I have to admit something. It’s a fact about myself that I don’t willingly share because of how often it is received with stares of distrust or questioning of my sanity. But in order to write this post I have to be honest, so here goes:
I don’t like coffee.
Phew, OK, I said it. I know what you’re thinking, how can I work at American Provisions and not like coffee?? It’s true, we are well known for our coffee program at AP, and I, like anyone else, receive great joy after foaming the perfect latte or pulling a beautifully timed espresso shot. It’s also true that when my boss found out about my aversion to coffee, he might have seriously contemplated firing me on the spot. I know you all love coffee and I support that! But I am here to stand up for the underdog of hot beverages, the too often forgotten and sidelined drink: tea.At American Provisions we strive to sell quality products, which is why I can confidently begin my defense for tea with the strong example of MEM Tea Imports. Locally based in Watertown, Massachusetts, MEM Tea has been providing high quality loose leaf tea to restaurants & shops since 1999. We sell a wide selection of their teas, many of which they custom blend to create unique interpretations of the varieties they import from major producers like China, Japan, India, & the Middle East. The MEM teas that we sell come packaged in elegant tea tins, each with an explanation of the type, as well as essential information like optimum brewing temperature and time for each tea. Now that you all know my secret about coffee, I can proudly claim my status as a Tea Person….or at least I thought I was, until I started researching for this post. I now must accept that I am a lousy Tea Person. It was actually a MEM tea tin that made me realize I have been brewing my teas at completely wrong temperatures, as well as steeping them for way too long. Did you know that different types of teas need to be brewed at higher or lower temperatures due to the different methods used to create them? I always assumed that the strict tea laws I had heard of were silly rules based on preferences, not fact. Thankfully I have been corrected and I am here guide you all into my newly enlightened tea state. The immense varieties of teas out there is overwhelming, but they can somewhat be simplified into six methods of “true teas”, or tea made from the plant Camellia sinensis: white, yellow, green, oolong, black, & puerh. White, yellow, & green tea are unfermented, which basically means that the tea leaves are immediately dried or steamed after being picked in order to prevent oxidization. White & yellow teas are minimally processed; usually air dried for a few days and then heat dried, producing teas that are light in color, as well as in taste. The most well known unfermented tea is of course green tea, but the many ways in which it can be processed means there are a wide range of possibilities for appearance and flavor. China and Japan are well known as major producers of green tea, yet the different methods used in each country yield different results. In China, the freshly plucked tea leaves are roasted in copper pans over a fire, then either twisted, rolled, or curved into a particular shape. This method produces savory, toasted green teas. Compared to the Japanese method of steaming or sweating the leaves until they are soft enough to be rolled and dried, which creates a tea with a more grassy, seaweed-like taste. We sell two green teas from MEM: Moroccan Mint & China Green Jade. Though both are made with tea leaves from China, these two green teas could not be more different in aroma and flavor. Following MEM’s instructions, I waited for my kettle of water to cool slightly before steeping both green varieties for 3 minutes. (The fast process of drying & heating green tea leaves is what makes them sensitive to temperature, hence the need for cooler steeping water).
The strong scent of mint persuaded me to sample the Moroccan Mint first, where I was greeted by a soothingly smooth concoction of rich mint flavor, with a slight honeyed sweetness. The scent immediately reminded me of an activity from sleepover camp, where I was cocooned with other campers under a bed sheet as we soaked in the steam from a simmering pot of herbs. This warm nostalgic memory was drastically halted after I took a sip of China Green Jade. This potent green tea is filled with punchy notes of seaweed and vegetables, followed with a lingering sweet finish. This Chinese blend is definitely suited for the more adventurous tea drinker; picky sippers be warned!Although we do not currently sell an oolong variety from MEM Teas (they make a bunch!), I would be remiss not to mention this fascinating variety of tea. Oolong means “black dragon” in Chinese, such named after a legend of a tea plantation owner who was scared away from his leaves by a black serpent. By the time the man returned, his leaves they had been oxidized by the sun, yet still created a delicious tea when brewed. When or how exactly oolong tea was created is unknown, but the process of semi-fermenting the leaves (stopping the fermentation process early on) creates a tea that has the sweet scent of green tea, as well as the bolder aroma of black. Many of the world’s finest oolong teas are produced in Taiwan. Finally we turn to the fully fermented variety of Camellia sinensis: black tea. Westerners call it black tea because of the dark color the leaves turn as they wither. In China and Japan, it is called ‘red tea’ due to the liquid color of the tea. Black tea was first produced in China at a time when foreign trade was quickly increasing, which meant that teas needed to survive the long journeys across seas. Similar to the way beers like English porters were fortified with more alcohol and hops to maintain the quality on deliveries to Russian royalties (where we get Russian Imperial Stouts), these tea leaves were completely fermented to preserve and strengthen the flavors. Producers did this by letting the leaves wither & bruising them by rolling to further oxidization, until finally halting the decomposition with baking. From what we have just learned, we can now expect my review of MEM’s black teas to describe stronger, more aromatic teas. Good news, they were! I started with their English Breakfast, a Ceylon Orange Pekoe from Sri Lanka. Following MEM’s instructions I steeped all the black teas with boiling water for about 5 minutes. (Black teas should be brewed at higher temperatures in order to bring out all the flavors). Right away, the tea seemed fuller and stronger tasting than the previous greens. After adding a teaspoon of sugar, the slight bitterness was softened and gave way to nice fruit notes. This tea filled me with a light surge of energy, confirming its reputation as a great morning brew. On the more sultry side of things was the gorgeous Blue Flower Earl Grey. A classic blend of Chinese black teas, this brew was named after a British statesman who was given the recipe on a diplomatic journey to China in the 19th century. The unmistakable scent of bergamot oil in Earl Grey is one that wraps me up like a cozy knitted sweater; calming and full of citrus sweetness, this a tea I could drink all winter long. MEM’s Rooibos Decorated and Lemon Chamomile are not technically “true teas” because they are not made from leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. Lemon Chamomile is a herbal infusion of chamomile flowers, lemongrass, and lavender. This MEM mixture looks and smells like a happy bowl of potpourri. The dried flowers give the tea a nice herbal flavor and its little zing of lemon gives me the image of Victorian ladies in white hats taking tea in a sunny garden. Rooibos, which means “red bush”, is made from the green needle like leaves of a shrub in South Africa that turn a deep red color when left to dry in the sun. MEM’s Rooibos Decorated is undeniably the strongest smelling and I think, the prettiest tea of the bunch. It’s strong aromas of vanilla and orange carried me into a lazy state, baking under the warmth of the sun. Rooibos tea is given the longest steeping time, MEM suggesting 7 minutes; in South Africa it is often steeped for hours or days, as it does not become bitter with time. Though not as immediate as coffee, these teas do have varying levels of caffeine in them, making them suitable options for those looking for a caffeine boost. Speaking as someone with a low tolerance for caffeine, after 5 cups of these teas I will certainly be “running on MEM Tea” for the rest of the night. Besides being a healthier option for our caffeine needs, these MEM teas are excellent gifts for the tea lovers in your life. The beautiful loose leaf will tempt any tentative drinker to indulge in the several varieties and MEM Tea tins are wonderfully affordable. Pair it with a tea infuser and you have a great Holiday gift for the chilly winter season!