An American Editor

October 17, 2012

Going Green (Tea, That Is)

When I was young, many decades ago, growing up in America meant wanting to imbibe in the “adult pleasure” of drinking coffee — every adult I knew drank coffee and multiple cups of it.

Coffee’s caffeine never affected me. It amazed my wife and friends that I could drink a pot of espresso coffee at 11 p.m. and be sound asleep by 11:15 p.m. And because I was a commuter for many years, I rarely had my first cup of coffee until I had already been awake for three or four hours. Drinking coffee was very much a habit and habits are the hardest things to break. We get a sense of comfort from our habits.

One day, however, I looked at my coffee mug, which was still three-quarters full, and realized that although I “drank” coffee all day long, I rarely drank more than the equivalent of one cup in the entire day. Usually I would have a sip or two then set the mug aside. When I got around to wanting the next sip, the coffee was cold (and I never liked iced coffee), so I would dump the coffee in the mug and refill the mug with “fresh” hot coffee, and the cycle of sipping-dump-refill would repeat. I realized at that moment that I really didn’t like (or dislike) coffee — it was just habit and a hot liquid to have available, and that I drank it because everyone drank coffee while working.

I wondered if I would like tea any better. I knew that I didn’t like the off-the-shelf black, green, herbal, and flavored teas — the Liptons, Bigelows, and Saladas of the mass market — so I thought I’d go upscale and give a premium green tea a try. Green tea was supposed to be flavorful and provide numerous health benefits.

I admit that my drinking habits are somewhat peculiar in comparison to the habits of most Americans. When I drank coffee it was straight, no chaser — no sugar, no cream, no flavoring. I detested the taste of the flavored coffees. I also wasn’t fond of the off-the-shelf coffees like Maxwell House and Folger’s; I preferred premium coffees like Jamaica Blue Mountain and Kenya AA. So I wasn’t overly surprised to find that I didn’t like off-the-shelf mass market teas either.

After trying a few varieties of premium green tea, I was delighted to find that I enjoyed the straight, no chaser premium green teas. At last I had found a hot drink that was flavorful, which I drank by the cup rather than by the occasional sip, as long as I bought premium green tea in loose-leaf form and brewed it correctly.

Tea making is an art in the sense that you need to find that perfect balance of quantity, brew temperature, and brew time. With coffee, it was easy. Use a machine to which you simply add some coffee and water and click a button. Coffee requires near-boiled water. Green tea, on the other hand, requires water heated to about 175 degrees F (79.5 degrees C), because boiling (or near-boiling) water, which is what most people use, “burns” the tea and changes the flavor.

I read about the importance of using the correct-temperature water and so bought a kettle that lets me heat water to that correct temperature. There are several such kettles available; the one I bought was a Cuisinart. I then experimented and found that using water heated to the correct temperature and finding the right brew time for each variety made a significant difference in flavor.

As I wrote earlier, I also discovered that there is a major difference between off-the-shelf grocery-store teas and premium teas. Premium doesn’t necessarily mean high priced but it does mean higher quality. I did some exploring and tried several different purveyors of premium loose-leaf green teas. I currently buy from Harney & Sons, which is local to me, being about an hour away, and The Republic of Tea. Because each supplier seems to have its own sources, I still sample teas from other sellers, but these two, primarily Harney & Sons, are my main suppliers.

I discovered something else about loose-leaf green tea, aside from all the health benefits that keep popping up in newspaper and magazine articles (e.g., helps prevent cancer, helps lose/control weight): I discovered that because each variety has its own distinct flavor, I like to have several varieties on the counter and each day I brew and drink a different variety. Currently, I have seven varieties on the counter and so each day of the week has its own flavor.

I know that cost is a consideration, so when I initially buy a variety, I buy the sample size. The samples allow me to brew several pots (I brew pots of tea rather than cups) and discover whether I like the variety enough to want to buy it in a larger quantity. Yet the loose-leaf tea is also economical in the sense that from less I get more. Although your taste is likely different from mine, I have found that I can make two four-cup pots of tea using just two teaspoons of tea; that is, I get the equivalent of eight cups of tea from just two teaspoons of the loose-leaf tea.

My wife and I each have our own personal carafe, which we use as our brewing pots and which keep the tea hot for hours. Separate carafes enable us to enjoy tea while we work. For me, there is nothing better than a cup or two of green tea to soothe my frustration with another poorly written manuscript.

If you haven’t tried a quality green tea, you should. If you are a coffee drinker, you might find a new flavor sensation. As I discovered, it doesn’t take long to look forward to a flavorful pot of hot tea. As for coffee, it remains unmissed.

If you are a tea drinker, what tea(s) do you drink? Where do you buy your tea? I am always on the lookout for new sources and the Internet makes exploring the world of tea easy.

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