Hello from the tea team at Mighty Leaf Tea! When you’re deeply passionate about tea, it can take you to interesting places and introduce many cups of unusual teas. It can sometimes also lead to experiments in tea. Tea typically comes from China, Japan, India, and Africa. While people have tried growing tea domestically, most of the attempts have come up short, though you can visit a tea plantation in Hawaii and another in South Carolina.
Eliot Jordan, our VP of Tea has been tending a tea bush in his backyard in Berkeley for five years to see if it might take. And, has it ever! Recently, he plucked tea leaves from his backyard bush and brought them into the office to share with us. We’re calling them First Flush, Berkeley Estate and decided to process them as white tea. It also provided an intriguing opportunity to look at the stages tea leaves must go through to make it finally to the teacup. Anni Pattee took photos of the tea leaves below during their stages of drying.
When thinking about adding flowers to teas made of Camellia sinensis leaves and herbal teas, several things come to mind. The aroma of a nice tea is pretty subtle, which is why some people like to flavor teas. Flowers as a group tend to communicate aroma and taste, but rarely in equal measure. Consider the rose, which contributes about 90% aroma and 10% taste. If you’re thinking of adding rose to a green tea, brew the green tea leaves and smell rose petals in your hand for a preview of what that blend will taste like. People don’t really like to drink just rose petals steeped—it tastes like rosewater and your palate wants more because there’s nothing to back up the aroma. Mandarin Rose brings together black tea with rose for a tea that has a bit of a feminine edge. It would make a wonderful afternoon tea party tea or as an iced tea for enjoying outdoors on a warm day.
Rose and jasmine are very flowery in the aroma department. Jasmine-scented green tea is normally given as a gift in parts of China around Chinese New Year in February. It’s really cold there and the idea behind this particular gift is that the scent of the tea captures the summer from the previous year and is a reminder of the coming spring when enjoyed during winter. In my mind, Organic Spring Jasmine is a tea I associate with drinking during the afternoon or with Chinese cuisine.
Hibiscus is on the opposite part of the spectrum than rose since it’s 10% aroma and 90% taste. You can a smell a cup of hibiscus and it’s subtle until you get it on the palate—it’s thick, dark, sour, and bittersweet. Hibiscus will radically change the taste, color, sweet-sour-bitter balance of a tea. Since rose and hibiscus are at opposite in aroma and taste, they could play well together. Hibiscus-based herbal teas are wonderful—I like the sourness, the red wine aspect of hibiscus. Wild Berry Hibiscus is the blend of ours with the most prominent hibiscus flavor. It’s great sweetened and drunk during winter. It makes a really good iced tea in the summer too as it turns into a refreshing drink in the way that cranberry juice is refreshing. Hibiscus, as a flavor, rejuvenates the palate and makes you salivate. To describe the taste of hibiscus, it would be in the center of a map of where cranberry juice, red wine, strawberry and cherry flavors intersect. It’s a flower that’s really fruity, and it tends not to play well with others – you wouldn’t want to add milk to a hibiscus tea, and it wouldn’t swap in for a good-with-milk-tea to serve with food, much like it’s rare to see red wine served with scones.
Other flowers like linden flower are sweet and rounded with body, making them interesting additions to tea even though those flowers are not as well known. Chrysanthemum blossoms make for a good anytime herbal tea. I can imagine drinking this infusion in the morning or evening, when it’s cold or hot outside. It’s very sturdy in that way and pairs well with lighter flavors of food or can be served by itself. Within China this herbal tea is very popular; it’s one of the classic herbal teas enjoyed within the country that created tea. You can also spike chrysanthemum with other ingredients, blending in mint, chamomile or if you’re feeling adventurous, another tea bag. Chrysanthemum gets used in blends a lot.
Blending flowers into herbal teas, it’s important to consider they have a different mouth structure—herbs are not astringent and tend to be softer on the palate. A successful herbal tea blend balances aroma and taste. Take pure chamomile. By itself, this flower has a sweet aroma and some body but it doesn’t have much structure on your palate. Just drinking good chamomile will exhibit apple-y, honey sweetness but a limited flavor range. One of our most popular herbal tea blends, Chamomile Citrus brings a complex flavor interest to the cup. It’s a brilliant blend with rosehips, lemon, orange, lemongrass, and a touch of mint to give the chamomile backbone and aromatic dimension. I can’t take any responsibility for this blend as it was a blend created by the founders of Mighty Leaf. Chamomile herbal tea is drunk whenever Peter Rabbit’s mother says you should drink it. Seriously though, with the word chamomile in the name of Chamomile Citrus, it has a soothing taste and effect. The citrus is more tart and I tend to think of this as a blend enjoyed in the afternoon or evening to be served by itself or with food.
A tea flower is another description for a blooming tea. Blooming teas are almost all green teas and resemble balls or cones of tea leaves tied together with a flower inside that blooms when you brew the tea. If you’ve heard them described as flowering teas or tea flowers, they’re actually known in the tea world as blooming teas or display teas. They’re meant to “display” themselves by unfurling from their original shape when placed in hot water. The teas as a group are very difficult to make since they’re totally handmade. They look fantastic. The rare thing is to find good tasting ones. I’ve seen some of these made in China—it takes so long to form them that the green tea leaf often suffers in the process. To make the large balls, they have to dry them so much to dry the center of the leaf. Mighty Leaf only has one blooming tea in our collection, 1000 Days Red Jasmine with a jasmine blossom that unfurls from the center as the tea steeps. We carry this blooming tea because the tea producer is able to manipulate the tea quickly to finish it or skillfully for a good tea. The blooming teas from Fujian and Anhui provinces are the best ones.
The Japanese tea ceremony dates back to Sen no Rikyu, a tea master who served General Oda Nobunaga and then with his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi. He’s credited with his influence on the way of tea, also known as chado. The way of tea incorporated all of the major components of Japanese philosophy and aesthetics 500 years ago. Rikyu’s influence extended to introducing the concept of wabi-sabi – an appreciation for beauty that is imperfect and impermanent into the tea ceremony, a style known as wabi-cha. The classical Japanese art seen in calligraphy and ikebana, the Japanese style of flower arranging are brought into the tea ceremony along with the issue of harmony and balance, finding the universal in the immediate and simple thing in front of you.
A traditional Japanese tea ceremony lasts 4 hours. To do it right, you have a dedicated ceremonial room in the back of your garden with a low door. The low door symbolizes that whether you are a peasant or emperor, you have to bend down to get in, bringing each person into the same posture for the tea ceremony, among the stratified society. The tea ceremony is a place where everyone can be equal. The space where the ritual takes place is bare of adornment except for one flower arrangement and one piece of artwork hanging on the wall, usually a painting of nature or calligraphy. Typically, one to three guests take part at a time and they admire the painting and flower, commenting politely. Then, the tea-making begins. The coals are heated. The kettle is placed on them. The tea used in the ceremony should be high quality Matcha green tea. The pot and the chawan bowls should be expertly made but slightly imperfect, an element of zen Buddhism. When the tea is poured, the technique of the host is demonstrated as they use the chasen bamboo tea whisk to froth the Matcha. The host then drinks the tea first. He or she will then turn the bowl a quarter and pass the cup to the person on their right. This process is incredibly elaborate and stylized. These days even in Japan, the tea ceremony typically is abbreviated to only 45 minutes but still observes a relatively quiet, studied, meditative experience centered around the tea.
Joane Filler-Varty, our VP of hospitality shares her insights on how Japanese culture and the tea ceremony have influenced the tea programs she sets up for our four and five star hotels in Japan. “The aesthetic plays an important role—everything needs to look right and be in the right place. All the details are important. No one element sits by itself. Instead, it’s how the cup, teapot, and tea all combine together.”
Speaking of tea, the history of Matcha starts off in China where it was super-finely ground and found popularity there. Originally developed in China, in the 1300’s Matcha made its way to Japan. Matcha’s popularity died out in China after several hundred years, but flourished in its new home. Japan’s history has selected certain aspects of Chinese culture over the years and made them their own. So much extra work and care goes into making Matcha, and this green tea became uniquely Japanese. Matcha is typically reserved for use in the tea ceremony where its required focus and preparation come to life, but even in Japan it is now often consumed in smoothies, lattes, and the like.
New ingredients come in every year in the tea world. If you consider the herbal tea world, there are half a dozen bases for all herbal teas. These include chamomile, mint, hibiscus, and rosehips, which form the flavor foundation for many herbal teas. They’re all many centuries old and used widely. But rooibos has only been a worldwide tea ingredient for 25 years.
In the early 1990s, rooibos began circulating into the United States. For many years, well before colonizers arrived in South Africa, local South African tribes had harvested rooibos leaves and made a beverage out of them. Over 100 years ago, a Russian immigrant with a tea background immigrated to South Africa, tried rooibos, liked it, and started popularizing it in the country. There wasn’t much trade with South Africa until political changes happened through the leadership of Nelson Mandela and the fall of apartheid. Then rooibos first made its way to Europe where there’s a rich herbal tea drinking tradition and later it came to the United States.
I first heard about rooibos from a German company. I had trouble saying the name, just like most people do when they first see it, but I liked the flavor. They said that four out of five people who try it, like it. And, I can concur that it’s a likeable herbal tea. Rooibos is now a common drink. Most people now know how to say it (roy-bus). It’s very much accepted and widely blended as a base in herbal teas. The key to its success lies in the exact reason why I drink it.
I’m not an herbal tea guy – most herbal teas are too… herbal. I can appreciate and cup herbal teas, but when I’m sitting down to a cup of tea, I drink mostly black tea like Darjeeling or Keemun. Rooibos is the perfect herbal tea for black tea drinkers like me. The color of rooibos is similar to black tea and its flavor is herbaceous and neutral. Not all rooibos is the same. A good rooibos will have sturdy body, a little bit of a dry kick to it though not astringent. And I differ with others who describe the flavor as earthy. Instead, a magical combination coalesces into tasting like a combination of vanilla, saffron, and redwood bark. If it’s low quality rooibos, it can taste moldy. When I think of rooibos, I think of red rooibos, but green rooibos also exists. Just like tea, rooibos leaves oxidize. So, when green tea became popular, someone had an idea to make green rooibos. I wouldn’t put green rooibos on the same level as green tea though. To me, green rooibos tastes raw and is missing the red color I enjoy. Only about 5-10% of rooibos leaves get reserved for green rooibos.
What makes rooibos a big deal is that it’s the only wildly consumed base herbal tea that’s recently come onto the market. It seems like it’s available everywhere and yet rooibos comes from one specific place in the world. To this day, it only grows in one mountain range in one country of the world, the Western Cape area of the Cedarburg Mountain range in South Africa. There have been attempts to get the seeds and plant them elsewhere in the world but those attempts have failed. Organic rooibos is available in large part because not much else grows in the dry desert-like climate where it thrives. The small seeds can be hard to propagate. Rooibos harvest happens during the Southern hemisphere summer where the leaves are cut with a hand-scythe from the fields or out in the wild to later be processed in a factory.
Culturally speaking, in South Africa, it has a reputation for being good for your skin and for babies. Apparently, it would help with colicky babies and babies with skin rashes. It became something nursing mothers would drink. That’s probably its biggest reputation as a healthy beverage. In South Africa, you can find shampoo and soaps with rooibos in them too. Recently, some studies have purported that rooibos is also rich in antioxidants.
At one time, a pocket of the population in the U.S. referred to rooibos as red tea, which is a bit confusing. Rooibos doesn’t come from the Camellia Sinensis plant and if you visit China, you will find that the Chinese refer to what we would call black tea as red tea because the term in Mandarin for what we know as black tea is “hong cha” which directly translates to “red tea.”
As a base for herbal teas, rooibos blends best with tastes that would go with black tea, like vanilla. That’s probably one of my favorite flavors to pair with it. Rooibos chai works well too, as our popular Coco Chai loose tea indicates. You don’t see it quite as often blended with chamomile and occasionally it is found in blends with mint like our Chocolate Mint Truffle. It doesn’t play as well with flowers. Rooibos is more on the fruit and spice side and is often the 80 – 90% base of a blend.
Appealing to a lot of people creates a platform to make a lot of intriguing herbal flavors. More Americans drink black tea than any other type of tea. It’s still number one. Rooibos is the only herbal that comes close to how black tea taste. If you think about it, rooibos is like everybody’s best friend. It tastes great hot or iced. It mixes well with other ingredients, making it accessible with a subtle taste for easy drinking.
China, Japan, Great Britain, and other cultures offer a tea ceremony that is uniquely theirs. In the United States, we are a nation of immigrants and an American tea culture reflects this. As the American traditional approach to food has revolved around producing and consuming large quantities, there is a shift at play, demanding higher quality. With tea, we had a strong cultural bias early on because so many British came and settled here. Paul Revere was a silversmith and made teapots. The New England area was a little England. American colonists emulated the British style of tea-making to a degree up until the American war of Independence. Then, tea went from being the beloved drink of the country to a symbol of oppression. We became a coffee-drinking nation at that point, encouraged by the British-rival French who had already begun coffee cultivation in Martinique. In the 21st century, we are now becoming more well-versed in tea. The cultures of tea around the world are becoming more known and popular here too.
Americans like and want tea for what tea wants to give them: a moment of reflection and quiet. This characteristic of tea is different than that of coffee. There aren’t elaborate cups or pots for coffee. Americans like that element and long for it because we are fundamentally impatient. We want convenience. We love iced tea even though for most of the rest of the world tea is drunk warm. American culture is less ceremonial than many cultures around the world. There’s no such thing as an American tea ceremony. We pick and choose aspects of ceremonies and make them our own. Chai is a great example of this—can we prepare it quickly and with a big machine? We’ve got stuff to do and places to go.
Joane Filler-Varty, our VP of hospitality talks about how American culture impacts the tea programs she sets up for our four and five star hotel clients. “Our whole perspective is to celebrate the tea leaf which is why the tea pouches are important. People can have appreciation of the whole leaf whether through acknowledging the agricultural element to the amazing liquor in the cup that helps you slow down, relax, and enjoy the moment. In the U.S., perhaps not as much time is given as with the British afternoon tea, but if you’re willing to spend more time brewing tea, the experience lasts longer than a cup of coffee. The goal is to reflect, be involved, and watch the tea leaves produce the end product. For my American hotel clients, tea pouches are quite popular, although a growing interest in loose tea has been cropping up too. The teapot size varies quite a bit, but they’re often not quite as large as the British teapots. Tea is often served with dessert or pastry.”
Mighty Leaf Tea has established itself as a modern American tea brand. Much of our success and business have come from our tea pouches because many Americans like to drink tea that way. Our tea line takes influences from different culinary backgrounds. Organic African Nectar is a good example of this, since it includes a South African herb that tea people in the United States didn’t know about 25 years ago. Pull out your best teapot and serve any of our tea pouches for an exceptional experience. The tea pouches envelop high quality tea leaves that can be prepared conveniently. You can drink good tea on the go with them. People feel harried and why not? Email is calling for attention. Texts on the phone ask a person to be in 10 places at once. A cup of tea in hand invites you to stop and taste something from the other side of the world. If you have those moments in the day, you can get through our modern life.
Britain’s relationship with tea has everything to do with the British empire. The demand for tea made the empire happen. Without the demand for tea, I don’t think it would have gotten as big as it did.* Morning is one part of the ritual as the traditional cuppa breakfast tea is drunk first thing, usually prepared with black loose tea. The ritual of tea continues into the afternoon tea. High tea derived its name from tea set on high tables for maids, cooks, and butlers of the big houses where they had a cup of tea and snacks at around 4 p.m., standing around a high table because there was no time to sit down. Low tea was the name for the tea service presented upstairs to the estate owners at low tables, and among finery.
The tea set and food make up a big part of the British tea ceremony. Upstairs you would find silver or porcelain tea sets, whereas downstairs you would find brown betty teapots. In a British tea service the cups have handles, saucers, and are typically part of a matching set with a pitcher for cream and a server for sugar. Whereas Japan and China use plain cups in their tea rituals, the British love flourish whether that includes floral prints or gold rimmed cups. The teapots used in Great Britain are quite large at 24 – 36 ounces in size and involve a tea strainer set over the tea cup to strain out the tea leaves in the pot. The British diet is heavy and dairy-based, so tea is served with milk and sugar. Scones, clotted cream, jam, crumpets, and finger sandwiches make up an array of afternoon tea foods, which is really a meal. I think this is still true that at 4 p.m. the country comes to a halt for a national teatime.
British tea leans toward black tea all the way, typically teas from India, Sri Lanka or Kenya. Their appreciation for strong tea runs deep. This includes brewing the tea strong by adding a lot of tea to the pot and also selecting dark-liquoring, pungent teas.
Setting up tea programs for our four and five star hotel clients with our distributor in Great Britain, VP of Hospitality, Joane Filler-Varty, adds: “Simpler teas are desired with an emphasis on black teas, a few green teas are added for the health conscious and a few herbal infusions too. Great variation exists between contemporary and traditional set-up, but the British tend to be traditional and the type of teaware used tends to be more formal. Some higher end hotels use loose tea for room service, while others use whole leaf tea pouches for in-room dining.”
While the British tea ritual might be vastly different than the Chinese tea ceremony or the Japanese tea ceremony, there are nuances that articulate how particular details come together in this tea practice that is passed down. Details exist specific to the British tea service such as “backing the pot.” This refers to pulling the teapot back prior to serving guests tea as a way to circulate the liquid before serving it.
*For more on this, check out the book, For All the Tea in China by Sarah Rose.
When the average American thinks of chai, I would venture to say what they envision is what you can purchase at coffee shops or cafes and is expected to be a pretty milky, sweet, and spicy black tea concoction made at the espresso machine with steaming milk.
Now, if you walk into a restaurant in India and ask for chai they will bring you a cup of unsweetened tea. You have to ask for masala chai (masala means a mixture of spices)– we think of chai and mean masala chai. No self-respecting tea seller in India would sell you tea already mixed with spices. They expect you to add the spices at home. Each street vendor in India prides his or herself on their special blend of spices. The term, Masala got dropped as chai came to the U.S.
Indians didn’t grow tea until the British brought it over from China. The Hindi word for tea, chai, is derived from the Northern Chinese term, cha. In Southern China, the word for tea is te (it’s a different pronunciation of the same characters). So, it stands to reason that countries exposed to the Northern half of China reinterpreted the word for tea that way. Other countries use derivations of cha too, like Russian tchai.
Indian Masala Chai literally means ”spiced tea” and reflects how Indian food combines multiple spices and even some dairy for a satisfying flavor. This isn’t the case in China, where the food is not focused on dairy or sweets. The tea reflects the cuisine. In Turkey, milk is not used to make chai, instead, sugar is used and a lot of times they will add fresh ginger and orange peel.
I recall how the Beatles made traveling to India cool in the late 1960’s—perhaps we can thank them for chai’s introduction in the U.S.? So many young Americans went to India and tried chai but couldn’t find it back home in America. In 1981 I first heard of chai while I was a student at UC Santa Cruz. I have sipped chai from street vendors a few times during visits to India over the years. When I travel, I love to drink the local tea.
I remember a chai stall on the road—a 6×6-foot shack with a big aluminum pot that looked 100 years old, boiling 10 gallons of a concoction of tea, sugar, spices, and local unpasteurized milk. When you order chai in India, it’s typically served in 4-6 ounces. The idea is you drink a little bit and then come back later in the day. Their version of recycled cups is pretty interesting because they give you a cup made of clay from a stack. It doesn’t take long to drink the chai and when you’re done, you throw the cup in the road and shatter it. The remnants of your cup turn into dust in a few days. I’m convinced kilns all over India crank out these disposable cups.
If you think of it, the way chai is made in the U.S. now, it has become an American drink, prepared with steamed milk and perhaps foam—we love our foam in the U.S. In India, you boil milk on the stove. You can find Masala Chai as we know it in Europe and other countries. I think the two places where Masala Chai is popular are the United States and India.
We carry several chai offerings at Mighty Leaf Tea because this style of tea is a category unto itself. If I had to come up with 20 tasting chai blends, I could probably do it. You can have so many variations, even with the same chai blends. You can brew chai with 100% milk or 25% milk to water ratio. You can add tons of sugar or no sugar. When looking for chai, consider the spice blend. Which spices and how much of each are used in chai? While turmeric plays an active role in Indian cuisine, it’s not typically used to spice chai. Basil is not used in chai either. Chai will have cinnamon, ginger and cardamom. Maybe there’s some sort of heat—black pepper? You might see clove in a chai blend. A lot of American chai blends use vanilla—you’d never see that in India. Some blends use star anise. Our version of Masala Chai is a Kolkata-style chai with cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, black pepper, and clove. Our Bombay Chai, on the other hand is comprised of cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and star anise. The difference between the two blends is noticeable.
The tea itself plays an important role. Most Indian black tea is strong and black and for a good masala chai, you need an assertive tea—small leaf teas give a lot of color and flavor. When we are blending and sourcing tea for chai, we are looking for strong teas. Our Masala Chai uses Assam tea—my favorite origin for milk teas and also has some Nilgiri black tea in the blend. Bombay Chai uses tea from similar regions but overall offers a lighter tea character indicative of South India. Some chai blends use Chinese black tea for its smooth quality. Others might use a straightforward-bodied African tea. There are even some chai blends made from green tea that follows a lesser-known tradition in Northern India with cinnamon, cardamom, and almonds. Kolkata-style chai tends to use local teas (typically Assam and a few others) and the spices tend to be heavier on cardamom, with less pepper for a more sweet, not quite as zesty-hot drink.
Chai has a really broad taste range. Whatever people are exposed to early on will impact what they think of tea. If you ask an average person in China if they drink tea, they will say yes, and probably refer to Chinese green tea. With a masala chai, most people will think of the flavor profile they were exposed to the first time. I would encourage you to embrace the nuances of each blend of chai rather than trying to discover “true chai.” True chai can be whatever you enjoy, so open up your mind. Each chai is an expression of the person who created it, whether it’s being served up at a stall in Kolkata or from a company in the U.S. Every chai recipe has a history to be enjoyed for what it is.
My family is not terribly traditional or ceremonial when it comes to the holidays. While we indulge in spiked eggnog at Christmas, tea always makes an appearance at each holiday. Here are several ideas to create your own tea tradition.
Welcome Guests with a Cup of Tea
Before the big meal at Thanksgiving, make a pot of tea that you can share as guests begin arriving. Greeting friends and family with a cup of tea sets the pace for the evening ahead. I like to serve either a simple, chocolatey smooth Yunnan or an Oolong with lots of character.
Drinks with Desserts
Hot tea definitely makes the rounds with dessert. We usually use a collection of tea bags, knowing who likes what. My sister, for instance, loves Organic Earl Grey and how its citrus flavor pairs well with sweets.
Blend Your Own Tea
I started a tradition a few years ago of bringing tea to our gatherings to make for my family. Since my mom can’t have caffeine and my sister’s kids like to make tea with me, I start with a decaf black tea. Then I like to lay out ingredients like cinnamon sticks, dried mint leaves, or orange peels for the kids to make their own blend of tea. This practice became so popular this last year, I was about to leave their home when I heard my niece call out from the front room, “Auntie, you can’t leave yet; we haven’t had tea!”
Craft a Tea Cocktail
Recently, I was playing around with our tea pouches and thinking about which liqueurs would pair best. Winter Solstice or Vanilla Bean would make wonderful hot cocktails with brandy and little honey or sugar to sweeten it. Ginger Twist would be a great option to pair with vodka, tonic, and a splash of simple syrup for Thanksgiving with its warming flavor of ginger.
Make a Seasonal Mocktail
Thanksgiving is more of a fall holiday so stick with warming spices like cinnamon, cardamom, and nutmeg. At Christmas time, peppermint and cinnamon pair well with rich flavors. New Year’s Eve can go in many directions. Wild Berry Hibiscus lends flavor profiles to the fall with its full, rich flavor. For a mocktail for adults and children, pair Wild Berry Hibiscus with sparkling apple juice to serve chilled.