I’ve always enjoyed high tea more than a regular cup at home. At first read, that isn’t a particularly surprising statement. High tea means picking a pot of your own tea from dozens of exotic choices. That special tea is then served to you in the prettiest china (usually in an equally beautiful venue). High tea is also comes with an array of aesthetically-and-palate-pleasing sandwiches, petite pastries, and perfect scones (with clotted cream and jams). The combination of food, tea, and finery makes the experience an entirely civilized way to spend an afternoon.
Cheesing for high tea, and all the trimmings, at the Rittenhouse Hotel, Philadelphia
However, tea is so much more than a special occasion outing or a cup bland sympathy when you’re feeling under the weather. A little knowledge can help replicate the decadence of high tea at home or on the go, boiled down to the basics: the tea itself.
Tea tradition spans cultures, continents, and centuries: ranging from the Shang dynasty in the third century to modern day drinkers worldwide. From China to Portugal, Great Britain to India, tea remains a stalwart standby for medicinal uses and social gatherings alike.
Tea originated, unsurprisingly, in China as a medicinal drink. Portugese priests and merchants were introduced to the beverage in the 16th century while on trading trips and missionaries. After its introduction to Europe, tea soared to popularity in Britain by the 17th century. As the British Empire began to encircle the globe, tea became part of colonization. The Brits introduced tea into India while colonizing the country, and the product eventually gained converts throughout Persia and the Middle East via the Silk Road. The combination of trade and colonization brought tea to the world as a whole, with each culture adapting and engaging with the beverage in a unique way. The result is an impressive variety of tea cultures, specific to each population that reflects its peoples’ history and customs.
Tea, from plant to drink, is a long process. It takes about three years for a tea plant to mature enough to harvest. The best quality tea plants are cultivated at high elevations because studies show the leaves acquire a better flavor while grown at a slower pace. There are, naturally, many strains of plants grown for different teas, but the size of the leaf is the basic criterion for classification (small, medium, and large). After the leaves are picked, they are wilted and oxidized or immediately dried. An enzymatic oxidation caused by the plant’s enzymes makes the tea darker in color. This process is halted at a particular stage (depending on what tea) by heating the leaves to deactivate the enzymes.
Nearly all tea (in bags and loose leaf tea) is a blend of some type. Teas are mixed with other teas to obtain a better taste and also, a higher price.
There’s more to tea than just taste though, and there is a reason tea’s history began with medicinal intent. Tea contains catechins, or Flavan-3-ols. Catechins reduce the risk of stroke, heart failure, cancer, and diabetes. Catechins combined with habitual exercise also delay some forms of aging, reduce cancerous biomarkers, keep arteries flexible, increase small vesssel circulation, and reduce blood pressure. Additionally, tea contains vitamin, flavonoids and caffeine. Ample evidence suggests that green and black teas protect against cancer and help manage weight by boosting metabolic rates.
Green and white teas have the highest concentration of catechins thanks to their particular oxidative preparations. Tea also contains the amino acid L-theanine, which modulates caffeine’s psychoactive effects and creates the “umami” taste many associate with tea.
Healthful Tea Options:
There’s already plenty of evidence that states black and green teas are exceptionally good for you (and great for cutting down the coffee drinking…) but there are more than just the basics when it comes to picking a healthy tea option. Just like reaching into a medicine cabinet to find the right fix for a head or stomach ache, knowing which tea does what can help relieve some common problems.
- Peppermint tea: relieves bloating, muscle spasms, and nausea. Not ideal for people suffering from heartburn.
- Ginger tea: a digestive aid proven to curb nausea, vomitting, or upset stomach due to motion sickness. Boost any tea by adding a piece of simmered ginger (on the stove for 10 minutes or so to soften) to your strainer after brewing.
- Chamomile tea: a calming and sedative tea that is helpful for insomnia and post-meal digestion. This tea also helps with coughs, bronchitis, a cold, and fevers.
- Rooibos tea: high in vitamin C and minerals, it can help with aging and is super high in antioxidants. As an added bonus, it helps with common skin concerns.
- Rosehip tea: rosehips are one of the best plant sources of vitamin C making this tea great for your immune system, skin, and overall tissue health.
- White tea: the least processed tea, named for the fine white fuzz present on the young tea leaf buds when picked, it has a similar, if not greater, antioxidant content as green tea making it a good option for overall health.
- Oolong Tea: Similar to black tea but with a richer taste thanks to a shorter fermentation period, it may aid in weight loss and increasing metabolic rates.
There are six basic types of tea: white, yellow, green, oolong, black, and post-fermented. Regardless of what type you choose to brew, realize that you’re indulging in the second-most consumed beverage on Earth, after water.
The color variation is a result of different fermentation processes. From left to right: green, yellow, oolong, and black.
At first glance, you might think that brewing tea is just a simple process of adding hot water to tea, waiting, and adding any sweetners. But like anything else in life, anything worth doing is worth doing right.
Behold: tea brewing beyond the basics
The strength of tea should be varied by changing the amount of tea leaves used, not by changing the steeping time. The amount of tea, the temperature, and the steep time vary from tea to tea. Teas that have little or no oxidation period, like green and white teas, are best brewed at lower temperatures while teas with longer oxidation periods should be brewed at higher temps. The higher tempreatures are required to extract the large, complex, and flavorful phenolic molecules found in fermented tea. Boiling also reduces the dissolved oxygen content of water which reacts with phenolic molecules to turn them brown and reduce the potency of antioxidants.
Type Water Temperature Steep Time
White Tea 65-70°C 149-158°F 1-2 min
Yellow Tea 70-75°C/158-167°F 1-2 min
Green Tea 75-80°C/167-176°F 1-2min
Oolong tea 80-85°C/176-185°F 2-3 min
Black Tea 99°C/210°F 2-3 min
Pu’er Tea 95-100°C/203-212°F Any
After you’ve brewed your tea, according to the directions, there are options for what you might add to enhance the flavor and/or health benefits of your tea.
Different cultures add different things to their tea. For example,adding milk to tea started in Europe around 1680 and some cultures, where dairy products are consumed, still add milk to their tea today.
- The Indian masala chai and some British blends suggest adding milk. These are hearty black teas that can still be tasted clearly though the milk, which is added to neutralize any remaining tannins and reduce the acidity.
- Some insist that milk needs to be added after brewing the tea, so that the correct temperature is maintained to sufficiently steep the leaves and dissolve the sugar (if using) as well.
- Fun fact: Historically, the order of tea-preparation was indicative of class because only the wealthy could afford high-quality porcelain that would be able to survive the high heat of brewing tea without milk to reduce the temperature.
- Some teas in Italy, Russia, Poland, and Hungary, are served with lemon juice
Tea cultures globally are more creative than just lemon juice and milk though…you can and should consider adding the following:
- Chinese jasmine tea includes jasmine oil and/or flowers.
- Indian masala includes spices like star anise, ginger, green cardamom pods, cinnamon, fennel, nutmeg and cloves.
- Sometimes chilli, coriander and rose petals are included.
- The British standard, Earl Grey, includes bergamot oil to achieve its taste.
- In eastern India, lemon tea is immensely popular and is simply lemon juice, hot water and sugar. Masala lemon tea is cumin, seed powder, lemon juice, black salt, and sugar creating a tangy and slightly spicy taste.
- Adding ginger when brewing tea is a popular technique in Sri Lanka, where cinnamon is also added to sweeten the aroma.
- The options are essentially limitless, with additives like sugar, liquid or solid honey, agave nectar, fruit jams, mint, herbs, and spices. Additionally, some alcohols are added to tea including whisky, brandy, and apertifs.
- Complicating matters further, high-altitude pouring is a practice from North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, and Libya) where pouring from different heights can result in different degrees of aeration and thus different flavors. More likely though, this technique cools the beverage so it can be immediately consumed.
The Great Debate: Bag vs. Loose
Up until recently, tea was always loose. It wasn’t until the 20th century that tea leaves came packed into small envelopes. This style of manufacturing/brewing became extremely popular during WWII, when rationing tea was made easier by the use of tea bags. The ease and convenience makes bagged tea consistently popular today.
However, there are significant drawbacks that come with convenience, as is often the case.
- The tea used in bags is usually “fannings” or the dust of tea: the waste product produced from sorting the higher-quality loose leaf tea. However, some high-quality specialty teas are available in bag form.
- Tea aficionados insist that tea bags provide an inferior taste and experience. The paper from the bag may also be tasted, detracting the tea’s own flavor.
- Dried tea loses its flavor quickly when exposed to air. Since most bagged teas contain leaves broken into smaller pieces, there’s a greater surface area-to-volume ratio on the leaves which means more exposure to air and staler tea.
- Conversely, loose leaf tea is almost always left in larger pieces, if not entirely intact.
- Breaking up the leaves for bags extracts and removes flavored oils.
- The small size of the bag doesn’t allow the leaves to diffuse and steep properly because the tea can’t expand during the brewing process.
Verdict: Loose leaf tea is what brings the decadence of high tea home, and with a few adjustments, can be as easy as using bagged tea.
Now that I’ve sufficiently scratched the surface of tea’s history, production, and preparation, it’s high time to talk accessories and purchasing.
Loose leaf tea is widely available (perks of being the #2 beverage worldwide). If you’re starting the hunt for it though, larger companies like the Republic of Tea and Teavana offer good loose leaf varieties internationally. For a more personal, informative, special, and quaint experience though, seek out smaller and independently owned stores near you.
As you make the upgrade from bagged to loose leaf, you’ll need a strainer to effectively brew all those loose leaves of tea! The choices above range from whimsy (a literal leaf, a robot, a mini tea-pot, and a shark fin) to practical: the floatea and the mesh travel one. I own both the floatea and mesh options because they make it easy to take tea on the go! Additionally….teapots and cups come in a never-ending supply of shapes, styles, colors, prints, sizes, and materials!