5036-Blue Beauty Oolong_largeI grew up in the middle of nowhere in the Midwest, surrounded by forests and farmland. Consequently, I didn’t spend my childhood in the 1970s biking around the block with the neighborhood kids; instead, I spent a lot of time wandering in the woods with my dog and visiting my grandparents and my grandma’s sister who lived close by, just a short walk across a hayfield.

My grandma and her sister were tough old Finnish women, and when they weren’t having their next pot of boiled-on-the-stove coffee, they would have tea with me. That was my introduction to tea . . . in tea bags and steeped in boiling water, no matter the variety. I always took sugar, because I found tea to be a little bitter. Still, I liked it, unlike coffee, which I never acquired a taste for.

Flash forward to 1983. I spent my sophomore year of college in Birmingham, England. Some rather large spots of tea were consumed. I often had at least four cups a day: breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner. The tea was served English style, obviously, with milk and sugar. The tea itself was a basic black blend. I loved it. When I came back to the States, I continued drinking various teas. I still used tea bags and sugar.

Flash forward to 1998. We had just moved into a new house and at about the same time, a tea shop opened in our neighborhood, the TeaSource (where I now work part time; see my earlier post, “Unpredictable Staggerings and Other Life Choices”). I popped in one day and started chatting with the owner, Bill Waddington. In five minutes I learned more about tea than I had known for the quarter of a century I’d been drinking it. For instance, there is only one tea plant, and all the varieties of tea, white, yellow, green, oolong, puerh, and black come from it; it is how the tea is grown and processed that creates the different varieties. (The picture above is of the TeaSource’s fabulous Blue Beauty Oolong, one of my favorites.)

Another big revelation was learning about proper water temperature and steeping times. When my grandma and her sister had green tea, they boiled the bejeebers out of it like they did to their coffee. Green tea should be steeped in water no hotter than 180 degrees Fahrenheit, never boiling, which makes the tea bitter. And tea bags . . . tea bags are often made with tea dust (there are higher-end bags with whole leaves), basically what’s left over after the proper leaves have been prepared. There’s a time and place for the convenience of such bags, but that dust steeps a lot faster than actual leaves. And steeping tea for too long, black or green, will make it bitter.

In other words, I took sugar in my tea only because I’d been making it wrong! As I started trying various properly prepared teas at the TeaSource, I found that I didn’t need sugar. And no more tea bags for me, now I only want loose leaf. My next bit of fanaticism comes from being on the other side of the counter; we measure tea leaves by the gram when making a someone a cup or pot. It’s the only way to ensure consistency, as the variation in tea leaf styles—some are whole, some are finely cut—makes measuring by the “rounded teaspoon” largely subjective. Although I’ve been using the teaspoon method for sixteen years now, a couple months of using a scale has converted me, and I’m buying a small scale for home use.

A last word on sugar. I have become semiaddicted to chai, which is traditionally sweetened. As any tea fanatic will tell you, “chai” is simply the word for tea, but has become common shorthand for this particular way of serving tea with spices, milk, and sweetener. There are many ways of making chai, from easiest to traditional, but don’t confuse it with the chai lattes that coffee shops make. That is a steamed milk beverage with tea and spice flavoring, not a tea beverage with spices and milk. It can be a perfectly tasty drink, but they’ve inverted the base of the beverage from tea to milk. (This has been a very abbreviated chai lesson, glossing over some finer points, but you get the picture.)

In addition to sweetened chai, I still have a nostalgic fondness for English-style tea, so I occasionally have an English breakfast blend—loose leaf, of course—with milk and sugar. Other than that, I take my tea unsweetened. But the real last word on sugar is to use it as you like. I’m not going to tell you not to use sugar in your tea, but I will want to make sure that you’re not using sugar to mask incorrectly prepared tea!

[To keep this post from getting any longer, I’ve left out discussing herbal “teas,” which don’t actually contain tea leaves, and are more correctly called “tisanes” to make the distinction.]