An Ancient Drink, Newly Exalted

Exotic teas are appearing in restaurants and shops. Here's how to read the leaves

"Rich, earthy taste with briny overtones." "Complex, fruity flavor with a hint of honey." Notes from a wine tasting? Guess again. Although those characterizations would be right at home on a wine list, they are describing teas -- Pu-erh toucha and white tip oolong, respectively.

Shops and restaurants are elevating this staple to new heights as they offer a profusion of exotic varieties -- from delicate white tea made from young buds to gyokuro, a rare green tea from Japan. Common store-bought tea bags are typically mass-produced using low-grade tea "dust" (particles of crumbled tea leaves). In contrast, specialty teas, whether black, green, or white, emanate from the most flavorful leaves at the top of the plant, minimally processed and sold loose. The result can be a complexity of character comparable to fine wine. Indeed, some restaurants, such as Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., even have tea sommeliers.

You don't have to read tea leaves to understand why. Of the $2 billion in U.S. sales of traditional (meaning hot) tea last year, specialty teas accounted for $500 million, up from less than $250 million a decade ago. Specialty or not, black tea makes up more than 90% of consumption.

Part of tea's draw is its reputation as an elixir. The flavonoids, tannins, and vitamins in tea are believed to have potent antioxidant and antibacterial properties that can help combat everything from cancer and heart disease to the flu. With more interest in tea, drinkers have gotten more adventurous. Elaine Terman, owner of Elaine's Tea Shoppe in Toledo, does a brisk business selling custom blends such as UnWrinkle Me, a mix of white teas she says improves skin tone.

WILD LEAF. So, if you don't know rooibos from Red Rose but want to join the tea party, here's a primer. Legend has it that the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung discovered tea around 2737 B.C., when a leaf from a wild Camellia sinensis tree blew into his cup of boiling water. All tea comes from the Camellia, a now-cultivated shrub that thrives in high altitudes. (Herbal "teas" such as chamomile or mint technically are not tea.) The Camellia has spawned more than 1,200 varieties, which fall roughly into four major categories: black, green, white, and oolong.

Like wine, tea quality is affected by geography and climate. In general, the higher the elevation, the better the tea. The difference between the major types comes from their methods of preparation and levels of oxidation. Black tea, such as Ceylon and Darjeeling, is fully fermented, producing black leaves. Lapsang souchong is a scented variety, deriving its flavor from the pinewood smoke used to dry its leaves. Green tea leaves are picked, left to wither, and then steamed or pan-heated to prevent oxidation, maintaining their color. The minimal processing also preserves disease-fighting catechins, a type of antioxidant, which are lost in fermentation.

Oolong, a partly fermented tea, has a full-bodied flavor that falls between black and green tea. One example is pu-erh, which lowers triglycerides and reduces hunger -- hence, its nickname, the "diet tea." White tea, a newcomer to U.S. palates, is unfermented and made from the youngest shoots. Up to 80,000 buds are needed for a pound of white tea, one reason it can cost more than $10 an ounce. The leaves are steamed and gently dried, preserving antioxidants and a subtle flavor.

There's also red "tea" known as rooibos. Made from leaves of the rooibos "red bush" native to South Africa, it's technically not a tea. But it is fermented like a black tea and produces a deliciously rich brew. It also packs 500% more antioxidants than white, green, or black tea, and is thought to be particularly beneficial for pregnant women and colicky babies. Since it is an herb, it's caffeine-free. Another notable herbal tea is yerba mate, made from the leaves of a holly-like plant found in South America.

These teas can set you back $4 to $11 an ounce (an ounce makes about 20 servings). A box of 100 Lipton tea bags costs around $3. But when it comes to quality, why beat around the bush?

By Amy Cortese

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