Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Guest Blog from Tea Reviewer Nyssa Mehana

As you may remember, I've got a thing for hot tea. After having a few lessons on How to Learn to Like Tea (lesson 1, lesson 2, and lesson 3), the next logical step seemed to be tea reviews. I've kept most of my terminology simple for those who are new to tea, but I also wanted to offer something for experienced tea drinkers, too.

Therefore, welcome to Nyssa Mehana, my tea-reviewing partner who will be doing 'expert' tea reviews to go with my 'intro to tea' reviews. In this guest blog, she'll give you reviews using the terminology common to professional tea reviews, while I'll review in laymen's terms for those just beginning to get into tea. As my resident tea 'expert,' she'll also tell us about different types of tea, such as where they come from and how they're made, and give advice on the tea-making practices that will bring out the best of each brew.

But first, a quick look at who she is, and where her love of tea comes from.

Tea: An Ongoing Obsession

My love affair with tea had an awkward start. When I was very young, I knew tea only as a bagged brand called “Red Rose” that my mother drank. The dark, bitter beverage that bag produced was altogether unappealing to me at that age. Back then, the boxes that “Red Rose” came in contained small ceramic figurines of animals that I loved to collect and play with, so despite my disinterest in the beverage itself, I was very keen on my mother drinking plenty of it so she would have to buy another box and score me another figure.

At some point, I learned to appreciate weak, herbal teas--usually something fruity or very mild, like Celestial Seasonings “Lemon Zinger” or “Sleepytime.” I did not enjoy the bland, weedy taste of “Sleepytime” as much as I enjoyed looking at the picture of the very sleepy bear in its armchair on the box. That bear looked so very peaceful, and I craved that kind of feeling in my life, so I drank gallons of that tea thinking it might help me achieve it.

Once I hit middle school age, I was drawn into a fascination of Asian culture, and suddenly tea became much more intriguing to me. The role of green tea in Asian culture had me quite suddenly smitten. I probably tried all kinds of thoroughly crappy bagged green teas, until thank the gods, my mother began a continuing obsession with the TRUE art of tea, and that obsession was quickly adopted by myself.

Types of Tea

Don’t feel bad if all you know of tea is that it comes in a bag and has a little square bit of paper attached to it on the end of a string. Most Americans have grown up expecting no more of tea that that. Still others assume that when I say “tea,” I must mean “iced tea,” or “sweet tea.” I can’t tell you how many restaurants have served me sweet tea in a tall, icy glass, misunderstanding my true request. I suppose I should know to give more explanation to waiters, given that I do live in the South.

In actuality, all tea comes from a singular plant, called Camellia Sinensis. The various different types and flavors of tea result from processing the Camellia Sinensis leaf in different ways, or blending it with other things (such as herbs, flowers, and fruits). There are many types of tea, including white, green, oolong, and black.

“Red” and “herbal” teas do not actually contain the Camellia Sinensis leaf, and are technically not teas. They are more properly categorized as “tisanes,” or “herbal infusions.” Red tea, also called “Rooibos,” comes from a bush called Aspalathus linearis in Southern Africa, and contains no natural caffeine.

Other herbal infusions (also lacking caffeine) are really just mixes of dried fruits, herbs, and flowers, and are sometimes blended with tea. Common herbs, seeds, barks, and flowers found in tisanes included chamomile flower, peppermint leaf, hibiscus flower, dandelion leaf, nettle leaf, red clover, blackberry leaf, rose hips, cardamom seed, licorice root, sage leaf, cinnamon, lemon verbena leaf, red raspberry leaf, ginseng leaf, and many, many others. Fruits I commonly see in herbal infusions included orange peel, lemon peel, various dried berries, apples, pears, pineapple, and more!

But I’m here to talk about TEA. How can so many different types of tea all come from the same tea leaf? It all has to do with how the leaves are processed. Let’s quickly review some of the more well-known types:

WHITE TEA: The tea leaf is wilted and unoxidized. White tea has a faint, delicate flavor, and the least amount of caffeine.

GREEN TEA: The tea leaf is unwilted and unoxidized. It has a grassy flavor, and contains more caffeine than white tea, but less than Oolong and black tea. Green tea is most commonly associated with Asian rituals and tea ceremonies.

OOLONG TEA: The tea leaf is wilted, bruised, and partially oxidized. Oolong tea has slightly more caffeine than green tea, but not as much as black tea. Oolong teas are full bodied in flavor and aroma ranging from green and floral to dark and roasted with many notes between.

BLACK TEA: The tea leaf is wilted, sometimes crushed, and fully oxidized. Black tea contains the most caffeine of all the tea types, but still much less than your average cup of coffee. Black tea has a robust flavor and strong tannins. It often pairs well with milk and sugar, if you want to reduce the “bite.” I typically think of black tea when it’s “tea time” and I want something to accompany a sweet cookie or scone.

Go shopping and find a type (or several types) of tea that intrigues you (or just smells damn good!) and then stay tuned for my next blog entry in which I’ll go over how to brew the perfect cup! :)

(Learning to Like Tea Part 1Part 2Part 3, Guest Post: Types of Tea, Guest post: Getting the Best Cup of Tea)

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