2001: A Fabulous Year for Tea

This is a fabulous time to be a tea drinker, especially in the United States. The pathways of international trade have widened considerably, the choices for importing have expanded, and the education of Americans to the connoisseurship of tea is growing more sophisticated every day. Thanks to enterprising young men and women exploring the smaller tea estates and working with more demanding brokers, we now have steady access to the best teas from India, Mainland China, the People's Republic of China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, and Africa.

Although Americans still prefer their tea iced (85%) and black (90%) and scented or fruit flavored (35%), the continuing reportage of the health benefits of tea has encouraged the public to sample camellia sinensis, particularly green teas.

English Breakfast and Earl Grey remain the two most popular blended hot teas. However, even in the classic blends, variations do exist. English Breakfast blends once always used Indian Assam, Sri Lankan black Ceylon, and Mainland blacks like Keemun. Today's manufacturers are not only changing the proportions of each they often rely much more heavily on Chinese blacks from Yunnan to Keemun and lesser grades in between for their signature recipe. Earl Grey, originally a Chinese black tea scented with the oil of bergamot, a pear shaped citrus fruit, is now available sans bergamot and, instead, laced with the relaxing delicacy of lavender. Decaffeinated selections of each are hugely popular, and one British manufacturer's decaf Earl Grey has become their all time best seller!

Iced teas are served in most restaurants from a plain or passionfruit black at McDonald's to exquisite hand brewed selections of fine Indian, Sri Lankan or China black iced teas at bistros everywhere. Ironically, the colder the weather, the more highly flavored the public likes its iced (and hot) teas. Blackcurrant, hibiscus, orange, all these and more are hugely popular in the winter of Wisconsin and the dark days of fall in the Dakotas. Why? Psychiatrists surmise that the intensity of the fruit flavorings imply heat to our minds, making us believe that we're warmer than we are. (Or, more likely, we're remembering beachside visits to Hawaii during February or casual picnics during July - we do, after all, eat and drink with our eyes, and our memories, as well as our nose and taste buds.)

A good, and usually inexpensive, way to introduce green teas to the public is through scented selections. Greens have been flavored for centuries, most typically with mint in gunpowder in Morocco, jasmine or light orange in China, and cherry or cherry blossom essence in Japan. Today's packaged green tea manufacturers, however, choose not to add a single essence in a discreet amount, but sweeteners and overpowering lemon, lime, kiwi and botanicals to green teas in teabags and in loose leaf packages.

Those who have savored pure Gyokuro, fresh springtime Sencha, the delights of Dragonwells in all grades, the Pouchongs of Taiwan, the refreshing astringency of Gunpowder Temple of Heaven, or the softness of a Chun Mee and other classic and perhaps rare greens know, really know, that green tea needs no other flavoring additives. It does, however, need attentive preparation: Cooler water temperature, shorter steeping time, and the focus to pleasure that green tea will evoke in both the preparing and drinking of this most delicately processed tea.

Which leads us back to the excitement of connoisseur level teas, those teas available in fewer quantities, steamed/dried/roasted with extra special care and to exacting standards of a particular vendor, and as beautiful to look at as they are delicious to drink. Here, again, tea becomes a beauty for the eyes as well as a treat for the palate. Full leaf teas, sorted and graded to be as equal in size and similar in shape as possible, become a work of art, to be passed around in an elegant bowl to your guests. Then, when infused, the leaves can be passed around again to send up wisps of its intoxicating scent to whet the appetite for the ultimate experience, drinking the liquor. Ah, the liquor of fine teas, brewed carefully, and served with style: What could be more enchanting?

The delight of discovering a new white tea, refreshing green, smooth black, complex oolong, is all part of the lexicon of connoisseur teas. Icy cold teas, flavored or unflavored, are as American as apple pie and considerably more refreshing and easier to make! Adding to the pleasure of these teas is the plethora of fabulous and fascinating accoutrements. You can drink your tea like the Chinese do, either from a covered cup that acts like both vessel and cup or simply plop some tea into a glass, pour on hot water, and drink. Perhaps you want something more formal, like a ceremonial ritual like the Taiwanese gung fu set complete with drainer, tiny pot, tinier cups, and aroma cups. Or, the full out tradition of Korean or Japanese tea ceremony untensils. Or European or U.S. press pots, offering convenience and the clarity of glass to show off the tea and the nearly infinitely shaped cups and pots of Yixing clay, iron, stainless steel, wild and wacky shapes and sizes of contemporary pots. Or, perhaps you want to go back to a round and smooth porcelain pot, decorated as a fine painting, to pour out the richly scented oolong, or fruit scented black, or a blend.

Now that you have learned how to experiment with brewing times, water temperature, and various types of tea, why not blend your own teas? You can follow the recipe of packaged blends you favor, or create one mixing a green with a black, one Puerh with another, or blacks from Cameroon, for example, with those of Sri Lanka. The possibilities are endless, and, it might just send you on a trail of teapots, tea chests and other charming tools of the 18th century which were used to not only store precious tea (often under lock and key) but to contain the two or three containers in which to store and blend teas and then priceless sugars.

Another thing that the 18th century brought was a realization of freedom from tyranny. We in America no longer had to bow to the wishes of a royalty, nor extreme taxes on our beloved tea. Instead, we could design a republic where we could pursue freedom, choice and happiness. Some ill advised among us chose coffee in defiance, while others continued to sip tea in secret. In the 21st century, the newest revolution guarantees us the right to abundance, to openly choose and savor tea, and the creativity to drink tea in any fashion we so desire. 2001 is indeed a fabulous year for tea.