Friday, February 5, 2010

On the Problem of Tea

Let's begin with a confession.  I am a coffee drinker, and have been virtually since birth.  I was born in Chicago, without the hot chocolate-loving gene.  So from the time I was a wee tot, my mother heated me up on winter outings with my preferred beverage -- coffee.  Cream, no sugar, just the way she liked it and so I came to like it, too.  I acquired a taste for hot chocolate later in life (for all its relevance to this discussion, which is to say, not at all).

From time to time, I've tried to become a tea drinker.  Not to supplant my coffee addiction, but to supplement it.  Typically, the desire is whetted when I have a really wonderful cup of tea and wonder why it isn't a greater part of my life.  Then I remember.  Most of the time, the tea I make has at best no taste I can discern, and at worst, tastes simply like hot water, or the vehicles by which it entered the hot water:  paper or metal.

This begs the question of whether it is simply that my tea-making skills suck.  This could well be.  In my recent foray into tea drinking, I actually read the packaging and discovered there is a preferred hotness of the water (sometimes boiling, sometimes not) for pouring over the bag or leaves, depending on the brew.  And a preferred steeping time, also depending on the brew.  I paid attention this time and I have improved my results.  More on that later.

I should also say that I don't use condiments in tea.  My father drank it with lemon, but most tea with lemon tastes like weak, hot lemonade to me.  Pretty gross.  So unless the tea is a lemon tea to start with, I've passed on the lemon.  In college, I had a roomie who drank tea with honey.  So I tried that as well.  Every tea I tried that way tasted like honey diluted with hot water.  Where was the tea?  And then, being an Anglophile of sorts, I tried drinking tea with milk and sugar for some time.  When I did, I tasted hot water, sugar and weak milk, but no tea.  I stilll drank it that way until my recent foray, though, just to look worldly.

If it hadn't been for the really stupendous cups of tea I happened on from time to time, I might well have concluded that tea was a sort of placebo:  that it deludes people into believing they are drinking something more flavorful than hot water, through various ruses like color and aroma, and a statistically significant group of them claim actually to like it.  One of my major complaints about teas is that many smell wonderful, but the smell doesn't translate into taste -- I know the two senses are biologically related, but I feel it a sorry second if the primary enjoyment I get from a beverage is smelling it rather than tasting it, and often aromatic teas again simply taste like hot water to me no matter how wonderful they smell.

If you are a tea aficionado, you might, at this point, question my tasting mechanism.  Is it possible that seven or so years of smoking, which ended about 14 years ago, dulled my taste buds?  Or that the stronger, richer, fuller taste of coffee has undone my ability to taste subtlety?  (Is tea supposed to have more subtle flavoring than coffee?  I don't know.  It does to me.)  It may be, but I don't think so.  I can taste subtle flavors in foods and in wines.  So why not teas?

Maybe I haven't tried hard enough.  My usual tea phase starts with a decision that I should get to know tea, a purchase of several types, along with some supplies, such as tea balls or strainers.  I taste hot water and clog my drain with tea leaves, so I let it sit in my pantry until the next time I get moved to convert.  If I go back to it, it's probably stale by that time and so not fair to judge.

My latest tea attempt was fueled by my weight loss efforts.  To put it mildly, I'd been drinking a shitload of Diet Coke and chomping a shitload of sugar free gum.  When my consumption went up to about eight 20-ounce bottles of Diet Coke and a pack or so of gum a day, I thought perhaps I was entering lab rat territory on the Aspartame front so decided there had to be some other low cal beverage I could put into the mix that would calm my orally fixated self.  Tea seemed the perfect fit.  I just needed the right tea to start with.  In the past I'd done Twinings and Bigelow, so I got some of that -- mostly the old favorites like Constant Comment, Earl Grey and some herbal ones.  But I was pretty curious about Tazo.  I'd seen it in Starbucks forever, but never tried it.  (And I'm not being paid by any of these companies.  Oh would that it were.  I can use any additional money I can get these days....)

I took myself over to one of my four local Starbucks -- don't get me started -- and found the Tazo section.  I discovered that Starbucks had recently commissioned Tazo to do a full leaf version of its teas in what they call "sachets" (which makes me think of the little do-dads my mother always stuck in my underwear drawer); tea bags that are made of fabric rather than paper.  This was apparently big news when it happened, though I learned of it months later from the 20-something Barrista I'd asked whether the cool-looking tins contained loose tea that would require the purchase of tea-making accoutrements.  I bought a few kinds and went home to try one.

I got really lucky on the first one.  Wow.  With Vanilla Rooibos I was finally able to replicate the experience of an awesome flavored tea at home.  This gave me courage.  I tried Calm, Passion, Awake, Chai and Orange Blossom, and all of them worked to some extent.  In any case, better than I'd recalled with other brands in other times.  The better ones were actually the herbals.  The teas themselves had less impact, but it was still a much better experience than it ever has been in the past.  Though the Bigelow I Love Lemon and Peppermint came out nicely as well.  I still can't really get Green Tea to work, though I've not tried a Tazo version as yet.  The Twinings was disappointingly weak and flavorless.

Why might my tea experience be improving?  First, let me say I am being very anal about tea preparation.  I follow the directions, as mentioned before -- I set a timer for steeping and don't let it go one more, or less, second than it is supposed to.  But it may also have something to do with the state of my body in general. 

I've written about my weight loss efforts before, and I can say now that I have made an honest drivers license of my driver's license.  It says 140, and so I am; give or take.  I was down to 139 the other morning and up at 143 the next, and I just got back from a week long convention-type business trip that is bound to have wreaked havoc with my body.  They even joked during the last session about the week of caffeine, sugar and alcohol, and yes, I was one of those who succumbed.  But I'm still in much better shape than I've ever been and I've resolved to get back on track tomorrow. 

Getting here has been, as Shay of biggest loser fame would say, "a journey."  I'm on month 7+ of weight loss, probably the longest time I've gone where I've really eaten almost no junk and have exercised like a machine.  I'm also older than in previous tea-loving attempts, and probably entering "the change" slowly but surely.   It seems plausible to me that a palate unhindered by too many bad fats and simple sugars, and in hormonal flux, could be a tea-loving palate.  I think about the tea lovers I know, and they are generally pretty healthy folks, and older folks.  Anecdotal, I know, but it's what I've observed.  And tea itself is touted as a healthful beverage.  Coincidence?  Which is the chicken and which is the egg? 

In any case, as you have gleaned, I'm giving tea another try.  I once said to someone I'm willing to try anything once.  Fortunately for me, he did not hold me to that.  Tea has gotten a lot of passes from me on the try anything once front, and somehow I think it will eventually be worth the repeated attempts.  I'm already tasting the difference.


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