I came across a fascinating article the other day with pictures (and short captions) of tea as they drink it in 22 countries around the world. Obviously, picking one tea — and one style of drinking it — to represent an entire country is difficult, but they did an admirable job of it. What I appreciated, though, is that it got me thinking about the way we experience tea from other countries.
I was rather distressed that the caption they chose for the U.S. was:
Iced tea from the American South is usually prepared from bagged tea. In addition to tea bags and loose tea, powdered “instant iced tea mix” is available in stores.
Eek! As much as I enjoy a cup of iced tea on a hot day, I rarely stoop to tea bags, and never to “instant iced tea mix.” If you are one of my international readers (when I last checked, about half of my blog’s visitors were outside the U.S.), please don’t judge us based on that article!
Despite that, the article made me think about something: When we experiment with the drinks from other countries, we usually prepare them our own way. Yerba mate, for example. The traditional method of making mate in Argentina, Uruguay, or Paraguay is in a gourd, with water that Americans would call “warm.” Americans trying out the drink usually make it just like a cup of tea, using boiling water in a cup or mug.
With tea, many of us would have difficulty drinking a cup of tea like they do in another country. Follow that link above and look at their description of Tibetan tea (#5 on the list). I don’t know about where you live, but here in Montana, I can’t easily lay my hands on yak butter.
Nonetheless, it’s a lot of fun to research how people eat and drink in other countries and try to duplicate the experience. Even if you’re not doing it exactly right at first, it makes you feel connected with other people and their cultures.
When my wife and I were dating, we discovered a Moroccan restaurant that we both loved: Menara in San Jose, California. They had fabulous food, belly dancers, authentic music, and — of course — Moroccan mint tea.
Kathy and I loved enjoyed watching them pour the tea as much as we enjoyed drinking it. We sat cross-legged on pillows around a low table. The server would place the ornate glasses — yes, glasses for hot tea — on the table and hold the metal teapot high in the air to pour the tea.
I am not a big fan of mint teas, generally, and I do not sweeten my tea, but I absolutely loved the tea at Menara (and no matter what my wife tells you, it had nothing to do with being distracted by the belly dancer).
When I made Moroccan mint tea at home, it never came out the same. There was always something off about the taste. I tried different blends, but just couldn’t duplicate the flavor. Then I decided to try duplicating the technique.
Take a look at that picture to the right (a marvelously-staged and shot picture from chelle marie). Look closely at the glass. That, as it turns out, is what I was missing. Pouring the tea from a height does more than just look good; it aerates the tea, which changes the way it tastes and smells.
You’ll find the same thing with a well-whisked bowl of matcha (Japan), a traditionally-made cup of masala chai (India), a frothy-sweet boba tea (Taiwan), or a cold, refreshing Southern sweet tea (USA).
If there’s a tea shop or restaurant in your area that makes the kind of tea you want to try, get it there first. Otherwise, read a few blog posts, watch a few videos, check out a good book, and give it your best try.
Tea is more than just a beverage; it is a window into the cultures that consume it. Embrace the differences. Enjoy the differences. Enjoy the tea!
If my tea bar was in Georgia, sweet tea wouldn’t be a problem for me. I would always have a pitcher or two sitting in the fridge. But here in Montana, the demand for sweet tea is pretty low. If I serve three or four glasses of sweet tea in a week, that’s a lot. Why is that a problem? Because properly-prepared sweet tea is made in advance. Ideally, it should sit overnight, but a few hours is probably okay. It will keep for a little while, but not indefinitely. If I make it by the pitcher, I’m going to end up throwing away most of it.
My goals are simple: I want it to taste like sweet tea (in the opinion of my Southern friends), and I have to be able to prepare it from scratch in about five minutes.
I’ve been fiddling with solutions to the problem, and I think I’ve come up with an acceptable solution. My method is based on my 20-ounce iced tea glasses, my ice machine (which makes very small cubes), and various other things specific to Red Lodge Books & Tea. Obviously, you’ll need to tweak it a bit for your own use.
For sweetening iced teas (especially boba tea), I keep simple syrup on hand all of the time. We make it using equal quantities of boiling water and plain sugar, and then cool it down to room temperature. It’s much easier than trying to mix granulated sugar into cold tea.
First, I add a tablespoon of strong black tea to the infuser — I use our Irish Breakfast Tea, which is a blend of Assam and Tanzanian tea. The leaves are finely broken, which maximizes the surface area for steeping.
To the leaves, I add four tablespoons of simple syrup and about 10oz of boiling water. I suppose I could use some alternate method for sweetening the tea, but I have never heard a request for diet sweet tea. If it’s not real sweet tea with sugar, it’s just sweetened tea, I suppose.
While it is steeping, I fill the glass all the way to the brim with ice.
I steep the tea for five minutes. I would never steep a cup of Irish breakfast tea that long for myself — especially with that much leaf — because I’m a bit of a purist and I don’t add milk or sugar. Steeping that long makes plain tea very bitter. Using this much sugar, however, offsets that bitterness, and adding it to during the steep makes the tea taste different than if it’s added after the fact.
When the tea is poured over the ice, most of the ice will melt. Add a straw and you’re good to go.
Is there some particular tea concoction that’s “your” tea drink? Is it something complicated? You’ll hear people every day in Starbucks ordering coffees that take twenty words to describe, but we don’t run in to that much in the tea bar … yet.
Why is it that more coffee drinkers than tea drinkers tend to be like the guys in this PVP Online comic? I think it’s a matter of education and consistency.
Most of our regulars at the tea bar are like me: they order something different each time they come in. I may go through phases where I drink nothing but malty Assam for a few days, but then I’m back to switching it up. I also drink different tea in the morning than I do in the afternoon or evening. Of course, I’m also that annoying guy that will go into a bar four times, order something completely different each time, and then ask for my “regular” on the fifth visit.
We do have some regulars that are consistent, but their drinks tend to be simple: a cup of sencha, Scottish breakfast with a touch of milk, or iced mango oolong. As people learn the menu and zero in on what they like, that is beginning to change a bit, though.
Amber is from the South. She likes her tea sweet, and she loves boba tea (a.k.a. “bubble tea”). I finally put the “Amber special” on the menu so she didn’t have to describe her boba tea made with Cinnamon Orange Spice tea, vanilla soy milk, and triple the usual sweet syrup.
Phyllis isn’t much of a tea fan, but she found herself drawn to Hammer & Cremesickle Red, which is a rooibos/honeybush blend. She likes it prepared as a latte with frothed 2% milk and a bit of honey.
Starbucks has dramatically changed coffee culture, much as McDonald’s has changed restaurants (I’m going to catch grief for that one, I know, but keep reading). You can go into a McDonald’s in an unfamiliar city, and you know that Big Mac and fries will be just like the ones back home. Similarly, you can go into any one of 19,555 Starbucks franchises and be comfortable that your half-caf double-shot venti skinny hazelnut macchiato will taste just like it would from the franchise back home. They have taught the world their own terminology (education) and made sure that the drinks are prepared exactly the same at each franchise (consistency).
Let’s look at those two factors as they apply to tea:
The world of tea is generally not a good place for consistency. Even for fans of a single type of tea, the options are legion. There are dozens of matchas, hundreds of oolongs, and each has its own unique flavor. My tea bar offers six types of milk (nonfat, 2%, whole, half-and-half, vanilla soy, and almond), where another may offer 1%, light soy, and whole. When I went into the tea business’ closest thing to a national chain (Teavana – you can read about my visit here), they didn’t offer milk at all. You may go into one tea shop that has a hundred Chinese green and white teas and an English tea shop that has only black teas.
There’s a strong parallel to be drawn here with independent bookstores and big chains. You can find exactly the same books at a Barnes & Noble in Austin, Texas as you’d find in San Francisco, Denver, or New York. On the other hand, two indie bookstores a block apart can offer completely different experiences.
Tea aficionados revel in this. I enjoy wandering into a tea shop that has dozens of different pu-erhs available and tasting something I’ve never had before, even though I know the odds of finding that 1935 Double Lions Tongqing Hao anywhere else are close to zero (and the odds of being able to afford it are similar).
Tea shops can help a lot with this problem by proper labeling and by knowing the products well enough to compare our wares with popular brands from elsewhere. If someone walks into my shop that likes Constant Comment, I can guide them to my closest loose-leaf blend (that would be the aforementioned Cinnamon Orange Spice). If someone buys a mountain-grown Wuyi oolong in my shop, the next tea shop they visit should be able to give them something with a similar flavor profile.
Consumers can help by asking questions. If I have a breakfast tea I enjoy, I’ll ask the shopkeeper what’s in the blend. Then I’ll know to ask for an Assam/Tanzanian black breakfast tea blend next time I want something similar. I watch (or ask) how much leaf they use and what temperature the water is. Again, if I don’t know how they brewed it, I can’t ask for it to be prepared that way next time.
The tea industry is where coffee and wine were a few decades ago. The average person has no idea what the difference is between a green tea and a white tea, but they know the difference between Merlot and Chardonnay. Tea people need to focus on education the same way wine and coffee people have done.
Educating customers is a bad thing for the mediocre shops. The more people learn about tea, the less likely they are to buy lower-grade products, and the less likely they are to buy from people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Once the person who’s been buying pre-sweetened chai from a box tastes fresh-brewed chai, they won’t be switching back.
On the other hand, education is a great thing for consumers and for good tea shops.
The more you know as a consumer, the better you’re able to find what you like and recognize the good products (and good prices). Educated consumers will frequent the better shops, and spend more money there, benefiting both the shop and the customer.
As my friends discovered that we were opening a tea bar at the bookstore, special requests began to pour in: Can you get me a first-flush Darjeeling? Will you have lapsang souchong? You’ll have gunpowder tea, right? Will you be stocking silver needle white tea? Are you going to have herbals? Can you bring in something good with ginger?
We selected our teas with a focus on “real” tea (Camellia sinensis) and related drinks like rooibos, honeybush, and maté. A few carefully-chosen herbals rounded out the mix. Then a friend asked if we were going to carry boba tea. Little did I know what that request would lead us to.
Stories vary, but the consensus seems to be that boba tea originated in Taiwan in the 1980s and took its sweet time (no pun intended) finding its way to the United States and picked up the nickname “bubble tea” because of the way it’s prepared. In Taiwan, it was called boba milk tea (波霸奶茶 or bōbà nǎichá), but it has many other names around the world. I have no idea whether there’s any truth to Boba Loca‘s story that “boba” is a children’s slang word for “nipple” in Mandarin.
Like chili or meatloaf, it seems that no two shops make boba tea the same way. What they all have in common is tapioca balls (“pearls”) sitting in the bottom of a chilled drink, and a fat straw big enough — just barely — to suck the pearls through. The “hip” places often use very sweet flavorings, similar to the ones used in sno-cones, and many of the boba “tea” drinks have no tea in them at all.
Typically, boba tea uses a base drink — typically a green or black tea — with milk and sweet syrup. This is placed in a shaker with ice and shaken into a bubbly froth (hence the appellation “bubble tea). The frothy mix is poured over tapioca pearls in a clear glass or plastic cup and served. As you drink the tea, the pearls randomly ride up the straw, and you find yourself with something chewy in your tea. It’s a joy watching people’s faces as they experience this for the first time!
I started asking people from the coasts, where boba is most popular, whether they thought it would make a good addition to our tea bar. The three most common answers were, “what the heck is boba tea?”, “yes, because then you’d be a real tea bar,” and “no, real tea bars don’t serve that stuff.” Given this massive lack of consensus, my wife and I flipped a coin and said, “What the heck? Let’s give it a shot.”
First decision: Since we are a tea bar, all of our boba would use real tea. After a bit of experimentation, I picked a nice black tea (organic English breakfast) and a jasmine green tea to use as a base. Two options should be adequate, right? How naïve I was!
Second decision: We’d keep the sweet syrup as basic as possible, and prepare it in advance. Since boba tea isn’t exactly a diet drink, we’d make it with real brown and white sugar, but we wouldn’t make it overly sweet.
The day after we launched our test in the store, a friend from the west coast told me that boba with chai tea is quite popular in Seattle. Coincidentally, we had recently brought in a new organic fair-trade chocolate chai for the tea bar, made with pu-erh tea and yerba maté. We gave it a shot, and it was an immediate hit. My attempt to simplify choices by only offering two base teas went right out the window. By the end of the day, we were making boba with any of the 80 teas we have at the bar.
We also found that special requests didn’t stop at the base tea. Miss Amber, a good customer of ours from another shop down the street, is from the South, and she likes her tea very sweet! We now have a “Miss Amber Boba,” made from cinnamon orange spice tea and about three times the normal amount of syrup.
Boba tea has turned out not to be the novelty drink we expected it to be, but a mainstay of the menu, especially on hot days. Some experiments in our store turn out to be wild successes and some turn out to be dismal flops. I’m going to give boba tea a “success” rating, and start looking for the next experiment. Thai red tea, perhaps?