Real tea: Confessions of an aspiring tea snob

Real tea is made from leaves from camellia sinensis. White, green, macha, oolong, puerh, and black tea all come from this plant. Real tea is, obviously, gluten free. Strangely though a fair amount of packaged bagged product known tea is not actually tea and is not gluten free.

A fair number of Celestial Seasonings teas contain gluten. Bless them, they started clearly labeling their boxes a few years ago.

I am not opposed to GF herbal tea-like brews. I drink rooibos when I don't want to imbibe caffeine. I will drink bagged actual tea when its offered. I just don't think it tastes anything close to as good as real tea. In the privacy of my own home I drink tea. Mostly oolongs.

I have a full leaf tea for work, a straight forward Dragonwell which can stand up to ten or more infusions and a fair amount of abuse in the form of oversteeping and excessive water temperature. I keep a tea pot, cup, and thermos at my desk.

As I write I am drinking a Formosa oolong (Tung Ting, charcoal roasted) from my favorite tea shop in the City, Red Blossom Tea Company.

Other fine tea emporiums, which also do web business, are Cooks Shop Here in Northampton, Massachusetts and Imperial Tea Court in San Francisco and North Berkeley.

I found real tea when I was living in a remote Buddhist retreat center in the mountains of central California. I'd grown up in a cold climate drinking wonderful stinky loose lapsang souchong, and bagged Earl Grey & English Breakfast. Good stolid tea. Comforting and dependable, but not transcendent by any measure.

At the Zen center there were tea enthusiasts who would gather in the mornings or late afternoons and brew full-leaf tea for each other. There were also Japanese tea ceremony practitioners--a lovely but very different offering. One summer morning when I was luxuriating in a day off from work, a serious monk whom I held in regard offered me a cup of green tea he was drinking. It was called Clouds & Mist. It smelled and tasted like a murky heaven, clear and clean but with a body that deepened into a kind of marshiness. The next time I was in the City I went to Imperial Tea Court and spent my stipend on tea.

I chased the remembered taste of Clouds & Mist for a few years, ignoring the central wisdom of tea practice: there is only this one unrepeatable moment. I confessed to the monk years later that I was still looking for that rapturous Clouds & Mist and he laughed at me kindly.

"Any green tea could be called Clouds & Mist. Among green teas only Dragonwell is always some form of the same processing, same leaf, but with different grades. Someone could sell you tea factory floor sweepings labelled Clouds & Mist. Do you know how many tea plantations there are in China? Thousands! And every harvest is different. You'll never taste that tea again."

He went on to point out that the water at the retreat center was natural, mineral-rich, barely treated spring water, that temperature and barometric pressure all influence the tea's taste.

I understood and I stopped yearning for my memory of that tea, that morning on the screened-in porch in the wilderness.


I am not suggesting that celiacs ought to drink full-leaf tea, though it is hailed as having all sorts of health benefits.

I seek and drink tea because it's a sensual enjoyment--the look, smell, and taste of full leaf tea, drunk from a simple bowl, is beautiful. Beauty as I read or write at home is a treat. Beauty in the midst work on a psychiatric crisis team is sustaining. It's like drinking stillness.

We give up a great deal in order to care for ourselves. There's little ease or spontaneity in having to interrogate everything you put in your mouth. For me, real tea is an accessible pleasure.

But real full leaf tea is so expensive!

It can seem that way. But once one does the math, drinking really good tea is cheaper than drinking mediocre coffee. I spend approximately a hundred and eighty dollars a year on tea. I usually have four teas of differing grades and characteristics. A daily Dragonwell and three oolongs. One to two tablespoons of leaves in the pot, and then I infuse them up to twenty times. I drink the same leaves all day. The taste deepens, changes, and then lightens. Cheaper than three dollars a day on latt├ęs. For me, more enjoyment.

What about caffeine?

If you don't want caffeine, don't drink real tea. White teas have the least caffeine but it's still pretty close to the amount in green tea. Oolong has a higher caffeine content, and puerhs and black teas more than oolong.

Bear in mind that caffeine in high quality green teas don't seem to have the same effect on the drinker as the equivalent caffeine in other beverages. People report not feeling uncomfortably activated or jittery. Some speculate that this is because of the amount L-Theanine in the young leaves of green tea.

The caffeine in tea tends to create a softer effect than coffee infamous rise and crash. But again, if caffeine doesn't work for you, obviously, don't drink it.

I am not particularly sensitive to caffeine though I have certainly experienced the uncomfortable nervousness and crash of too much coffee. When I drink cappuccino (two super smooth espresso shots with foamed milk) a few times a month to celebrate the weekends, I may get a bit bouncier for a few hours.


Jennifer Lowe said...

But can we drink decaffeinated green/white/oolong tea, if we miss it terribly and if caffeine makes us certifiably CRIZAZY? Or are the processes for rendering Real Tea decaf just totally destructive to the environment, to the delicate leaves, and/or to our GI tracts?

I say this with a very fine cup of a looseleaf, locally blended, wildcrafted/organic liver detox tea right here in front of me, which is just dandy, so I don't mean to complain. But sometimes I would murder for a good fucked-up oolong.

PS any interest in my puy lentil/swiss chard recipe? great over coconut basmati/jasmine rice and 100% GF! ;o)

Ms. W said...

My Dear Ms. Lowe, I am very interested in your puy lentil/swiss chard recipe. However, my ancient tea snobbery lineage requires that I regretfully inform you that de-caffeinating alters the precious perfection of the tea-ness. As you suspected. Perhaps you could totally ignore tea snobbery and drink decaf (though I must say I haven't seen any full-leaf decaffeinated oolong or green). Or you could become obsessed with some other aesthetically pleasing esoteric beverage or food stuff. Like local wildcrafted organic liver detox medicinal tisane. Right-O. I am studying. Really, I am.

J Jay said...

This post really made me :).

I am an aspiring tea snob myself. Though, I strictly drink "fake" tea (various herbs, fruits that I steep in my French press). Caffeine just isn't for me. But I have found that yerba mate is great for stimulants, along with (and I'm serious) mint and mugwort (tastes much better than it sounds).

I sweeten my teas using Bragg's Organic Apple Cider Vinegar. Definitely gives it a BITE but the lovely benefits of a sweetener-free tea and detoxifying qualities of apple cider vinegar is something my body thanks me for every day. :)

Again, thanks for the excellent read. Definitely bookmarking this to show my fellow aspiring tea snobs. :D