It's Tea's Time

It has a lore of class and sophistication. Iced, it brings memories of summer. A hot steamy cup is perfect for sipping in a comfy breakfast nook.

The ancient art of tea drinking is seeing a revival.

“The view of tea used to be that it was a little old lady thing,” said Pat Westling, owner of Whidbey Chai in Clinton. “But with so many choices today, it has risen up and become a beverage for the masses.”

Finding the right tea and right way to drink it can be as drawn out as sipping the perfectly steeped cup. It comes pre-packed loose, in tea bags, in bulk loose, or even by the prepared cup or pot. There’s black, oolong, white or green. Do you want flavored, decaf or herbal? Do you prefer fruity or spicy? Japanese green or Chinese? Do you want cream with your tea? Lemon or sugar? Can we make that in a milkshake for you?

But don’t let all of the questions get your knickers in a knot.

“Sometimes tea is made to be full of rules, but I say to find a tea, find mug and enjoy — heaven forbid the whole pinky in the air thing,” said Dori Hallberg, owner of Island Tea Company in Freeland.

In recent years, many tea companies have searched to find the perfect update to the classic pillow style tea bag. Paper pouches are being replaced by versions made from nylon and other fine meshed materials. The shape is evolving away from the simple gusted paper sack to silky expandable squares and pyramid shaped pods. All of this is to allow the tea to properly expand and thus give tea drinkers the “proper cup.”

West Seattle-based Affinitea has developed a tea infuser that closely resembles an espresso maker and delivers a cup of brewed tea in 30 seconds.

“Because the Northwest is such a coffee mecca, people are looking for an alternative that is lighter and more healthful,” Hallberg said.

A hot new herbal tea on the market are the caffeine free South African Rooibos, translated as “red bush,” available now that trade embargoes to the country are lifted.

High on chai

“Chai is a definite catch phrase right now,” Westling said of the spicy tea drink that originated in India.

Westling opened Whidbey Chai along with her daughter, Carrie Duggen, last Valentine’s Day. After a rocky start at their Clinton retail location, they plan to continue selling at farmers markets and festivals.

They sell Chaiwalla, a brand of premixed chai powders created by Westling’s sister-in-law, Renita Duggan.

“There were enough people on the island who showed interest so I thought I’d take a chance with the business,” she said.

Whidbey Chai has been forced to sell their lounge where people can enjoy over 30 different chai flavors. The teas can be served hot with steamed milk or cold over ice and even be made into milk shakes. Would you like to try a Bourbon vanilla, hugs and kisses, raspberry, orange creamscicle, cinnabun, Reeses peanut butter cup or even a Mount Rainier?

“There’s customers who have tried all 30 varieties and now are making their own,” she said.

The varieties are concocted from 13 powder bases that are combined with syrups that either have or don’t have sugar. If chai is too spicy or does not have enough flavor — it could just be that you haven’t found the right chai, Westling said.

A March 2004 Prevention Magazine article backed increasing research that shows the antioxidants found in tea help fight heart attack, stroke, some cancers and even bad breath. Taiwanese researchers have found tea drinkers tend to have lower percentages of body fat. The USDA studied 15 people who cut their cholesterol levels with three weeks of tea drinking. Australian researchers looked at 218 women who dropped their blood pressure with tea.

The cardamom in chai has been found to act as a mental stimulant and the cinnamon in chai is said to be helpful through its ability to increase glucose metabolism and thus preventing sugar dips that cause cravings.

Whidbey’s Coffee, a Freeland based coffee retailer, has had to boost the number of tea products it has carried during its 15 years of existence.

“When we first started we didn’t have any tea,” he said. “The biggest move in tea has definitely been chai.”

Tea has deep roots

In Freeland, Dori Hallberg considers tea the perfectly balanced drink.

“The amino acid found in tea called theanine relaxes you and balances out the caffeine,” she said. “You’re awake and alert to do stuff, but also not so hyped you can’t concentrate.”

According to Chinese legend over 5,000 years old, emperor Shen Nung was the first to discover the drinkability of tea. He was careful of hygiene and insisted all water be boiled before drinking. Legend says some leaves of a nearby bush fell into the boiling liquid and Shen Nung was intrigued by the rich amber color and aroma. He found the brew pleasing to the palate and he and his followers became tea drinkers.

Tea and tea houses spread throughout China and Japan, making its way to Europe — but not Great Britain — in the late 16th century by Portuguese trade routes with China. By the mid-1600s tea was brought to America by the Dutch, and interestingly contradictory to many beliefs — Great Britain did not become a nation of tea drinkers until the late 1600s.

“They were still drinking coffee when we were onto tea,” Hallberg said.

Ever since, tea has been an integral part of history encouraging trade routes, Boston Tea parties, trade embargoes, and American Revolutions.

All true tea is related and it grows from the same family tree, Hallberg said.

Most tea comes from China, mountainous regions of Asia, India, Pakistan, Africa — and even places like North Carolina. Different varieties are influenced by geographical factors such as soil and weather conditions.

Hallberg scoffs at the myth that most tea found in bags is actually the dust off the floor.

“People have always demanded the highest quality in tea so many companies have been using premium whole leaves in bags for a long time,” she said. “For some tea companies the dust story is probably true, but that’s few and far between and a matter of checking quality.”

Hallberg is celebrating the sixth year of Island Tea Company, a proudly declared tea shop, not a traditional English tea room. She serves scones, sells loose tea, a few bagged teas, an assortment of tea accessories and gifts, and encourages people to sit down for pot. She carries between 70-80 teas at any given time, originally starting with 12.

They come in blend and flavor names like Snow Monkey Plum, Kyoto Cherry Rose Festival and Tropicana. Hallberg carries a few with local notoriety like Ebey’s Prairie, Meerkerk Medley and Mutiny Bay Blend.

She won’t name her favorite tea, stating that teas of the moment change with her mood and the seasons and only admitting to drinking it dark.

Often found scooping teas from the store’s selection, she’s liberal with samples.

“It’s important for me to help someone find a couple of teas they like than be stuck with ones they’re uncertain about,” she said. “This is a big kids’ candy store and in a way and I’m still exploring it myself.”

Langley Tea and Sushi, opened eight years ago by John and Pat Powell, was originally only a tea house — only serving tea, scones and tea sandwiches. Current owners Ryan Cribbs and Melanie Lowey carry on the tradition by keeping tea as an integral part of their name and their offerings. Their restaurant is a cozy little space nestled in downtown Langley, prefect for noshing on some sushi or sipping some tea. Housed inside is an eclectic mix of art, Asian snack novelties, T-shirts, and a fine selection of boxed teas. There still are the scones and tea sandwiches, and if asked politely, two people who really know how to make a pot of tea. Enough devout tea drinkers have some into the shop that Cribbs and Lowey have started custom making a pot or cup into flavors such as their pie tea, made from Black Currant and Vanilla flavored teas.

“Most people aren’t used to the idea of tea being anything beyond Liptons, but if they open up their minds you can find a tea that tastes like anything they want,” Lowey said.

“Tea should be like food and allow you to be adventuresome and travel from region to region,” Hallberg said.

No matter what the tea of choice, preparation is the key. Rule of thumb is a cup of water to a teaspoon of tea, and never fill your bag, infuser or strainer more than half full so there’s room to expand. Store in air-tight containers, out of light and away from moisture. If done properly, tea can be stored for up to two years.

“I always tell people to use the best, water, the best tea and give it a little time,” she said.

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