Several months ago my husband started a fling with Camellia sinensis. I dismissed it as a temporary infatuation, but then I began to notice...

Several months ago my husband started a fling with Camellia sinensis. I dismissed it as a temporary infatuation, but then I began to notice subtle changes.


I make coffee for one now. The French press, the espresso maker, the Krups machine all are gathering dust, while ceramic pots, infusers filled with wilted leaves and a bone china cup and saucer have joined the kitchen counter clutter. In bed my husband reads about Camellia sinensis. As his passion increased he began hoarding little bags of grassy-looking substances. I recently caught him discussing tea cozies with a buddy, but I knew things were serious when he converted his cigar humidor into a tea caddy.


Vowing to learn more about Camellia sinensis, the botanical name for tea, I discovered my husband is not alone. Tea consumption is increasing, and specialty tea is a fast-growing niche in the beverage market. Tea has become fashionable, attracting the interest of sophisticated consumers, the health conscious and armchair adventurers who can explore exotic cultures in a teacup.


Joe Repp is among them. He studies the jars of tea crowding the walls at Perennial Tea Room, a 15-year-old shop on Post Alley run by Julee Rosanoff and Susan Zuege. He asks questions, sniffs a few jars then decides to buy 4 ounces of Cameronian, a black tea from Malaysia.







JOHN LOK / THE SEATTLE TIMES


Top left, Sencha Hanase (green); top right, Silver Needle (white); center, Lemon Chamomile (herbal); bottom left, Thai (scented); bottom right, Victorian Earl Grey (scented).


“Tea gives me time to slow down,” says Repp, 25, a student at Seattle Central Community College who’s been a tea-drinker for about a year. In America, tea consumption has traditionally taken a back seat to coffee and soft drinks. To many, tea means a frosty beverage flavored with lemon and sugar. Our country’s most notable contribution to the history of tea — apart from that famous skirmish on Boston Harbor — has been to make tea more convenient: Iced tea and tea bags were our inventions.



Tea for life

But as current health and lifestyle trends converge, tea is being accorded new respect and interest. Joseph Simrany, president of the Tea Association of the USA Inc., calls it “a rebirth” and identifies several motivating factors, not the least of which are a desire to return to simpler values that revolve around home and family, an interest in more sophisticated foods and beverages, and health concerns.


“The Golden Rules”



Steps for brewing tea, adapted from “The Tea Companion” by Jane Pettigrew:
1. Fill the kettle with freshly drawn cold water and bring to a boil.
2. When the water is near boiling, pour a little into the pot or cup to warm it, swirl around and pour away.
3. Measure one teaspoon of tea per cup. Put the tea into the pot (or into an infuser inside a pot or cup).
4. Take the pot or cup to the boiling kettle and pour boiling water onto the leaves. Note: When brewing white or green tea, use water at a temperature of about 180 degrees, not boiling.
5. Steep for the correct number of minutes, usually up to five minutes for black tea, one to three minutes for green tea. If using an infuser lift it out of the teapot or cup when the tea has reached the desired strength. Otherwise, decant the tea through a strainer into a second warmed pot to separate the liquid from the leaves.


Tea’s health benefits always have been part of its legend; now studies are showing that the flavenoids contained in tea are powerful antioxidants, similar to those found in fruits and vegetables. The drink is touted as a potential aid to losing weight, lowering cholesterol, controlling diabetes and even warding-off cancers.


“The health factor has had a huge impact on sales in this country,” says James Norwood Pratt, tea expert and author of “New Tea Lover’s Treasury.” “Americans will do anything if you tell them it’s healthy.”


The challenge now, he adds, is to teach people how to prepare it so that it tastes good.


Pratt was in town this last weekend for a series of events hosted by Perennial Tea Room, among them a four-course tea dinner held at The Pink Door and a tasting seminar, “Tea 101,” that he teaches all over the country.


Things have changed dramatically in the 20-plus years since Pratt published his first book on tea. “In 1982 the tea market in this country was half a billion dollars; now it’s approaching $6 billion,” he says. “A lot of Americans are trading coffee for tea, especially older ones but there’s interest among adolescents and younger adults, too.”


He notes that most tea drinkers around the world drink the tea native to their cultures, while Americans drink across cultures. “We might enjoy a China green tea in the a.m., English tea in the afternoon and oolong in the evening.”



Types of tea

Tea comes in hundreds of varieties that are loosely grouped into six categories: green, oolong, black, white, scented teas and Pu-Er. Beyond those are the seasonally limited teas, made from leaves that are picked in the spring (first flush), summer (second flush) or fall (final flush).


How does a neophyte begin to sort out what they’d like to drink? “With time you gain experience about how different teas look, feel, smell and taste,” says Pratt. A good tea merchant can help and teahouses also offer a chance to taste tea properly brewed.


At Perennial, Rosanoff and Zuege ask new customers what teas they’ve had before and whether they like to use bags or loose tea. “We’ll discuss the difference between greens and blacks and let them smell a couple of different teas in each family,” says Rosanoff.


The difference between tea families is one of processing. For white tea, the buds are picked before they open then dried. Green tea leaves are dried and heat-treated to prevent oxidation. Black tea leaves are bruised and allowed to oxidize before being dried. Oolong teas are partially oxidized. Flower-scented teas like jasmine may be made from green, black or oolong teas. Pu-Er is a pungent fermented tea. Herbal, fruit and flower infusions do not contain Camellia sinensis so are not, strictly speaking, tea.


When Thomas Twining opened the first teashop in London in 1717 he only sold teas that today would retail for $100 a pound. That’s a mid-point price for great teas today. The most expensive tea on Perennial’s shelves currently is Ti Kwan Yin, a Chinese oolong that sells for $170 a pound or $10.62 per ounce.


Many teashops have a one- or two-ounce minimum for loose tea. Prices per ounce can be as little as a couple of dollars. An ounce of tea yields about 10 cups, so it doesn’t take a large investment to sample a few and determine which you like.


Green teas and some oolongs are especially economical because they can be re-steeped, sometimes more than once. Pratt tells of a famous Chinese green tea that he steeped dozens of times. “I finally got tired of drinking it but I gave up before it did.”



Equipment

As far as equipment goes, you don’t need much to get started, though there are plenty of accoutrements you can acquire as you go if you so desire.


You will need a kettle or something in which to boil water. A teapot is useful for making more than one cup at a time. A basket-type infuser is convenient to keep the tea leaves contained and allows you to remove them after steeping. Small basket infusers are available for making single cups as well. Baskets allow you to watch what’s called “the agony of the leaves” as they unfurl. Ball-type infusers work fine also, but fill them just halfway so there’s room for the leaves to expand in their “agony.”


To store tea, any airtight container that also keeps out light will do.


Even tea bags have a place in Pratt’s world. Though connoisseurs complain that tea bags lack the subtlety and quality of loose tea leaves, he says brands like Salada, Harney & Sons and Barnes & Watson (a Seattle-based company) produce a reliable product and cites the convenience of tea bags for traveling. Now you can even purchase a package of ready-to-fill tea bags for use with the loose tea of your choice.


Pratt has put together his own version of a travel survival kit. It includes a stainless-steel pot and mugs (because they are indestructible), an emersion coil heater and a Swiss gold filter. He says, “It makes even the bleakest motel bearable.”


Providence Cicero: providencecicero@aol.com