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!
I suppose tea trivia is like any other kind of trivia. Some of the most fascinating trivia is also some of the least accurate. I did a little bit of searching around the web for tea trivia, and found some that were a little bit off, some that were just badly phrased, and some that were flat-out wrong. Here, for your reading enjoyment, are four of those inaccurate gems I dug up.
1. Iced tea was invented at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair by an Englishman named Richard Blechynden.
WRONG! This was the first “fact” in the top Google search for tea trivia (“51 Tea Facts Every Tea Lover Should Know“). The present a compelling explanation that it was hot, and his tea wasn’t selling, so he poured it over ice, thus inventing iced tea!
That’s a cool story — and it’s one you can find all over the Internet, but it’s all ruined if you happen to take a peak at Housekeeping in Old Virginia, by Marion Cabell Tyree. It was published in 1877, proving that iced tea had been around long before the St. Louis World’s Fair.
As a side note, Mrs. S. T. wouldn’t have had to “correct the astringent tendency” if she had used cooler water and not left the leaves sitting in them all day long.
2. The only tea plantation in the United States is located in South Carolina.
WRONG! Or at least quite out-of-date. This is the first piece of trivia on the tea page at funtrivia.com. There is, indeed, a fairly sizable plantation called the Charleston Tea Plantation in South Carolina, but they are far from being the only tea plantation in the U.S. There are also producing tea plantations in Washington (I have some of their white tea), Oregon, and Alabama. There are dozens of small growers in Hawaii, and new plantations that aren’t in production yet in various other states.
3. Tea bags were invented in 1908 in the United States by Thomas Sullivan.
WRONG! We’re going back here to the “51 Tea Facts” website from our first false “fact” above. This is their second piece of trivia, and so far, they’re batting zero. Again, they tell a fun story, but the story doesn’t address United States Patent #723,287, which was filed in 1901 and issued in 1903.
This pretty clearly indicates that Roberta C. Lawson and Mary McLaren invented the teabag well before Thomas Sullivan supposedly sent out little fabric pouches of tea that confused people put in their teapots.
4. Restaurants in Georgia are required by law to serve sweet tea
WRONG, but with a kernel of truth. Georgia Representative John Noel (D-Atlanta) did indeed file a bill with four co-sponsors just before April Fools Day 2003. He said it was “an attempt to bring a little humor to the Legislature.” The bill never made it out of committee. It said:
(a) As used in this Code section, the term ‘sweet tea’ means iced tea which is sweetened with sugar at the time that it is brewed.
(b) Any food service establishment which serves iced tea must serve sweet tea. Such an establishment may serve unsweetened tea but in such case must also serve sweet tea.
(c) Any person who violates this Code section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature.”
Although I have a lot of friends in the South that would have supported this bill, it definitely did not become law.
5. The tea dumped in Boston Harbor in 1773 was in bricks
WRONG! I’ve seen this picture all over social media today with the caption, “This is what the tea looked like that was dumped into the Boston harbor.”
No. No it isn’t. As this excellent debunking points out, historians at the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum say that the three ships that were raided that night contained 240 chests of Bohea, 15 of Congou, 10 of Souchong (all black teas), 60 of Singlo, and 15 of Hyson (both green teas)–all in loose-leaf form. Not a brick of compressed tea to be seen.
While writing this post, I’m enjoying a cup of wild shu (“ripe”) pu-erh, which has been out of stock in my tea bar for months. I’m very happy that we just got it back in. It’s a 6-year-old pu-erh that comes in brick form (unlike the tea at the Boston Tea Party), and it is one of the richest, earthiest, most complex shu pu-erh teas I have. I love this stuff.
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.
Here’s a tip for my fellow Yankees: if a Southern friend asks for a cup of sweet tea, do not hand them a glass of iced tea and a couple of packets of sweetener. Sweet tea and sweetened tea are simply not the same thing.
They take their sweet tea quite seriously in Georgia. A decade ago, Georgia State Representative John Noel, along with four co-sponsors, introduced House Bill 819. The bill demanded that if a restaurant in Georgia served iced tea at all, it must serve sweet tea. The sponsors admitted that the bill was an April Fools Day joke, but that they were half-serious about it. The bill said:
(a) As used in this Code section, the term ‘sweet tea’ means iced tea which is sweetened with sugar at the time that it is brewed.
(b) Any food service establishment which served iced tea must serve sweet tea. Such an establishment may serve unsweetened tea but in such case must also serve sweet tea.
(c) Any person who violates this Code section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature.
There is no universal perfect glass of sweet tea any more than there’s a universal perfect cup of tea. There are, however, some simple rules you can follow to keep from embarrassing yourself in front of any guests you may have from Georgia.
Rule 1: Start with strong black tea. Even though sweet tea began as a green tea drink (more on that below), modern sweet tea is made with black tea steeped longer than most tea aficionados would approve.
Rule 2: Use plain white sugar, and lots of it. No artificial sweetener, no brown sugar, just good old-fashioned cane sugar.
Rule 3: The sugar goes in while the water is hot — preferably while the tea is brewing. Do not add the sugar after you chill the tea!
Rule 4: The tea needs to sit for a while in the fridge before serving. Overnight is good, but plan a few hours at least.
Rule 5: Additional ingredients like lemon and fresh mint leaves are a nice touch, but they are optional. Do not add mint or lemon without asking first. Serve it on the side.
So let’s back up a minute. Did I say above that sweet tea was originally made with green tea? Yes, indeed. The oldest know recipe for sweet tea comes from Housekeeping in Old Virginia by Marion Cabell Tyree, a cookbook first published in 1879, and it calls for green tea. In fact, the majority of sweet tea was made from green tea until World War II, when Americans disapproved of almost anything Japanese and switched to Indian (or Ceylon) black teas instead.
As any black tea drinker knows, the longer you let the tea steep, the stronger and more astringent it gets. For the most part, if you’re going to steep that tea longer than five minutes, you’ll be adding something to cut the bitterness. Personally, three minutes is plenty for me with most black teas. But with a Southern sweet tea, five minutes is a bare minimum. I’ve seen recipes calling for anything from seven minutes up to half an hour of steeping time.
Since the tea will be diluted with ice later, it’s traditional to use more tea leaf as well. Where I’d use a tablespoon of black tea leaves per pint of water for plain hot black tea, I use twice that much for sweet tea. An ounce of leaf per quart of water is not excessive. You can use teabags if you wish, but I think you get better results with loose whole leaf tea.
As per rule 2 above, don’t skimp on the sugar, either. About 3/8 of a cup of sugar per quart of water works well, but I know few Southern belles that would complain if you went up to 1/2 cup. For optimal results, dissolve the sugar completely in the water before steeping the tea in it, and make sure that water is boiling.
Once you’ve removed the tea leaves, put the pitcher in the fridge and let it chill down. For best results, it should be cold before you pour it over the ice to serve it.
I rarely sweeten my tea, with a few notable exceptions (chai just doesn’t taste like chai if I don’t add some honey and milk to it). That doesn’t, however, mean I have a problem with you sweetening your tea. I’ve written before about tea absolutists (a.k.a. “tea Nazis”) and their attitudes. I hope I never become one.
What does kind of bother me, however, is preparing a cup of a new and interesting tea for a guest and having them sweeten it before they taste it. For some people, though, they know how they like their particular favorite tea, and they assume that’s how they’ll like all tea. I think it indicates a general unawareness of the breadth of flavors in different varieties of tea.
A friend of mine came by the tea bar the other day, and I was excited to pull out a new tea for her to try. She was born in Ireland, and lived in the British Isles for most of her early life. I know she likes strong black tea, so I figured she’d really like this Royal Tajiri. I asked her, “would you like to taste it plain before you add your milk?”
She looked at me like I was nuts and said, “plain is with milk.”
Back on the subject of sweetening, times are changing. Used to be, a tea bar or coffee shop could put out a bowl with some of the white packets (sugar), some of the blue packets of aspartame (NutraSweet/Equal), and some of the pink packets of saccharin (Sweet’N’Low), and everyone was happy. Expectations have gone up, though. Now, you really need to have the green packets of stevia (Truvia/PureVia), yellow packets of sucralose (Splenda), and brown packets of natural brown sugar. And perhaps a jar of honey, a jar of agave nectar, and a jar of pure maple syrup.
Some want the most “natural” sweetener they can get. Others have a particular sweetener that they like the taste of. Others are primarily worried about the calories. For those who wish to experiment, I’ve been trying something a little different lately.
Stevia is a plant native to Paraguay that’s now being grown in a bunch of countries. It has a number of sweet components to its leaves, and the most potent (Rebaudioside A) is the base compound used to produce the powder in the green packets. That powder has a slight but noticeable flavor, which you’ll definitely pick up in a delicate tea (not that any of you would actually sweeten a delicate tea, would you?).
I’m now stocking dried raw stevia leaf in the tea bar. I use it — quite sparingly — in a couple of my house blends to add a touch of sweetness, and I’m starting to get more customers asking me to drop a pinch of stevia leaf in the pot when I’m brewing their tea. The flavor from the raw leaf is different from the flavor you get from the processed powder. Is it any more “natural” than the powder? I really don’t think so. But it feels different to add some leaves to your infusion instead of stirring a powder from a packet into the finished tea.
Going back to my mantra: whatever method of preparation works for you is the right one — for you.