Many people who consider themselves connoisseurs of one food-related item also become connoisseurs of other food-related items. In addition to my love of wine, I have developed a love of tea. They’re not terribly different when you think about it. Both have an agricultural aspect to them, where location and growing seasons make a difference. They both have overarching categories of classification–reds vs. whites for wine, black vs. white vs. green vs. herbal for tea. And they both have varietals, so to speak, within each broader classification.
Different types of tea have differing levels of caffeine, from none at all in rooibos and herbal tea (which technically isn’t tea) to black tea, which has the most caffeine. Caffeine amounts in tea are always presented as a range because there are so many variables that determine the caffeine content–growing conditions, location on the tea bush, whether the leaves are full-leaf or cut, steeping time, and so on. Below is a fairly common range of caffeine content by type of tea:
White tea: 6-25 mg
Green tea: 8-36 mg
Oolong: 12-55 mg
Black tea: 23-110 mg
Coffee (for comparison): 95-200 mg per 8 oz.
Note: these figures are given for a “cup” of tea, but no one defines what a “cup” is and whether they are referring to a standard 8-ounce liquid measure (one cup) or some other measure. Also, multiple websites referred to these statistics as coming from a “Department of Nutritional Services” report. However, there is no such thing as a Department of Nutritional Services. There is a “Food and Nutrition Service,” which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but my fairly lengthy search could not unearth any statistics to match what the tea websites are quoting. This is the only relevant item I could find. It’s interesting, but doesn’t support the caffeine statistics quoted by others.
Brewing and steeping your tea also must be taken into consideration. Different types of tea react best to different water temperatures. If you brew all your tea at 212 degrees, i.e. boiling, you’re not maximizing the flavor and could be destroying your tea’s delicate balance. We have a Cuisinart electric tea kettle that heats water to various temperatures: 160 for delicate or herbal, 175 for green, 185 for white, 190 for oolong, 200 for French press, and 212 for black. (We actually use the French press 200 degree setting for black tea.) If you’re an avid tea drinker, I strongly recommend it. (And in the mea culpa department, this is yet another item that my husband wanted, I rolled my eyes at, yet I love and cannot live without. The moral here is that when it comes to gadgets, my husband is always right!)
Steeping times also vary by type of tea. Steeping too long results in bitterness. Also, do not dunk your tea bag repeatedly in the cup like it’s a doughnut. This forces extra air into the tea, which can also result in bitterness. The following recommendations are from Ku Cha tea, a shop in Boulder, Colorado where we buy tea whenever we are in town.
Green tea: 1-2 minutes
Black tea: 2-3 minutes
Oolong: 2-3 minutes
Puerh: 1-2 minutes
White tea: 1-2 minutes
Herbal tea: 3-5 minutes (or longer)
Rooibos: 10+ minutes
Yerba Mate: 2-3 minutes
Lastly, a note on pronunciation of rooibos. It’s roy-boss. Here’s an audio clip if you need to hear it. I wish Starbucks would start teaching its employees how to actually pronounce it. You should hear some of the abominations that come out of their mouths. Anyway, onto my favorite tea brands.
Harney & Sons
I first discovered Harney & Sons at Barnes & Noble, of all places. It was several years ago, around Christmas, and they had a display of Harney & Sons tea tins set up near the register. I’m a sucker for attractive packaging, so I bought one, and I’ve been drinking Harney tea ever since.
Harney uses nice, triangle-shaped silk sachets that allow for full tea leaves, not just broken bits. And their teas are so potent that I always set aside the bag after steeping the first time because I can use it to steep a second cup later, or even the next day. It makes my tea last twice as long.
Harney has kicked up their marketing machine in the years since I first discovered them. I’ve even seen their teas at Target recently. They have multiple collections in different packaging. Many of their selections come in tins that can be reused for loose teas (or anything else – I use one on my desk to keep pens standing upright). They publish and mail a catalog a few times per year.
My favorites in the Historic Royal Palaces collection are White Christmas Tea, Hot Cinnamon Spice, Holiday Tea, and Peppermint Herbal. In the HT Tea Blends, I like African Autumn, Chocolate Mint, English Breakfast, Pumpkin Spice, and Winter White Earl Grey. And in the Classics in Sachets line, Dragon Pearl Jasmine is hands down my favorite, followed by Paris, Earl Grey Supreme, and Ceylon.
Harney makes several sampler packs and gift boxes, which are a great way to try a variety without overly committing to any particular type. And if you ever have a chance to attend a tea festival, chances are they will be there. I saw them at the Los Angeles Tea Festival a few years ago. They even had discounted pricing on their tins.
My husband discovered an online tea purveyor called Kungaloosh. We like Kungaloosh because they purchase teas from growers who participate in the Ethical Tea Partnership, which improves quality of life for people living in the countries where tea is grown (mostly in Africa, India, and China). They also focus on environmentally safe and sustainable practices, and they’re based in my home state of Pennsylvania. Another nice thing about Kungaloosh is that they always include some free samples whenever we place an order.
Their minimum order for free shipping is pretty steep at $75, so we tend to wait until we get low on tea and then order a whole lot. But they also offer flat-rate shipping of $5.95, which isn’t bad. They sell loose tea and tea bags, along with large iced tea bags that make an entire 1-gallon pitcher of tea. My favorite is the Hibiscus Revive. It’s the best iced tea I’ve ever had in my life. Seriously. My favorites among their traditional teas are the Earl Grey, Lover’s Leap Orange Pekoe, and Ruby Rooibos. Don’t be deterred by their website, which looks like it hasn’t been updated since 1999. Their tea is wonderful! And risk-free. They sell sample packs and guarantee that if you don’t like something, they’ll replace it for free.
I first came across Chado Tea while living in Los Angeles. The aforementioned LA Tea Festival was held at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles, where Chado Tea has a tea room/restaurant. After two hours of sampling different teas at the festival, we went there for tea and sandwiches, and it was lovely. I ordered a pot of their Silver Needle Supreme, which is one of my all-time favorite teas, but it’s very expensive, so I tend not to buy it for home consumption.
They also have a location in Hollywood where my bridesmaids hosted a shower for me last summer. The Hollywood location is like a quiet oasis in the chaos that is Hollywood, but beware that getting there is likely to be a nightmare. Driving in Hollywood, especially on the weekends, is nearly impossible with the crowds of pedestrians. It’s actually much easier to get to the downtown location. (There’s one in Pasadena as well, but I haven’t been to that location.)
If you don’t live in the LA area, you can order from their website (which also looks like it could use an update–what is it with tea companies and their outdated websites?). They have a $50 minimum for free shipping. I bought some of their Pitta herbal blend at the tea festival. It has hibiscus flowers in it and is a very pleasant tea for those days when I don’t want any caffeine.
No list of any of my favorite things would be complete without Trader Joe’s. I swear, if I ever had to move somewhere without a Trader Joe’s, I would starve to death. They have a surprising selection of teas, and several seasonal varieties (varie-teas?). Many of their teas are packaged in paper tea bags, inside individual plastic wraps, inside cardboard boxes, so the packaging is a little excessive. But they’ve started to move into specialty teas that are packaged more like Harney & Sons, silken sachets in metal tins.
Their Pomegranate White is one of my favorites, and my husband loves their Mango Black. They do a Pumpkin Spice Rooibos in the fall that I recommend. I also really like their Cinnamon Tempest, but the tea inside the sachet tends to be crushed more than it should, which results in a lot of sediment in the bottom of your cup.
Don’t buy tea from anyone who staples the string to the tea bag. Why would you want staples soaking in your tea?
Stop by your local Teavana store to test out one of their rotating samples. It’s a great way to try new things. Their tea selection can’t be beat, but their prices tend to be a little high, which is why I prefer to order online from places like Kungaloosh. (Plus, Teavana was purchased by Starbucks in 2012, and I hate Starbucks.)
Also, be sure to check out the food section of places like Marshalls and TJ Maxx. A few months ago at Marshalls I picked up some boxes of tea from Clipper Teas (Organic Indian Chai) and English Tea Shop (Peppermint). I had never heard of either company before, but the tea was very good. The Chai in particular was one of the best Chais I’ve ever had. I also got a tin of loose tea from The Boston Tea Company (Cranberry Blood Orange Rooibos) at Marshalls.
I’m always looking for new tea purveyors, so if you have a favorite, let me know in the comments!