27 October 2010

I'm coming out... as a tea drinker


That's right. I drink tea. Deal with it. It's just an aspect of me, not the whole of me. I'm still the same person. Don't hate.

I've been drinking coffee since I was in high school. Coffee's just always been there. By college I was drinking it black. No contaminants for me. Real people drink coffee. Or so I always thought. Besides, I loved the stuff. Ten years ago I bought a roaster and started roasting my own for crying out loud. I not only drank coffee, I understood coffee.

I saw tea people as weak and high maintenance. Coffee for me was as much a statement about who I am as it was my preferred way to get caffeine into my system. Tea people weren't in it for the caffeine I thought. And since you never really had to acquire a taste for tea, I assumed that tea drinkers were people who weren't strong enough to get over the hump and learn to like coffee.


Don't believe coffee's an acquired taste? Set a cup of black coffee in front of a kid sometime. Hilarity will ensue, I assure you.

Anyhow, all of that changed almost a year ago.

Last December I was a house guest in the lovely home of Sara Baldwin, the doyenne of American Mosaics. Sara drinks tea exclusively. It wasn't 'til we got back from dinner that she broke the news to me that there was no coffee in the house. I remained cool on the outside but I was panicking on the inside. Waking up without any coffee in the house had long been a recurring nightmare but I was a guest. I was determined to tough it out.

The next morning I walked into the kitchen and Sara was making a pot of jasmine tea. I had a cup.

It was pleasant. Really pleasant. It had caffeine in it and for that I was grateful, but more than anything the jasmine tea was pleasant tasting. I'd grown so used to shocking my system into action every morning with the murky bitterness of black coffee that it never occurred to me that I could do the same thing a little more pleasantly.

I drove home to Florida from Virginia that day. It was a 15 hour drive and the the entire way home all I could think about was that jasmine tea.

Tea is made from the new leaves of the Camellia sinensis, a warm-climate evergreen shrub that's a kind of camellia, as its Latin name suggests.

I bought some when I got home and I started drinking jasmine tea. I've never been one to do anything half way so within a week I'd installed myself at the tea shop down the street and I set about learning all about tea.

As befits a member of the camellia family, tea blooms.

Nearly 11 months later and there has to be 30 kinds of tea in my kitchen. In the mornings I like a Lapsang Souchong. In the afternoons I like a good Earl Grey or a chai with black pepper. At night I usually go for something citrus-y and without any caffeine in it. I'm hooked on the tastes, I'm hooked on the ritual and I love the whole package.


By mere happenstance I ran into someone on Twitter named Jim Shreiber. Jim's a tea merchant in Chicago and he Tweets as @JimmyDoesTea. Jim's a riot and he really knows his tea. Jim's business is named Shui Tea and his approach is two pronged. He sells tea through the store on his website and he also does in-home tea tastings in Chicago. I admire his approach to tea and since he blends his own, he knows what he's talking about.

Two weeks ago I ordered some teas from him. I ordered a blend he calls Moscow After Hours, a maté blend called Caramelo Rápido (maté is made from the leaves of an Argentinian holly tree and is a parallel obsession of mine) and a non-caffeine tea called Cherry Bomb.

Moscow After Hours is my new afternoon tea. What a complex and delightful blend it is. He starts with a blend of Lapsang Souchong and high-mountain Ceylon. He then adds bergamot, milk thistle and safflower. The bergamot gives it the he familiar ring of Earl Grey, but the milk thistle and safflower leave it with an effect that can only be described as smoky. To quote from his website, "Smoky and strong, the assertive aroma will make those around you whisper, "What on Earth are you up to?"

I mix up my afternoons with Shui Tea's Caramelo Rápido. Maté is in a league all it's own and I don't care what anybody says it has caffeine levels that dwarf tea and coffee. Two cups of maté at around 3pm leaves me hanging from the rafters. Maté by itself is a treat enough but when it's roasted and blended with a hint of caramel it's almost heaven. If you've never had maté, track some down. You won't be disappointed. On second thought, order some Caramelo Rápido from Shui Tea!

Finally, my evenings are now spent int he company of a blend called Cherry Bomb. Cherry Bomb starts out in life as Rooibos tea blended with cherry, chili, rose, safflower, peony and carrot. Those disparate flavors combine into something of such stunning complexity that caffeine's beside the point. Imagine the flavor of a lingering cherry popsicle, with just a little earthiness, the scents of peony and rose and then a chili pepper end note that kicks you in the teeth. I can't get enough of the stuff.

Oh I still drink coffee from time to time and it'll do if I'm out and don't have any of my tea supplies handy but at this point, nothing does it for me the way a nice cup of tea does.

My orders from Shui Tea arrive days after I order them and everything I've purchased has exceeded my expectations in every way. If you're curious about the world of tea, I suggest you take a quick trip through the Shui Tea store. And if you're in Chicago, set up an in-home tasting with Jim, I'd love to know what they're like.

Shui Tea's website and blog is here and you can go to the tea store directly here. Give it a try, there's a whole new way of looking at the world available through the miracle of tea.

23 comments:

  1. I knew it!! You couldn't hide this fact forever, I have a 6th sense about these things. I've been accused of being a tea drinker in the past but I've always denied it. Your strength to come out has inspired me;

    I drink English Breakfast tea every morning ... with milk AND sugar!!!

    (but drinking tea all day, that's a little pervy)

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  2. LOL! Loved it! I never drank coffee and never will, I have my earl grey in the morning, green tea after lunch and herbal tea all evening! Just can't admit it, everyone around me keeps bragging about how "addicted" to coffee they are and how it's a part of who they are. When I made a post on 10 best coffees, I got so many thanking emails which made it harder for me to confess:) thx for another great post, keep it up!

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  3. Bob: You too? And here I thought I was all alone in this. We need to start a Tea Drinkers Liberation Front or something.

    Sahar: Thanks for your comment, I love hearing non-US voices more than just about anything. The whole coffee-as-identity thing is pretty amusing when I look back on it. Since I still drink both I wonder if that makes me bi-imbiber.

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  4. I got the flu a month or so ago and the one good thing to come of it was that it broke my addiction to coffee. I'd been meaning to wean myself for ages now for a variety of health and societal reasons but was worried about the headache that would ensue. I am now a tea drinker and am ready to start venturing beyond the grocery store offerings. Thanks for pointing the way!

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  5. Sure thing and thanks for the comment! Spend a little time perusing the shelves of Shui Tea. I'm really fond of Moscow After Hours, but some of his other black tea offerings look pretty good too. I'll be branching out in the next few weeks and sampling more of his wares, believe me.

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  6. Since I quit drinking milk about a year ago, I've stopped drinking 5+ cups of coffee a day. And while at first it really cut down my tea consumption as well, I've really developed a taste for unadulterated tea now. I start every morning with a cup of Lady Grey tea and migrate through earl grey and then chamomile in the late afternoon.

    I'm totally going to check out your friend's site, as I have been desperately trying to find a substitute for this tea that one of our reps at my old job gave me which had sage in it and I haven't been able to find anything like it here. :(

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  7. I drink mine neat too. I don't understand how you can taste the tea otherwise. But yes, talk to Jim. The sage blend sounds interesting and Shui Tea does take suggestions on blends.

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  8. You've almost converted me into a tea drinker! But to be honest, I don't like tea and I can't stand coffee. The smell isn't bad, but the taste... *shudder*

    Does Jim have a tea for newbies? One that tastes a lot like, oh, hot chocolate, for example? :-)

    Kelly

    P.S. In case you missed it on Twitter this morning - which would be pretty hard! - I'm all booked for IDS11 :-) See you there!

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  9. I'm bi. A half cup of coffee in the morning and then decaf Irish breakfast, jasmine or some herbal in the evening when it starts getting cold in the house. I always drank it, but then really got hooked in Japan.

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  10. My husband is a tea person. He too never does anything half way. He threw himself into the world of tea probably 5 years ago. We now have an ENTIRE upper cabinet dedicated to tea and tea paraphernalia!
    While I do enjoy tea I just can't give up my true love...coffee.
    I'm forwarding this post to the husband, I think Shui Tea may just be his new supplier! :)

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  11. Christine Campbell27 October, 2010 15:02

    Oh I am so a tea drinker too. So funny I just had a heart broken house guest too. He drove to a diner to get coffee.
    My husband is so Mr Tea that has never had a cup of coffee in his life!

    We love Harney and Sons. Go direct to them. We have a set that they make for retail stores set up in our kitchen with our favorite 8 teas. Being pregnant now I am cutting out caffeine and love their Vanilla because no one else makes a good strong black decaf. I don't know your source but will check it out now.

    Welcome to tea world. There are more of us that you realize. Christine

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  12. Kelly: The only thing that tastes like hot chocolate is hot chocolate I'm sad to report. However, the tea store in my neighborhood makes a cocoa-infused maté that quite good. Follow this link: http://hookertea.webpossystem.com/ViewProduct.asp?ModelNumber=92241

    Hooker does a nice job. I was just down there today in fact. Cocoa maté tastes vaguely of chocolate and it has more caffeine than coffee. Zing!

    Melody: Jim from Shui Tea tells a similar story in his blog but he became a devotee in Taiwan.

    Steph: You just never know. A year ago I couldn't have imagined writing this post. And frankly, I'd have been offended at the suggestion.

    Christine: This is all your boss's fault. And congratulations on the baby to be, that's terrific news!

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  13. I've tried really hard to get into tea, but I haven't been able to embrace it. I haven't found a flavor that works for me, any recommendations for a begging?

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  14. I'm sorry, that was supposed to say a beginner.

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  15. Paul, I was completely clueless! I didn't notice even a look of worry on your part--I must have still been asleep, or possible without contact lenses. So sorry!
    Funny, a friend of ours in Cape Charles who runs the coffee house is now drinking jasmine tea too...he once house-sat for us...

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  16. P.S. those photos are hilarious!

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  17. I depends on what sorts of things you like already. No tea has the strong flavor of coffee. At least none that I've found so far. But that's OK, tea is a whole other world. I got my feet wet with Jasmine green tea. It's very mild and flowery. I have a tendency to like strong flavors so I jumped right into Lapsang Souchong. Lapsang Souchong is a strong black tea that's smoked over a pine fire. It's very smoky and strong. I'm also very fond of Early Grey. That's a black tea with orange leaves in it. It's citrusy and strong too. The Moscow After Hours blend I like from Shui Tea is a combination of both of those teas and the effect is terrific.

    Depending on where you are in the world, there ought to be a tea shop where you can sample different teas. If you're lucky enough to be in Chicago, Jim Shreiber will come to you.

    Barring that, a plain chai --not a chai latte-- may be a good starting point for you as well.

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  18. You had no idea Sara because I know how to behave when I'm a guest. Really, it was a great gift. You opened my eyes to a world I never knew existed and I think of you every time I have a cup of jasmine tea.

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  19. thx for sharing, Paul While I've known for years that tea feels better to me, I've had a hard time breaking the habit of my morning mocha - even though it leaves my heart pounding, my stomach full and my mind restless. I'm sure it has more to do with writing/working in coffee shops so much. My mocha was my special treat ( I'm all for treats, but when it makes you feel like garbage, there's something wrong.) I've slowly made progress this year. When I was down to a kid size, decaf americano w/ just a touch of chocolate (basically coffee flavored, slightly sweetened water) I started ordering chai tea (tea bag, not the syrupy chai latte). I'm two weeks into it... and not missing my morning mocha. Maybe this time next year I'll be an official "tea drinker" just like you.

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  20. I'm all about a good cup of chai, but never that chai latte abomination. It's what I drink when I find myself in a Starbucks these days. Tazo's chai has black pepper in it and I love the kick from black pepper. I find hot as in spicy teas to be really intriguing.

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  21. Aussies were traditionally tea-drinkers, until we got decent coffee machines in the late 1980s. Before that, even coffee in restaurants was instant or 'perked'. Now there is much more of a coffee culture, but the down side is that it's much harder to find tea made properly. As a result I order coffee when I'm out unless I know the place uses leaf tea. (As an aside, Aussies I know who have visited the US think the coffee is awful: our coffee isn't bitter.)
    I drink Irish Breakfast in the mornings (indeed, most of the time) but indulgence for me is the high-country tea from Darjeeling, Assam, Sikkim etc.

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  22. The US has never had a tea culture and that dates back to the days when the US was a British Colony. Well, I guess it wasn't the US then but you know what I mean. Anyhow, coffee got popular in the mid-1700s here and never went away. However, it was uniformly terrible until the last ten to 15 years. I grew up drinking perked coffee and had a percolator myself in college. Ewwww. Boiled coffee. Coffee here has come a very long way in a short time.

    However, the tea thing is new here and it's barely catching on. It's really fascinating to learn about and it's been a great process. I've been learning about maté in a parallel track. Maté is an Argentinian import and it's similar to tea. Almost.

    I never really understood coffee until I went to Europe for the first time and the tea scene over there always escaped me. However, I am heading to Germany in January and I'll be curious to see what I find there.

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  23. I laughed at your post - great one at that. I have been a total tea drink since April 7th, 1972. That's the day when I found out I was allergic to coffee. Very sad I thought but the use of my hands were more important! Yes, my fingers had crease to operate and it was due to coffee.
    Earl Gray is the start of my day - and all day. Love it - love the smells that so many teas have.
    Enjoy your tea and better health because of it!

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