinensis, that grows tea leaves. The plant is finicky.

While it can grow even in the Pacific Northwest, it prefers certain climates and soils that limit it to equatorial regions in Asia, India and Africa to grow tea-worthy leaves.

While herbal teas are a huge market they are not, technically, tea.

Peppermint tea? An infusion. Chamomile tea? Lovely, but still not tea.

The tea plant contains caffeine as does coffee, chocolate and other plants. The lighter teas have less caffeine than darker ones.

But most teas contain less caffeine than coffee. Nevertheless, a few cups will quickly add up. Proceed with caution if you are caffeine sensitive or have high blood pressure.

At Tacoma, Wash.'s Mad Hat Tea Co., co-owner Tobin Ropes offers only whole-leaf tea in his convivial space filled with a tea bar, art, tea-making implements and a lounge.

While the tea plant has many varieties, the dramatic differences in tea come mainly from its processing, Ropes said. It can be as simple and light as white, which is processed in a manner of hours by simply dehydrating. Or it can be as complex as Puerh, an oddity of a tea that is sold in compressed bricks and rings with only a few Chinese practitioners knowing the secret process that involves composting and yeast.

There's one thing that all tea purveyors seem to agree on: The best tea is whole leaf. Tea bags are filled with dust and fannings, the leftovers of tea processing. Felix D'Allesando, who along with his wife, Carol Welch, owns Olympia, Wash.'s Tea Lady, agrees. And they sell hundreds of teas by the bag. But the bags, he argues, are for convenience.

And convenient they are. Using whole leaf teas is a bit of a commitment. It requires measuring, an infuser and cleanup. D'Allesando calls it a ritual. But the result, Ropes says, is a world-class drink that can be made for pennies. Nothing can be beat the human hand, carefully selecting a bud and two leaves.

"Manufactured tea is like robots making wine," Ropes said.

And wine is something Ropes knows a little about. He spent 20 years as a wine distributor, a world where a $200 bottle of wine sells for its reputation as much as its taste. It was a world that Ropes was only too happy to leave behind.

"I got over the whole 'I'm right and you're wrong (thing).'"

Now he chooses only what he and his customers like. But that's not to say his wine background hasn't taught him to be discriminating. He turns down five teas for every one that he chooses.

Both D'Allesando and Ropes agree that how you make tea is crucial to its enjoyment. …

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