Sunday, April 22, 2012

Iced Tea, Traditions and Myths

The days are starting to get warmer and that means you may be thinking of trading your hot cup for a tall icy glass of tea. You are not alone in your tea drinking. Researchers estimate tea is found in four-fifths of our homes here in America. On any given day half of us are drinking tea. Further, 85% of our tea is served iced. If you live in the south where the majority of tea is consumed, your iced tea will probably be sweet tea which you are likely to drink all year round.

In my family, my oldest brother and his household drink it weak and very sweet. I call it sugar water. The rest of us drink it strong and unsweetened. Like southern sweet tea drinkers, we don’t really have an iced tea season. My family’s tradition is to start the day with a cup of coffee, then switch to iced tea the rest of the day. I am a bit of a loner as I don’t drink coffee at all, instead I start the day with hot tea and stay with it all day long. I sometimes switch to iced tea in the evening. We all have our own normal.

To my family, iced tea is just called tea. That means Lipton to them. I go against our tradition yet again. I use Tetley British Blend for my iced tea. Many of my Internet tea friends use all kinds of exotic teas both flavored and unflavored for their iced beverage of choice. Don’t be afraid to experiment. There is no right or wrong here as long as you enjoy it.

Today, the vast majority of iced tea is brewed from bags of black tea. It might interest you to know green tea, hot and iced, was just as popular as black prior to World War II. War, politics, and the resulting trade changes are responsible for a lot of our tea habits today. Innovation is also responsible for big changes affecting our daily lives. I am speaking of the tea bag and iced tea. No matter how you personally feel about either, you may have learned their story incorrectly.

Tea bags account for 65% of the tea drank in America. Ready to drink tea accounts for another 25%. Instant and loose leaf together account for the remaining 10% Sadly fellow tea drinker, loose leaf is consumed even less than instant. Don’t dwell, let’s keep moving.

Most of us were taught that tea bags are a recent American invention. Thomas Sullivan is credited with inventing them. The year is often cited as 1904. The best I can tell a more accurate date is 1908 when Sullivan furnished small hand sown silk muslin pouches of tea to New York area merchants as samples of his available product. The merchants put the sample, pouch and all, in water and voila the tea bag.

While Thomas Sullivan did just as history records and furnish tea in small pouches, he did not invent the tea bag. The first patent of a tea bag belongs to A.V. Smith in England. The year was 1896. The first U.S. patent for a “tea leaf holder made out of fabric” was granted in 1903. While Thomas may not have invented the first tea bag, his actions did begin to popularize their usage.

A few more tea bag figures for you to ponder: The first commercial use of tea bags I found was around 1920 when Joseph Krieger supplied them to caterers. Lipton invented the famous Flo-Thru design in 1952 and Tetley introduced the tea bag to England the following year.

Another bit of tea history that is often told incorrectly concerns the origins of iced tea. Usually the story is told that it was invented at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. The facts say otherwise. A merchant named Richard Blechynden did exhibit his hot tea wares at this time. The weather did turn very warm and he did ice down his tea in order to attract fair goers. As often happens he was in the right place at the right time. Iced tea gained popularity from this opportune moment and Richard goes down as the creator.

What goes unstated is that a handful of the food vendors at this fair had iced tea listed on their menus submitted prior to the event. There are many cookbook examples of tea used in iced drinks including punches preceding the 1904 fair. The earliest of these used green tea but even black tea was used iced prior to 1904. There is even evidence of it being sold at the 1893 Chicago World’s fair! For a more in depth look read the History of Iced Tea and Sweet Tea

I hope you enjoyed my rambling. I don’t know about you but after all this reading I feel the need for some iced tea.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Gurman’s Pepper Mango Green Tea

Green tea with mango bits, papaya bits, pink pepper, flavouring, chili pepper, sunflower blossoms, safflower. Importer: Nedas Tea & Coffee LTD

This came to me through a tea drinking friend. Her daughter’s husband bought it while in Ireland. I have never seen this brand locally, or even on the Internet, for that matter. The dry leaf is very interesting. The tea looks like dried grass clippings. There are tan flakes that I am guessing are peels or zest. Then there are tiny red balls that are probably peppers. Finally, I notice some larger dried pieces almost an inch long that again I presume to be peppers. These could be the dragon tooth peppers that are commonly used in Chinese food. What have I gotten myself into?

The tea is rather large pieces so I used a healthy portion. I did not have any steeping instructions so I used my usual parameters for green tea. I brought the water up to a light steam but well below boiling. I steeped this for 2 minutes in my press. I thought this was brewing rather dark until I picked it up for a better look and realized the leaf was floating near the top and blocking the light. The liquor is light green/amber. The wet leaf smells lightly peppery. Here goes…

The sip – Wow! This is really interesting and different. There is a moderate citrus rush followed by peppery goodness. The pepper doesn’t seem as hot as I expected. Only a tiny bit of heat in the aftertaste. A very mild jalapeno maybe. You catch a hint of the green tea in the aftertaste. These three flavors combine in the most unexpected way and result in a sweet pickle taste. At least that is the best I can do to describe it.

Ok, as it cools it does get a lot more peppery tasting. I can see if you aren’t a spicy fan this could be too much. It grabs the throat a bit and charges up your nose but never in an overwhelming manner to my tastes. There is also another bit of flavor I can’t quite place.

I brewed a cup for a friend who mostly drinks Lipton but I thought he would appreciate this from a grill master perspective (His pulled pork is literally the best I have ever tasted). His words, “this is good, it has a butterscotch element to it.” Yeah, I can see that. It’s the flavor I couldn’t identify. I steeped three cups from the same leaf. The flavor of the third was still going strong. This is Cool! It is like an extremophile, bizarre and magical all at the same time.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Stash, Crème Caramel Decaf Tea

The ingredients are listed as naturally decaffeinated black tea, chocolate, and dulce de leche au caramel.

I always try to accept a tea for what it is and how well works at that level. That means I do not judge a grocery store tea bag by the same standard that I would an expensive loose leaf. So a lowly bag can get a pretty good review from me that it might otherwise not receive from someone who puts all tea on the same level. That being said, I can find nothing about this that I enjoy. It just tastes fake and mediciney to me. I tried it hot and waited until the cup cooled. At no time could I separate the flavor of the tea, chocolate, or caramel. It is just one nasty horrible mess. It has been a long time since I have dumped out a cup rather than finish it. I can’t even chug this to make it go away. I need a Coke to wash this taste away. Ick.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Stash, Lemon Spice Green Tea

The ingredients include: green tea, black tea, lemongrass, citrus peel, cinnamon, and natural lemon flavor.

I don’t recall ever having this bagged offering from Stash. I am a little confused by it. The label says green tea, so I prepared it in my usual green manner with below boiling water and a two minute steep. Then I notice the liquor is turning very dark, like a black tea. So I read the small print and sure enough it contains both green and black tea. Usually when they blend tea types they call it a fusion.

The bag is undersized as is typical with Stash but it seemed to steep up well. The scent is primarily lemongrass. The taste is lemon held up by the cinnamon. I think this would be greatly improved if I could better taste the tea. Well actually, if I could taste the tea at all it would help. The lemon needs toned down some. As the cup cools the cinnamon comes forward more and in combination with the lemon is quite nice. My review reads more negative than I mean it. For a flavored bagged tea, this is a pleasant cup that I would not turn down if offered.

Big Train, Inc. Mystic Chai Vanilla

A blend of black teas, exotic spices, and vanilla from Madagascar. This is a powdered mix that comes in a 2 pound can. We buy it at our Sam’s Club. The mix looks very similar to Nestle’s Quick. The scent is vanilla chai. Yeah, it smells good. The first ingredient listed is sugar, which makes me a little nervous. Tea is listed somewhere later after non fat milk and non dairy creamer, which also makes me a little nervous.

There is a measuring cup included, but having some experience with these mixes I used about half the recommended one scoop. One scoop is 140 calories. My cup should be about 60. Forgetting this was a mix, and it did not have to steep, I boiled the water. That meant it mixed easily but also that I had to wait a long while for it to cool enough to start sipping.

This is lightly spiced and very milky feeling. It is sweet but not overly so, at least with using half a scoop. The vanilla is pleasant and not overdone. The tea flavor is a bit hidden but comes through lightly in the aftertaste.

I am not really a chai drinker so I can’t tell you if this is a good example of the genre. What I can say is it is better than Nestle’s Quick or instant hot chocolate mix in the morning.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Respect Your Elders!

R.C. Bigelow
 I recently read “My Mother Loved Tea” by David C. Bigelow. His mother was Ruth Campbell Bigelow, whose Constant Comment started a family run empire that is now in its third generation. It is a short but interesting book about a successful married couple hitting hard times in the depression and in the following years choosing to follow a dream instead of giving up. Launching the business was easy, but getting noticed proved to be the real challenge. The story takes decades to unfold.

What I find especially interesting is the impact Bigelow had on the way we drink tea in America. Today, with all the choices we have at the grocery store and the endless variety of wonders we can order off the Internet, we sometimes forget it wasn’t always this way. My own early experience with tea is mirrored in the book. I mentioned this in my first post on this blog. When I was a teenager in the 70’s I began to buy my own tea. The grocers shelf space dedicated to tea was pretty limited and what was there was straight black tea. Except for this one pressboard ‘tin’ with the oval metal lid. It was different. The orange peel and sweet spice flavored Constant Comment was the only flavored tea we had available.

What I didn’t know until I read the book was that Bigelow’s other flavors didn’t show up on the shelves until 1974. My beloved Earl Grey, Lemon Lift, and Cinnamon Stick came about because of a copycat version of Constant Comment being introduced by a competitor. We take tea variety for granted but without Constant Comment and the competition it inspired we might have had to wait on the Internet to find out we had options beyond orange pekoe black tea bags.

Grocery store teas often receive subtle and not so subtle insults by some of my fellow tea drinkers. I think it is high time the pioneers who struggled to bring tea to the everyday tea drinkers among us get the deserved credit and respect they have earned. Thank you Ruth for loving tea enough to keep fighting all those years to make it available to the rest of us.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Primula Tea, Fairy Lily

It has been a while since I steeped a flowering tea. I thought today it was time I did another review. The Primula teas can to me as a gift from a thoughtful friend. There were originally 12 blooms or pods in the round canister that is fashioned to look like bamboo. Each pod comes wrapped separately. They are round and smell lightly of jasmine.

For this one I prepared 24 ounces of boiling water and poured it into my press. Then I added the pod. It bubbled and slowly settled to the bottom opening graciously as it did. The bloom revealed a lovely red lily and lengthy string of jasmine flowers surrounded by the green tea needles. The bloom stayed perfectly intact with no broken floaters.

The liquor turned darker quicker than I anticipated. You only get one shot with a blooming tea, fortunately they are very forgiving as long as the water was hot enough at the beginning. For a green tea the brew was pretty dark. There was no bitterness in the taste and only a bit of dry mouth feel. The taste was lightly jasmine but mostly the lily flavored the drink. I could not taste the tea leaf in this one. This one is not the most wonderfully flavored flowering tea I have tried but it certainly isn’t the worst. I had two cups and it would have re-steeped, I just ran out of time today.

Flowering teas are never something I grab because I crave the taste. I brew them because they are pretty to look at. The novelty and entertainment value of this one is high and as a bonus the taste is not bad.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Charleston Tea Plantation, American Classic Tea, Governor Gray

This is an American grown and packaed tea. First a little information I got from the Charleston Tea Plantation’s website: The plantation is located on Wadmalaw Island in South Carolina. The island is approximately 10 miles long and 6 miles wide. The plantation is 127 acres and produces both black and green teas. They say Wadmalaw provides the perfect environment for propagating the Camellia Sinensis tea plant, with its sandy soils, sub-tropical climate and average rainfall of 52 inches per year.

A co-worker came back from vacation having taken the South Carolina tea plantation tour. He didn’t want to go – his wife pushed him into it. He said it actually turned out to be the most interesting thing they did on vacation. Being the perfect tourist, he bought a book, and a video. He also bought a tin of this tea.

On to the tea. There are no brewing instructions on the tin. Ingredients listed are tea and oil of bergamot. It smells great in the tin. The leaf is very small pieces of CTC. It is a bit larger than the tea flecks common to tea bags.

I used a healthy spoon and boiling water, steeping for 2 ½ minutes. The liquor is nice and dark. It smells much lighter than the dry leaf suggests. One comment on the wet leaf – this does plump up nicely but not quite as much as say Twinings.

The taste is interesting. The bergamot is a tad lighter than I prefer in an EG, but tasty. It comes in late in the sip. The first taste is a very smooth bit of malt, emphasis on smooth. There is a drying aftertaste yet this doesn’t seem astringent when sipping. As the cup cools the bergamot becomes more pronounced, which appeals to me. I let the last of the cup get cold and I liked it. This would make a good iced tea. The second cup is not as good as the first but still quite drinkable.

This is a pleasant cup. I can’t think of anything to compare it to. It is as far removed from Twinings as it is Harney & Sons. Obviously, the American aspect of it appeals to me. It breaks the rules of tradition and it still works. If I could buy this locally, I would keep a small tin around for the novelty alone. It can be ordered online for about $9.49 + shipping, for 2.3 oz (50g).