When I meet someone who’s “into tea,” it is enlightening to find out exactly how their journey with tea got them to where they are now. How did they get from Lipton to a fine Bi Luo Chun? When did they transition from tisanes to pure teas? So today I thought I’d share my own story.
Growing up, I drank tea as most others in America did: from tea bags with lots of sugar and milk. I remember steeping a Red Rose teabag in water from our “instant hot” faucet and then adding absurd amounts of sugar and milk. So much milk that it was more of a tea latte than actual tea. But it was a start.
In my junior year of college, I received a Celestial Seasonings sampler and, as a result, really got into tisanes and fruity tea blends. I experimented a bit with ginseng tea for late-night study sessions, but it wasn’t until a few months later that I had the tea that would change my journey completely. Oddly, I don’t remember the details of it very well.
I stopped by an Asian market – it may have been the one at the Columbus Mart in New Jersey where I picked up some amazing Korean pop tapes or it may have been the Vietnamese grocery store at the Eden Center in Virginia – and randomly plucked a tin of Sow Mee white tea off the shelf. I’d heard of black tea, of course, and had tried some green teas, but had never even heard of white tea. When I brewed my first cup – probably using water that was way too hot – I was stunned. Here was a tea that was really, really subtle. My first thought was, “This tastes like barely flavored water,” yet it intrigued me. I played with the brewing and, over time, I fell in love with it. From that point on, I tried a new tea every time I visited an Asian market. Throughout the remainder of my college days, I tried Lychee-flavored black tea, tins of nondescript Chinese greens, and anything Foojoy offered. It wasn’t high-class stuff, but it definitely got me in the door and piqued my curiosity. And, yes, I realize that it’s a touch odd that I got into tea during college while others were more concerned with what the best cheap beer was.
In my post-college years, some of my first really good teas came from, of all places, The Coffee Caboodle, a coffee / gift shop in Vienna, Virginia that also had a surprisingly decent selection of teas. Their tea inventory wasn’t an afterthought; the owners knew their stuff. I tried new Chinese greens I’d never heard of and some of the best black teas I’d ever had. When I got married in 2001, I refused to serve cheap tea: instead I hand-stuffed T-Sac teabags with loose tea I’d bought from The Coffee Caboodle. It turned out to be overkill – almost no one tried them – but the thought was there.
As tea shops started to pop up online in my post-college years, I continued to explore new teas, mostly whites (finally getting to Silver Needle) and Chinese greens. While I still couldn’t articulate the stylistic difference between old-style and new-style white teas, I could definitely taste the difference. Subtle teas with subtle differences. My palate was maturing.
In recent years, I’ve found myself going through phases, trying to immerse myself in different regions and styles. For a while, I focused heavily on Japanese greens, then Formosa oolongs, then pu-erh, then teas produced in non-traditional regions. I’ve read a number of extremely good books on tea (including The Story of Tea by the Heisses and Liu Tong’s Chinese Tea) and tried to engage others in conversations about tea whenever I can. I’ve attended two World Tea Expos and have met some great folks in the industry. It’s been an amazing learning experience.
What excites me most is that the learning is far from over. I still haven’t traveled to any tea-producing countries to see where tea is grown and produced. There are thousands and thousands of teas I have yet to try. I’m nowhere near mastery, but I’m enjoying every step of the journey. I guess that’s the lesson I take from all of this: in some ways, I’m as much of a beginner now as I was when I was drinking Red Rose heaped with sugar, and I’m OK with that. I do think it’s important to meet others wherever they are in their tea journey and help them along, without judgment. Sharing the passion is the best way to continue to grow your own.