If you’re like us, New Year’s resolutions might include trading in your coffee breaks for tea time, and with good reason. For centuries, tea has been touted for its healing properties and has long been used as alternative medicine to treat everything from high blood pressure to insomnia. Steeped in history, tea can be as complex as a fine wine or as familiar as Lipton over ice. But for those looking to incorporate more tea in their regimen for health reasons — whether to cut back on caffeine or to take advantage of its antioxidants — the copious selection can be daunting. Local tea experts shared tips on tea lingo, choosing a variety, how to brew and just how special tea time can be.
When deciphering tea, becoming familiar with overall categorization is important.
But note that teas simply labeled as “herbal” aren’t really tea at all, experts say.
“They are really herbs and spices or flowers and fruit,” says Nancy McBrayer, owner of the Spice & Tea Exchange, which has locations in the Fort Worth Stockyards and Grapevine. “You steep it just like you would a tea and drink it the same way.”
Chamomile tea is one of the most recognized herbal teas, known for its sleep-inducing properties, McBrayer says. Hers contains a blend of orange peel, lemon grass, mint leaves and hibiscus, and she keeps it on the store shelf designated for teas with little or no caffeine.
On the opposite end of the tea spectrum with regard to richness and caffeine content is black tea, and that’s what Debra Bowman, owner of Coco’s Tea Room in Colleyville, prefers. She’s a coffee drinker, too, but being from Australia, she says she grew up on loose-leaf tea and sells multiple varieties out of her restaurant.
“Australia has never really ventured far from its British roots, I suppose,” Bowman says. “We love our tea. My favorite is the Irish breakfast tea, for its stronger flavor without the bitterness.”
Black teas include recognizable varieties such as Darjeeling, from India, and Earl Grey, which contains bergamot orange extract and becomes more floral in taste and aroma the longer it steeps. But for coffee drinkers looking for a full-bodied tea well-suited for cream, breakfast teas make for a good transition.
“Irish breakfast tea is stronger than English breakfast and is best drunk with milk,” Bowman says. “English and Earl Grey are good to start with for coffee drinkers.”
And for those who aren’t ready to give up their double mocha lattes?
“We have black chocolate tea, blended with bits of dark chocolate, and a fabulous hazelnut,” McBrayer says.
Green and white teas are noted for their antioxidants. Green teas typically are harvested after white teas and pack a more potent punch of flavor. But both McBrayer and Bowman warn that brewing green tea too long can cause the end product to become bitter.
“Green teas steep really fast,” McBrayer says. “We recommend steeping for two to three minutes.”
Herbal teas can be steeped as long as six minutes or more, to draw out their concentrated flavors. Bowman says the biggest mistake most people make when brewing tea at home is using water that’s not hot enough.
“It needs to be boiling water,” she says. “The old English tradition is that you shouldn’t stir it, but I always stir my tea because I like strong teas and stirring makes it a bit stronger.”
One teaspoon of loose-leaf tea is recommended per cup of tea. When brewing a pot, add an extra teaspoon of tea after accounting for all cups. Also, having a good infuser is important.
“You don’t want an infuser with holes that are too big,” McBrayer says. “You don’t want your tea leaves to float around in the water.”
Today, infusers come not only in the traditional hand-held variety, capped with a mesh ball, but also built within teapots and tea mugs for easy steeping. To ensure the most flavorful, robust tea possible, brew teas within six months to a year of purchasing, and note that teas sold in tea bags are ground, meaning their beneficial properties and flavor may not be as vibrant as loose leaf, and they may be much older, as well, the experts say.
High tea vs. low tea
At the Rose Garden Tea Room, which has locations in Fort Worth and Arlington, customers drink the restaurant’s special blend of rose tea (for sale by the pound and quarter-pound) both iced and hot. The floral beverage is also served during the tea room’s “high tea,” which includes a light three-course meal.
“Our rose tea is a black tea blend with vanilla and strawberry extracts and actual rose petals,” says Doug Hudson, who’s been serving the tea for more than two decades. “We serve our tea with an orange slice and, curiously, men love it as much as women. They drink gallons of it.”
In reality, “high tea” refers to the historic British tradition of serving tea with a heavier meal of meat dishes at the end of the workday. But the phrase is often used interchangeably by Americans to describe what’s really “afternoon tea” or “low tea” — the more posh version of tea time that most people envision, once reserved for only the wealthiest residents of England (the Crawleys on Downton Abbey seem to always be drinking tea).
Though the names may vary, most tea rooms offer a light three-course meal served with tea in the middle of the afternoon as a means for guests to leisurely catch up with friends or celebrate a special occasion. First courses usually involve finger sandwiches, phyllo pastries and small quiches; second courses include scones, jam and clotted cream and the third course always offers an assortment of small desserts.
“It’s just lovely,” says Hudson.
As we’ve determined most experiences are with good, high-quality tea.