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Myths & Legends At Last!

Myths & Legends Header Since I first announced I was working on a book called Myths & Legends of Tea, a lot has happened. For one thing, the project got delayed, interrupted, and re-prioritized for almost two years. For another, it was broken into four volumes. I am pleased to announce, however, that Volume 1 is done! The Amazon Kindle edition and the Apple iBook edition are available now. I’ll be posting some free excerpts and news about the book over the next week, interspersed with all of my World Tea Expo posts. This first volume in the series features six stories, each accompanied by a profile of the tea featured in the story, and a prologue that sets the stage. The stories are:

Prologue: The Origin of Tea

China, 2737 BC One of the most-recited myths in the tea world is that of Shennong, the legendary Chinese emperor who introduced agriculture to China, worked extensively with herbs to create the first Chinese pharmacopoeia, and invented acupuncture. In working with herbs, Shennong discovered that boiling water somehow made even “bad” water healthy to drink. One day, Shennong settles under a tree to relax with a cup of hot water. As he rests and waits for the water to cool, leaves from the tree blow unnoticed into his cup. After a while, he notices a heavenly aroma. He raises the cup to his lips and becomes the first man to enjoy what is now the world’s most popular drink.

The Japanese Tea Ceremony: Tea, Serenity & Death

Japan, 1591 It is never wise to offend a daimyo, as Tea Master Sen no Rikyū discovers when his patron Toyotomi Hideyoshi commands Rikyū to commit seppuku (ritual suicide). Rikyū, who developed the Japanese tea ceremony as we know it today, asks Hideyoshi for permission to conduct one last ceremony. Rikyū shares his philosophy, his poetry, and the beauty and serenity of the tea ceremony with four of his disciples. Each is given a gift and all but one of his disciples, Zen priest Nanpō Sōkei, leave the tearoom. Rikyū hands him a sword. It is time.

The Iron Goddess of Mercy

China, 1761 During the reign of the Qianlong Emperor, the sixth emperor of the Qing Dynasty, a poor farmer by the name of Wei is walking to market. He notices a crumbling abandoned temple of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. Every time he passes the temple, Wei stops for a while to fix it up. He works on the pathway, the gates, the temple building, and the statue of the goddess. When he finishes, the goddess appears to him in a dream and gives him a reward: the tea plant that becomes the heart of one of the greatest oolong teas.

Earl Grey: This Water Sucks!

England, 1806 Lord Charles, soon to become the second Earl Grey, is content at his home in Howick Hall, save one unhappy thing: the water is terrible, and it produces quite an inferior cup of tea. He and Lady Grey have experimented to no avail, and they finally turn to a tea expert for help. Chen shows up at Howick with a huge chest of tea and a virtual mobile laboratory of bottles and vials containing everything from essential oils to ground herbs. We know the rest. Even though Charles goes on to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, his own fame will be eclipsed by the tea that bears his name.

Teatime in Georgia: The Birth of Southern Sweet Tea

United States, 1870 One oft-repeated story is that iced tea was invented in 1904 by a vendor named Richard Blechynden at the St. Louis World’s Fair. He was having little luck selling hot tea, says the story, and dropped ice cubes in the tea, creating the first iced tea. Nice story, but it doesn’t account for the 1879 cookbook Housekeeping in Old Virginia, which includes a recipe for iced Southern sweet tea. Where did iced tea really come from? Our version of the legend is set in Georgia, where a lady named Harriet Suggett is struggling to come up with an alternative to the popular alcoholic tea punches of the day for an event that includes members of the rapidly-growing temperance societies.

Oriental Beauty: The Braggart’s Tea

Taiwan, 1931 Huang is very good at keeping his head down. He comes from a prominent family that has been farming in Beipu for many generations, but since his father and brother were killed in the uprising almost 25 years ago, Huang has tried not to draw too much attention to himself. When his tea crop is destroyed by leafhopper insects, he is near despair. That field of tea is all that he and his mother, Lin, have to live on. The leaves are chewed, the tips have gone white, and his neighbors have already given up. But Huang doesn’t give up so easily!

Post-apocalyptic Earl Grey

Australia, 20 years from now The zombie apocalypse has spread mercilessly across the country. Only small pockets of the uninfected remain. Sam’s band of survivors is a small one, and they have resigned themselves to a long and difficult road ahead. It will be a much easier road, though, if they can only lay their hands on some tea. Earl Grey, perhaps. Little do they know how much that tea will change their lives… I am particularly excited about the cover of the book, which uses a photograph by Nicholas Han of the sunset over a tea plantation in Taiwan. Myths and Legends of Tea cover

Tea Around the World

Tea Around the World header

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.

Pouring Moroccan Mint tea

The teapot and glasses are as much a part of the experience as the tea is, as chelle marie explains

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!

Tagged! A tea background story

Oh, these silly tagging things that go around. Normally, I ignore them, but Geoffrey Norman (a.k.a. the Lazy Literatus) tagged me for a tea-related Q&A and it’s hard to resist when he looks at you with those big puppy dog eyes…


(1) First, let’s start with how you were introduced and fell in love with the wonderful beverage of tea.

Easy. I hate coffee.

I got my start with tea as a comfort thing when I was little. Any time I got sick, Mom’s immediate response was tea and toast. Tea relaxes me and makes me feel like I’m being taken care of. It was many years later that I discovered the amazing variety of beverages you can produce with the Camellia sinensis plant. There’s a lot beyond black tea in teabags and loose green tea leaves in the Chinese restaurant!

(2) What was the very first tea blend you ever tried?

I hereby define the word “blend” to mean a combination of ingredients, thus disqualifying Lipton teabags and the aforementioned green tea in the Chinese restaurant. That means the answer is “Morning Thunder” from Celestial Seasonings (tagline: The Awakening Power of a Thousand Charging Buffalo). I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, which is where Celestial Seasonings is based, so it was ubiquitous when I was in junior high and high school. Then, my junior year in high school I got a job driving a delivery truck for an office supply store, and Celestial Seasonings was one of my stops.

(3) When did you start your tea blog and what was your hope for creating it?

The first tea-related post I wrote on my other blog was in June of 2011, shortly after opening my tea bar. About four months later, I gathered all of the tea-related posts from that blog and split them off into a new one: Tea With Gary. That’s what you’re reading now.

(4) List one thing most rewarding about your blog and one thing most discouraging.

Rewarding: I have met some awesome people through tea blogging, and I feel like I’ve debunked some myths about tea.

Discouraging: Where are my tens of thousands of screaming fans? Hey, no offense to the hundreds of readers I do have, but I had hoped for more after 2-1/2 years.

(5) What type of tea are you most likely to be caught sipping on?

I drink a lot of different kinds of tea, but the two I’m most likely to be drinking are Iron Goddess of Mercy oolong (a.k.a. Tieguanyin) and various shu pu-erhs.

(6) Favorite tea latte to indulge in?

When I make myself a tea latte, it’s almost always masala chai. I like a nice spicy chai with frothy milk, a dash of agave nectar, and a sprinkle of cinnamon on the foam.

(7) Favorite treat to pair with your tea?

A lightly-salted big soft Bavarian-style pretzel.

(8) If there was one place in the world that you could explore tea culture at, where would it be and why?

Oh, my, that’s a rough question. For tea culture, it would have to be Japan. When I was last there I hadn’t really explored Japanese tea culture and ceremony, and I’d like to go back now that I know a little bit about it. As for tea horticulture, I’d like to visit some tea plantations in either China or Kenya.

(9) Any tea time ritual you have that you’d like to share?

Unfortunately, I don’t take the time for ritual very often. Most of the time I’m making a quick cup to consume while I do something else.

When I do observe a ritual, it really varies with the type of tea I’m drinking. I prepare and drink my pu-erh differently than my matcha, obviously.

(10) Time of day you enjoy drinking tea the most: Morning, Noon, Night or Anytime?

Any time. Any time at all. Being a bit ADD, the caffeine doesn’t affect me the same way it affects normal people. I do have a tendency to drink tea that’s lighter in the caffeine at night, though (e.g., houjicha), or even switch to rooibos.

(11) What’s one thing you wish for tea in the future?

That there’s never one single business and one single variety that reaches the levels of dominance that Starbucks has reached in coffee. I like tea being a different experience depending on where I go and who I’m with. I enjoy every tea shop having a unique atmosphere, a unique selection, and their own way of presenting the tea. Diversity is a great thing, and I want the diversity in the tea world to increase rather than decrease.

Vietnamese Lotus Tea

Nelumbo nucifera - the sacred lotus

Nelumbo nucifera – the sacred lotus

Although my tastes generally run to non-flavored tea, I have long enjoyed Chinese jasmine tea. Technically, it is scented rather than flavored, but either way you’re getting more than just the flavor and aroma of the tea. The producer starts with a good green tea, produces in the Chinese manner (pan-fired rather than steamed, as the Japanese do). They pick fresh jasmine blossoms and layer them in with the tea overnight. The scent from the jasmine infuses the tea, and in the morning they take the jasmine blossoms out and re-dry the tea to remove the moisture from the flowers. This process is typically repeated up to about six or seven times.

I speak here of the traditional production method. Cheap green tea can be made by simply spraying jasmine extract onto tea leaves.

At World Tea Expo this year, one of my goals was to expand my knowledge of tea from parts of the world other than the ones we most encounter in the U.S. (China, India, Japan, Kenya, and Sri Lanka) and to expand the tea selection in my tea bar. I made quite a few new discoveries, one of which was lotus blossom tea from Vietnam.


If you walk into an average tea shop, you’re not likely to encounter much Vietnamese tea, if any at all. Vietnam, however, is the sixth-largest producer of tea in the world, with annual production approaching 200,000 tonnes — over double that of Japan, which has fallen to tenth place.

Vietnam - Noon Gate in Hue

The Noon Gate in Hue and the Vietnamese flag. The photo I based this on comes from the Vietnamese tourist bureau.

Green tea in Vietnam is produced as it is in China. The tradition of lotus blossom tea is similar to that of jasmine tea, but with a twist. Unlike a jasmine flower, a lotus blossom is a large bloom that seals up tightly like a tulip. By ancient Vietnamese tradition, lotus blossom tea is produced by filling fresh lotuses with green tea and binding the blossom together overnight. In the morning, the flower is opened and the highly-scented tea extracted. Today, the process is more likely to be like jasmine tea. Often, freshly-picked lotuses — or just the stamens of the flowers — are sealed up with the tea in an airtight container or baked with the tea.

Lotus tea, like jasmine tea, gets more aroma than flavor from the flower. Since lotus is much less delicate than jasmine, I settled on a pretty short brewing time of two minutes. When I raised the cup to my nose, the first thing to hit me was the smell of anise (licorice). I’m not a big licorice fan, so I was a bit put off, but I took another whiff. Beneath that strong anise is the vegetal aroma so common with Chinese green teas, but a bit earthier. The taste is very pleasant with a nice medium body to it.

The lotus tea I have came from the Thái Nguyên province in northeastern Vietnam. It is a mountainous area where a lot of Vietnam’s tea is grown.

I don’t know if it’s going to become one of the most popular teas in the tea bar, but it will certainly become one of our regular offerings. I’ve begun recommending it to people who want to try something a bit different, and reactions have been mostly either “wow!” or “meh.” If you like floral tea and you’re ready to move beyond the jasmine blossoms of China and the cherry blossoms of Japan, then I would definitely recommend trying this unique Vietnamese treat.

Chanoyu: The Way of Tea

This is part two of my article on the Japanese stop of our World Tea Tasting Tour. Part one was posted a few days ago.

The Tea Ceremony

The Japanese tea ceremony has been around for a very long time, but it was solidified into its current form in the 1500s by a man named Sen no Rikyū. He was an adherent of a philosophy called wabi-sabi, which honors and treasures simplicity, transience, asymmetry, and finding the beauty in imperfection. Rikyū applied this to the tea ceremony, developing what became known as chanoyu: the Way of Tea.

He removed unnecessary ornamentation from tearooms, typically reducing the decor to a single scroll on the wall and a flower arrangement designed to harmonize with the garden outside. Everything else in the room was functional. Chanoyu teaches four fundamental principles known as wa kei sei jaku, intended to be not only the core of the tea ceremony, but a representation of the principles to incorporate into daily life.

wa kei sei jaku

Wa (harmony) was his ultimate ideal. From harmony comes peace. Guest and host should be in harmony and man should strive for harmony with nature, rather than attempting to dominate nature.

Kei (respect) allows people to accept and understand others even when you do not agree with them. In a tea ceremony the guest must respect the host and the host must respect the guest, making them equals. The simplest vase should be treated as well as the most expensive, and the same politeness and purity of heart should be extended to your servant as to your master.

Sei (purity) is a part of the ritual of the tea ceremony, cleaning everything beforehand and wiping each vessel with a special cloth before using it. But that is only an outward reflection of the purity of the heart and soul that brings the harmony and respect. In accordance with wabi-cha, imperfection was to be prized here as well. To Rikyū, the ultimate expression of purity was the garden after he spent hours grooming it and several leaves settled randomly on the assiduously manicured walkway.

Finally, Jaku (tranquility) is the ultimate goal of enlightenment and selflessness. It is also the fresh beginning as you go back with fresh perspective to examine the way you have chosen to implement harmony, respect, and purity into your life.

Chawan, Chashaku, Chasen, Chaki

There is a long list of implements that are used in the preparation of matcha, which is the powdered tea used in the tea ceremony. The four that I concentrated on in this class were the bowl, scoop, whisk, and caddy. It could be argued that others are as important, or even more important, but I chose to focus on the ones that are used at home when you make matcha, even if you are not participating in a tea ceremony. The link in the slide above is a great place to learn all about the ceremony itself, and the site contains a detailed list of chanoyu utensils.

In preparing matcha, the bamboo scoop is used to take tea powder and place it in the bowl. After adding water, the whisk is used not only to mix the powder, but to aerate the mixture, leaving it slightly frothy.

Of all of the tools of chanoyu, the bowl is probably the most personal.


We were lucky enough to have Karin Solberg, who created the matcha bowls we sell at our store, talk about the process of creating and decorating the bowls. Karin has done some lovely work, and we enjoyed learning from her. There is a picture showing some of her bowls in part 1 of this article.

I have said many times before that tea is a very personal thing. Nobody can tell you what tastes good to you. The “right” way for me to enjoy a particular tea could be quite different than the “right” way for you to enjoy that same tea. To Rikyū, however, the tea ceremony was not about what made your matcha taste the best. It was all about using the ritual to clear your mind and help you to see things more clearly. It was about achieving harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility.

Outside of the ceremony, however, I would argue that your way of relaxing is the right way of relaxing, whether it means sitting on your front porch with a steaming hot cup of Earl Grey, preparing a delicate silver needle tea to enjoy with a friend, or laying back in the bathtub with a fragrant jasmine green tea. Tea should be a pleasure, not a chore, and the ceremony is about sharing that pleasure with your friends and guests.

Meditative Ritual

If you live in the area and were unable to attend this session, I sure hope to see you at one of our future stops on our World Tea Tasting Tour. Follow the link for the full schedule, and follow us on Facebook or Twitter for regular updates (the event invitations on Facebook have the most information).

Japan – Bancha to Matcha: Stop 4 on the World Tea Tasting Tour

In 1191, a Buddhist monk named Eisai brought tea to Japan, and the tea world has never been the same. In Japan, when you say “tea,” you mean “green tea,” and that’s what we focused on. Japan is known for its grassy steamed teas, so we started this event there. We went on to some of Japan’s lesser-known specialty teas, and wrapped up with matcha, the powdered tea used in the Japanese tea ceremony, which we import directly from Japan.

Japan title slide

We’re very excited to be working with resident artist Karin Solberg from the Red Lodge Clay Center, and we are featuring some of her matcha bowls in the store, and she came in to talk about them at this stop in the tour.

The teas we tasted were:

  • Organic Sencha
  • Gyokuro
  • Organic Houjicha (roasted green tea)
  • Organic Genmaicha (toasted rice tea)
  • Organic Matcha
Japan is the world’s 8th largest producer of tea, with about 119,000 acres cultivated and an annual production of 101,500 tons. These numbers are from before the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, which has shut down some of Japan’s tea production. The overwhelming majority of Japanese tea is consumed domestically, with only 2,105 tons exported, or about 2% of production. The country that purchases the most Japanese tea is the United States.
We discussed the Fukushima Daiichi disaster at some length, but instead of including that information here, I’m going to write a full blog post about its effect on Japan’s tea industry when I have a chance.
There are four base grades of tea in Japan:
  • Kukicha   (“twig tea”)
  • Bancha   (“coarse sencha”)
  • Sencha   (“decocted tea”)
  • Gyokuro   (“jade dew”)
We did not taste kukicha or bancha, proceeding instead to the two higher grades.
Not all organic tea from Japan will carry the USDA Organic seal. Many Japanese tea farmers prefer to work with their own country’s organization and carry the JAS (Japan Agriculture Standard) Organic seal instead.
Note the short steep times and cool water used for these teas. Recommendations for the top grades of Gyokuro go down as far as 40 degrees C (104 F).
After tasting the two more mainstream Japanese green teas, we went on two a couple of their wonderful specialty blends: Houjicha and Genmaicha.
We wrapped up the tasting with Japan’s famous powdered green tea: matcha. We tasted a USDA organic matcha from Aoi, prepared in a traditional chawan, or matcha bowl. Then we made matcha lattes using a sweetened matcha powder with frothed milk.
We are lucky to have Karin Solberg, a local artist who works in pottery, producing matcha bowls for us. She talked about the traditions of the bowls, how they are made, and why they are designed as they are. All of the bowls in the picture below are Karin’s.
Matcha Equipment
In part two of this article, I’ll talk more about Karin and about the Japanese tea ceremony and the Way of Tea.
If you live in the area and were unable to attend this session, I sure hope to see you at one of our future stops on our World Tea Tasting Tour. Follow the link for the full schedule, and follow us on Facebook or Twitter for regular updates (the event invitations on Facebook have the most information).

The World Tea Tasting Tour at Red Lodge Books & Tea

Over the next couple of months, Red Lodge Books & Tea will be taking you on a world tour of tea with a series of tastings and classes focused on teas from all around the world. The events will be at our tea bar on Fridays from 5:00 to 6:30. At each session, we’ll taste five to seven teas from a different country as we explore a bit of the country’s geography and tea culture. I will put a quick summary of each stop on the tour up here on the blog for those who can’t attend or who don’t remember which teas we covered.

The full tour consists of:

Friday, Feb 15All the Tea in China
Friday, Mar 1Tea. Earl Grey. Hot. (England)
Friday, Mar 8It’s Always Tea Time in India
Friday, Mar 15 — Japan: Bancha to Matcha (notes Part 1 and Part 2)
Friday, Mar 22Deepest Africa: The Tea of Kenya
Friday, Mar 29The Oolongs of Taiwan
Friday, Apr 5Rooibos from South Africa
Friday, Apr 12Yerba Maté from Argentina
Friday, Apr 26 — China part II: Pu-Erh
Friday, May 3 — India part II: Masala Chai

Each class will cost $5.00, which includes the tea tasting itself and a $5.00 off coupon that can be used that night for any tea, teaware, or tea-related books that we sell.

There will be more information posted on the tea bar’s Facebook page before each event, including a list of the teas that we will taste in each event.

UPDATE MARCH 9: As I blog about each of these experiences, I’m going to create a link from this post to the post containing the outline and tasting notes. I’ve linked the first two.

UPDATE MARCH 23: I changed the dates of the last two events. There will not be a tasting on April 19.

What’s the difference between Japanese and Chinese green tea?

sencha leaves

Japanese sencha leaves

As I did last month and the month before, I took a look at some of the search terms that brought people to this blog and found a question that I didn’t really address. This time: “What’s the difference between Japanese and Chinese green tea?” The obvious smart-aleck answer is that one comes from Japan and the other comes from China, but it runs a bit deeper than that.

First off, it’s not the plants themselves. The first varietal discovered of the tea plant is Camellia sinensis var. sinensis: the Chinese tea plant. About 1400 years ago, during the Sui Dynasty, Buddhist monks introduced tea — and the tea plant — to Japan. This means that the same varietal of tea plant is growing in China and Japan.

Terroir, on the other hand, can definitely have an effect. The climate, soil, and other factors can definitely affect the taste of the tea. Also, the Japanese have been crossbreeding and developing their strains of tea plant for over a millennium.

The biggest factor in the taste, though, is a very simple one: the process.

The difference between black tea and green tea is oxidation. Black tea is fully (or near-fully) oxidized, while green tea is not oxidized at all. There is an enzyme in the tea leaf that starts the oxidation process as soon as the leaf has been broken or bruised. Making green tea requires a “kill green” step that destroys the enzyme and stops the tea from oxidizing. That step requires heating the tea leaves quickly to at least 140 degrees.

To make Japanese green teas, such as sencha, bancha, and gyokuro, the leaves are steamed. To make Chinese green teas, such as dragonwell or gunpowder tea, the leaves are pan-fired. Just this simple difference in processing gives Japanese teas a rich grassy flavor and Chinese greens more of a vegetal character.

Granted, I am oversimplifying, but this is the fundamental answer to the question.

Old familiar blends vs. creative house blends

It’s a dilemma for anyone who owns or manages a tearoom: how many different teas shall I carry and how many of them should be funky house blends? Looking at sales for 2011, our top four sellers were very traditional teas: an earl grey, a breakfast blend, a masala chai, and a Moroccan mint (note that only one of those is unflavored). The next six were all creative flavored teas.

UPDATE March 2013: Results for 2012 weren’t much different from the 2011 results cited above.

Reading that may make you think that the classics aren’t important for the tea bar, but let’s look behind those numbers:

First of all, those only reflect our bulk tea sales, not sales by the cup. I don’t have a good system in place for tracking sales by the cup — especially since we make some special by the cup blends for our regulars — but I’d guess that a lot more of our cup sales are straight traditional tea than the bulk numbers indicate. When I’m behind the bar, I sell a lot of Darjeeling, assam, sencha, silver needle, dragonwell, Scottish breakfast, jasmine green, taiguanyin, and shu pu-erh by the cup.

Second, those numbers include web sales. On the web, there are many many sources for sencha or Darjeeling, and we compete against the huge Internet retailers who can undercut our prices. On the other hand, there is only one source for our house blends like Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey or Coyotes of the Purple Sage. We sell very little dragonwell on the web site compared to our house blends.

When deciding what tea to carry in your shop, the first thing to ask yourself is, who is your target audience? If you want to capture the Celestial Seasonings fan, you want to have a lot of flavored blends with colorful logos and clever names. If you want to capture the serious tea fan, you’d better have a good selection of unflavored tea of various styles and origins.

Of the styles, a casual shop would be expected to have black and green at the very least, with at least one white and one oolong. A more serious shop should expand the oolong selection significantly and add a couple more white teas and at least one or two pu-erhs. The sign of a teahouse that really caters to the connoisseur would be an extensive collection of ripe (shu) and raw (sheng) pu-erh in both loose and cake form, and a yellow tea or two.

When it comes to origins, a shop can go two different ways: specialized or generalized. It’s easy to put together a tea selection covering every style where all of the tea comes from China. It’s possible to cover the four basic styles from countries like India and Kenya, although the selection of oolongs and whites will be pretty sketchy. In my opinion, a generalized shop should have tea from, at the very least, China, Japan, Taiwan, India, Kenya, and Sri Lanka.

If you are going to offer house blends, I’ve found that they do best with unique names, preferably tied to your theme or location. Your customers can find English Breakfast and Moroccan Mint anywhere, and many would argue that you should use exactly those names so that your customers can find something familiar. On the other hand, hearty adventurers who find a tea shop in New York offering Buffalo Breakfast and Manhattan Mint are likely to come back for more if they like it instead of just grabbing generic English Breakfast and Moroccan mint at the next store they see.

You’ll want to offer some caffeine-free alternatives as well. It’s a philosophical decision whether you want to offer decaffeinated tea, naturally caffeine-free alternatives (e.g., rooibos), or both. Lately, we have a lot more customers specifically looking for rooibos. Most of them want flavored blends, but there’s enough demand to keep plain organic red and green rooibos available as well.

The bottom line is that your tea shop should reflect your personality. If people want a drab corporate-looking shop, they’ll go to Teavana. An independent tearoom should be unique, and the tea selection is even more important than the decor in conveying that uniqueness.

A Tea Tasting and Class

Teapot and CupsThis article first appeared in the May 2010 issue of the Local Rag newspaper, describing a tea tasting and class I held at our bookstore before we added the tea bar.

When I was a kid, tea was something that came in bags with a little tag that said “Lipton.” Visits to a Chinese or Japanese restaurant introduced me to the “other” kind of tea: green tea. The first time I ordered tea in a nice restaurant, I encountered the fancy presentation box, containing exotic varieties of tea like chamomile, Earl Grey, English breakfast tea, and Constant Comment. In high school, I drove a delivery truck for an office supply store in Boulder, Colorado, and one of my stops was Celestial Seasonings.

By that time, I was probably a typical American tea consumer. I classified teas into herbal, green, medicinal, and “ordinary.” Not until quite some time later did I discover just how much I was missing, and in an April tea tasting at Red Lodge Books, I tried to pass on a bit of what I’ve learned. This article is a distillation of the talk I gave that day.

All “true” tea comes from the same plant: Camellia sinensis. There are three major variants. The China bush (var. sinensis), the Assam bush (var. assamica) from India, and the Java bush (var. cambodi). Within those broad categories are over 1,000 individual subvarieties. Just as red climbing roses and yellow tree roses are both roses, all of these subvarieties are still Camellia sinensis, the tea plant.

There are six generally-accepted ways to process Camellia sinensis leaves, which produce white, yellow, green, oolong, black, and pu-erh. Yellow tea is so rare that I decided not to cover it. All “true” teas have caffeine, including the delicate whites and greens. Red tea (a.k.a. African rooibos), which I’ll discuss next month, is made from a different plant that does not have caffeine.

White Tea

White tea is the least-processed, and generally lightest and sweetest-flavored tea. It is typically more expensive than black or green teas, and is recognized as having significant health benefits. It is brewed at a lower temperature, and steeped for a short time. The leaves can be re-used, to make 2-3 cups of tea from one teabag or container.

The white tea we tasted at the bookstore was Rishi’s organic Silver Needle (Bai Hao Yin Zhen), from the Fujian province of China. This tea was voted the best tea in the world at the 2008 World Tea Championships, and the best white tea in 2009. The taste is very light and subtle, and there is a wonderful jasmine-infused version available as well.

White teas start out as young budsets (an early bud with or two leaves). After picking, they are “wilted” indoors to get some of the moisture out, and then baked or panned. After a light rolling of the leaves, they are dried and packaged for shipment.

Green Tea

Green tea is the traditional tea of China and Japan. It has long been lauded for its healthiness, and intricate ceremonies have been developed around its preparation. People study the Japanese Tea Ceremony for years before performing it publicly. Like white tea, it is brewed at lower temperatures, and can yield 2-3 infusions.

The green tea we tasted was an organic Sencha from the Kagoshima Prefecture of Japan; voted the best green tea in the 2008 championships. It is a very traditional green tea, grown in volcanic soil, yielding a deep almost grassy flavor.

After picking, the leaves are steamed or panned, rolled, and then dried. Sometimes, they’ll be formed into balls or other shapes before drying.

Oolong Tea

Oolong is a very highly-processed tea; one of the most complex to produce. It is generally flavorful and rich without the bitterness often associated with black teas. Unlike green and white teas, the leaves are partially oxidized, which darkens the color and intensifies the flavor.

We tasted an organic Wuyi Oolong. The Wuyi Mountains in Northern Fujian are where oolong tea was first produced, and this variety has a roasted aroma, complex flavor, and sweet finish.

To make oolong tea, the freshly-picked leaves are first wilted (partially dried) in the sun, and then again indoors. They are tossed in a basket to bruise them, and then partially oxidized (typically anywhere from 30-70%). After oxidation, the leaves are baked or panned, and then rolled. The final steps are drying and firing, which produces the smoky aroma.

Black Tea

By far the most common type of tea in Europe and India, black tea is usually brewed hot and strong. Many cultures serve it with milk, sugar, or both to mitigate its inherent bitterness, and it is often flavored with lemon, orange, or other spices (Red Lodge Books has a fascinating vanilla black tea). Black tea flavored with bergamot is known as “Earl Grey.” Black teas are also the basis of English and Irish breakfast tea. Unlike white, green, and oolong teas, black teas are generally only infused once: use the leaves and discard them.

At the tasting, we had Rishi’s organic fair-trade China Breakfast, which won “best breakfast blend” at the 2009 World Tea Championships. It’s rich, malty, and robust; great for the first cup of the morning.

Black teas are usually made with an indoor wilting, followed by a cutting or crushing step. This can range from a light crush to a full “CTC” (crush-tear-curl). This exposes more of the leaf’s insides to assist in oxidation. Black teas are 100% oxidized, yielding higher caffeine content and stronger flavor. Following oxidation, leaves are rolled and dried.


This is probably the least familiar process to Americans, but it has been around in China for centuries. What differentiates it from black or oolong tea is a fermentation step at the end of processing. Although the term “fermented” is often incorrectly used instead of “oxidizing” for black teas, pu-erh is the only variety that is actually fermented.

2009 Tong Qing Tang

A cake of 2009 Tong Qing Tang Pu-erh tea.

If you’ve ever had a mulch pile, you’re familiar with the process: plant matter is piled up wet, and left alone. The inside of the pile grows hotter as it ferments. Unlike most teas, which are served as fresh as possible, pu-erh is often compressed into cakes (sometimes immense bricks) that can be stored for years. Century-old pu-erh cakes are sold at auctions for thousands of dollars.

Pu-erh is brewed in boiling hot water, and can be re-infused at least 6-8 times. I’ve used leaves ten times and still gotten good flavor from the tenth infusion.

At the tasting, we had a classic loose-leaf organic fair-trade pu-erh from Yunnan, China. The flavor was earthy and rich. The description may seem off-putting to some, but it’s definitely worth trying a good pu-erh.

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