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’Tis the season for tea. If you’re a newcomer to tea, here’s a primer.

By Ainslee Kellogg Mac Naughton

tea-LA steep hour-and-a-half hike up a mountain in rural China led Sara Martinelli to a traditional oolong farm frozen in time. The elderly owner lived much like the tea farmers of the prior century—with no running water or electricity, and growing and harvesting all his food.

Martinelli, herbalist and owner of the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse and Boulder Tea Company, was visiting China to learn more about tea growing and production. Her visit to the oolong farm revealed a day in the life of the Chinese farmer.

“This man cooked us lunch with these amazing ingredients on a stove made from fire and rocks, and truly, it was one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten anywhere,” Martinelli says. “After lunch, we harvested some tea and took turns carrying it down the mountain in large baskets. This trek is taken daily by the man’s grandsons, and it’s the only way they can get the tea leaves down the mountain to be processed into a premium oolong tea in the town below.”

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Most experts recommend steeping tea in a pot or jar, or in a metal basket that fits inside a cup. Infusers, while popular, don’t give the leaves room to expand and fully develop their flavor.

Colorado is far from that oolong farm, but its residents seem to love tea for its health benefits, soothing qualities and appealing range of flavors. From Celestial Seasonings to the Ku Cha House of Tea, many tea stores and makers inhabit Boulder County. “Tea is a perfect complement to the Boulder lifestyle, and locals have refined palates that tend to seek out high-quality, carefully grown teas,” Martinelli says.

Tea, by definition, is made from the leaves of Camellia sinensis, a shrub native to Asia. Its leaves produce the six main types of tea: green tea, black tea, oolong tea, white tea, yellow tea and pu-erh tea. The difference between these teas derives from the way the Camellia sinensis leaves are processed.

Whether it’s black, green, white or somewhere in between, all true tea comes from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. If left to grow wild, the plant could tower more than 50 feet. But it’s pruned to waist height for easier picking, like the plants at this tea plantation.
Whether it’s black, green, white or somewhere in between, all true tea comes from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. If left to grow wild, the plant could tower more than 50 feet. But it’s pruned to waist height for easier picking, like the plants at this tea plantation.

White teas come from Camellia sinensis’ buds and leaves and are the least processed, meaning they contain the most antioxidants but the least amount of caffeine. Black teas are fully oxidized, giving them more flavor and caffeine, but less antioxidants.

Partially oxidized oolongs are the traditional Chinese tea served in Chinese restaurants. Depending on the processing, oolongs can taste green and fresh, sweet and fruity, or thick and woody. Also served at Chinese restaurants, green teas are unprocessed and slightly bitter in flavor. Pu-erh teas are fully fermented, as opposed to oxidized, resulting in a dark, pungent tea.

Herbal teas, a popular local choice, aren’t actually true teas at all, although the preparation is similar, and herbs are often used in tea blends.

Whether it’s Camellia sinensis tea or herbal tea, loose-leaf tea tends to be of better quality than bagged tea, both in taste and nutritive properties. “With loose leaf, you’re getting more of a full-leaf-like tea,” says Matt Whitacre, store manager at Ku Cha House of Tea. “There are some good tea bags—pyramid–triangle bags tend to have more of a full leaf—but I think essentially you get more nutrition, antioxidants and all of the good stuff out of the leaf when it’s more of a full leaf instead of just the dust or broken-up pieces.”

Similarly, herbalist Rebecca Luna of Rebecca’s Herbal Apothecary doesn’t believe in teaspoon infusers, a popular method for preparing tea, because they don’t allow the herbs or leaves to expand. Instead, she recommends solutions as simple as steeping tea in a canning jar and straining it into a cup, or using a convenient metal basket that easily fits inside most mugs and to-go cups.

If you’ve only bought tea in prepackaged boxes from the grocery store, the best way to start is to smell different types of tea to see what you like. Basic questions will guide you to the perfect beginner tea for you: caffeinated or not? Spicy or fruity? Black or herbal? Sample teas to determine the kinds you prefer.

Blends for the Body

tea-Gita-Kulinitch-StudioMaking your own tea blends might seem daunting, but tea blending is as simple as experimenting with different teas and herbs—similar to learning to cook. You can start with a base, like a green tea or lemongrass, or choose multiple herbs that complement each other.

For herbal blends, Luna recommends choosing three or four herbs to experiment with and keeping them in separate bags. Each day, prepare tea made from one of the herbs to get an idea of what each tastes like, and then begin to blend them.

“A good analogy is if you were learning to cook eggs, you’d start with scrambled eggs, not a soufflé,” Martinelli says. “Take time to allow your palate to learn different flavors and how they relate to each other.” Add different herbs or teas based on what flavor you’re trying to achieve, and don’t be afraid to throw out blends that don’t turn out.

“A lot of people feel intimidated getting into that process, but I think it’s pretty simple,” Whitacre says. “If you want more antioxidants, use a green tea. If you want a heavier tea, use a black tea. You kind of start with that.”

Blending tea allows drinkers to tailor the tea to their needs. Expectant mothers can create blends that will provide good nutrients and antioxidants during pregnancy; stressed commuters can create relaxing blends after a frustrating drive home.

Rebecca’s Herbal Apothecary offers classes on tea and tea blending, and recently expanded its space to accommodate a larger and better-equipped classroom setting. Ku Cha Tea has a blend-your-own-tea station set up in the store, and an online calculator allows you to create personalized blends with the perfect amounts of each ingredient. Ku Cha also offers free tea tastings every Saturday from noon to 3 p.m. that explore different tea categories.

With winter in full swing, now is the perfect time to take time out for tea.

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