The language of tea is beautiful and multicultural, but not always easily accessible for new enthusiasts. I encourage you to welcome new tea lovers into the community even if they do not know what a gaiwan is or how to pronounce açaí (pronounced ah-sigh-ee). As our modern modes of communication become more abbreviated and generalized, it’s a good idea to keep in mind that everyone comes to tea from a different background. To illustrate common tea misunderstandings, here are two prime examples:
Tea – meaning Camellia sinensis var. sinensis vs. any hot beverage that’s not coffee
Teapot – meaning the vessel that steeps tea and tisanes vs. the kettle that boils water
As a ‘tea person’ you already know the correct answers, but does your neighbor? To some, tea is a 32 ounce iced drink from McDonald’s. For others, tea is a Dong Ding Oolong poured from a 4 ounce gaiwan into a 2 ounce tea cup. These are both teas. I was shocked to find out there was actually tea in that fast food beverage (water, sugar, orange pekoe and pekoe cut black tea). The lesson here is that there is room for everyone to enjoy tea in their own way. We are all on the same team: Go Tea! And there is always something new to discover about tea.
A little bit of tea education goes a long way. To announce that all tea comes from the same plant is a great conversation starter and a way to gauge your audience. Tea connoisseurs will nod knowingly, tea novices will be curious to learn more and literal people will be shocked to think of one giant mother tree swarmed by tea harvesters around the clock.
Black, green, white, Oolong and Pu-erh teas originate from the same plant species Camellia sinensis. Differences arise in strains and varieties, which are further exaggerated by the concept of terroir. This is a French word that encompasses the effect of geography and climate on plants like wine grapes or tea. Comparing tea to wine helps novices understand the differences that growing conditions, harvesting and processing can make in the aroma, appearance and taste of the final product.
Any steeped beverage that does not contain Camellia sinensis is not technically tea. Rooibos, herbal infusions and maté are not teas, they are tisanes. This is another French word that means herbs, spices or plant material steeped in hot water. As such, chamomile tea should properly be called chamomile herbal infusion or chamomile tisane.
There is no real harm in the generalization of the word tea until it comes to caffeine content. Tea and tea infusions have caffeine (or undergo a decaffeination process) while tisanes generally do not–except maté . Whether you run a tea house or host a tea party at your house, take the time to explain the provenance of the tea you serve so that guests understand, tea or tisane, what makes it special.
Next, explaining the difference between a teapot and a tea kettle to someone who regularly microwaves a mug of water with a teabag may seem futile, but with a little encouragement and the right information, they may be coaxed into a proper brew that they will find more delicious. Over time teapots have evolved to bring out the best of specific teas. The size, shape and material that a teapot is made out of will help or harm the tea steeping inside.
A delicate white tea will stew rather than steep in a heavy clay yixing teapot. An aged pu-erh tea benefits from this traditional unglazed natural clay teapot since it retains heat and has a larger opening to accommodate a piece of pressed Pu-erh cake. While cultural aesthetics and customs come into play, form does follow function for best results.
A kettle has its own set of design characteristics to heat evenly, handle safely, and pour nicely…and none of these have to do with steeping tea. Some people wonder why large glass tea kettles don’t come with an infuser. The question surprises me because of the large volume of that these tea kettles tend to have.
There is a very basic tenet of tea preparation that is not widely embraced yet in the United States. A smaller batch of tea will have more interesting cup characteristics than if brewed -in this case- in a 1.75 liter batch. Since we have become accustomed to poor quality dried loose leaf tea and tea bags, a larger batch masks the inconsistencies and produces a homogenous brew that we then overdose and oversteep in an attempt to extract more flavor.
With the recent Starbucks purchase of the Teavana chain, the concept of quality tea will be introduced to more consumers. Regardless of how you view the quality of their coffee, it is undisputable that they raised awareness and interest in specialty coffee. It’s tea’s turn now. There will be more demand for teas, tisanes, teapots and tea kettles (and tea education)!