Coffee, Tea and Geekery:
Okay, I confess: I was a tea geek years before I became a CoffeeGeek. I got into tea almost by accident. I’d been looking for a decent tea to serve for a nice Chinese dinner, went into a local tea shop for some suggestions, and the rest as they say is history.
I thought I didn’t like tea, but I found out I wasn’t really drinking tea. It turns out that most tea suffers from two major faults. The first is that it is served using a tea bag. Tea bags impart a cotton-like taste, making it taste like you’re sucking on old socks. The second is that most tea has been sitting in a cardboard box for months or years and is old. Not old in the aged wine kind of way, but old as in stale and tasteless. If you’ve tried tea in a bag from a bright yellow box and didn’t like it, but you love quality coffee, you owe it to yourself to give tea another try.
As I’ve gotten into being a CoffeeGeek, I’ve found a lot of overlap between the two worlds, which are not as far apart as you’d believe. To bolster my theory that there are a lot of shared elements between the two, I met with two local tea experts to talk about the worlds of coffee and tea.
Shiuwen Tai is the owner and proprietor of Floating Leaves Tea in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. Her tea culture connections run deep, as she was born and raised in Taiwan, and in 2002 she started giving tea presentations to friends. She loved it so much, she became a tea importer and seller. Shiuwen is known and respected for her knowledge of Taiwanese oolong tea.
Brett Boynton is co-owner and proprietor of Phoenix Tea Shop. Though he has been steeped in tea culture (pun intended) for the past eleven years, he is extremely knowledgeable and passionate about tea from around the world. He recently opened his new store in Burien, Washington, after being a long-time manager at another tea store. Brett regularly presents at the Northwest Tea Festival and other tea-related events.
Our daily coffee primarily comes from two species of the coffee plant, Coffee arabica and Coffee robusta, with a few other species from other countries tossed into the mix. With tea, one species and two varietals are used: Camellia sinensis sinensis, the tea found in Pacific Rim countries, and Camellia sinensis assamica, the tea found in India. Among the two varietals are many distinctive tea plant cultivars.
A tea plant’s terroir (the variables that make up the soil and climate) plays a crucial role in shaping the tea’s flavor profile. In general, Indian assam teas come from huge, Bordeaux-like estates that strive to maintain a consistent, palate-pleasing blend for its drinkers. In China, single-farm production is the norm, with a Burgundy-like system of individual estates and farmers to produce unique teas that vary wildly with slight changes in microclimates.
Both Shiuwen and Brett have traveled in Taiwan, meeting with tea growers and vendors. Despite the language and dialect differences, they both report there is a sense of brotherhood, or of family, among the tea growers. “I was visiting one tea shop and talking with the owner,” Shiuwen said. “He asked about my travels and I said I was going to visit some tea families. He got on the phone and within five minutes he had lined up two places for me to visit. Both families were kind, generous, and proud of their farms and their tea. I wouldn’t have had such wonderful experiences if it wasn’t for our shared passion for tea!”
Coffee growers perform some coffee processing, such as sorting the cherries, but most of the coffee-processing work is done by roasters or brewers. Most Coffeegeek readers prefer to have as much of the processing done as close to home as possible.
With tea, all of the processing happens in the country of origin. Harvesting methods, heat, oxidation, rolling, and drying are used to create the six basic types of tea – white, yellow, green, oolong, black, and puerh tea. Small variations in technique result in big changes in flavor, and as with coffee the art in tea comes in knowing how to adjust the processing based on differences in the harvest.
Once processed, most tea loses freshness and flavor over time (though some teas, when processed and packaged properly, improve with time). The process isn’t as rapid as with freshly-ground coffee but tea will turn to bleh in under a year. You know those bags of tea that Grandma has in the back of her cupboard? Those were bought during the Eisenhower administration and have the flavor of dirty pocket lint. No wonder so many people say they don’t like tea; they haven’t tried the real thing.
Brett notes that there are all kinds of other teas that people may try. There are flavored teas where oils or other aromatics are added to the tea, such as bergamot added to make Earl Grey tea, and there are herbal teas made from other plants that don’t contain actual tea in them. “Many people start with a flavored tea, but then they try a green or black tea and discover a whole new world. Coffee people tend to gravitate toward oolong or puerh tea, as they often discover bolder flavors and more complexity when compared to other teas.”
I hope you’ve enjoyed a bit of geekery comparison between coffee and tea. Though weighted a bit on the tea side of the scale, I assumed most Coffeegeeks are already familiar with coffee and so erred toward describing more about tea.
Getting into tea is fun and it doesn’t require a substantial investment in gear. For people looking to get started with tea or expand their tea horizons, here are some tips that Brett and I came up with:
If you are interested in learning more about tea, these resources will help you feed your inner tea geek:
On her Floating Leaves Tea blog, Shiuwen keeps a blog about her visits to Taiwan, her tasting notes, and news of upcoming tea tours for aficionados.
Black Dragon Tea Bar is Brett Boynton’s blog which is regularly updated with tasting notes about new tea, interesting new teaware, and other newsy items from the tea world.
Tea Lover’s Companion is a book by James Norwood Pratt and Diana Rosen. As the cover states, this gem focuses on “buying, brewing & enjoying tea.” It’s a great reference when starting out with tea and when looking for new teas to try from your favorite shop.
The Story of Tea by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss. This not-quite-a-coffee-table book is chock full of information, history, and pictures that illustrate tea and tea culture. It’s a great book to dip into while taking a break and sipping your favorite cuppa.
New Tea Lover’s Treasury by James Norwood Pratt. His briefer but punchier writing covers much of the same territory as the Heiss book. Pratt is world-renowned as one of the best writers about tea in the industry.
Author Mike Toot’s career has covered diverse territory, from actor, to lawyer, to boat maintenance worker, to Windows and network tech support, to senior program and senior product manager for desktop and middleware applications, and now to writer. Tea is a longtime passion of his, coffee a more recent passion, and his wife enjoys the results of his beverage geekery.