Foodie Underground: Tea Steeps into Foodie Territory

ColumnIs tea the new coffee?

My father has always had a tea obsession.

He is known for brewing batches for way too long – above and beyond the recommended steeping time, resulting in the kind of strong, black tea that is on the verge of undrinkable. My mother and I sit on the couch, taking each sip with a slight cringe and rolling our eyes at each other while my father sits in his reading chair, oblivious to the fact that anyone could have a lower tolerance for that kind of tea strength. Just as I can’t go a day without good coffee, my father can’t be left without a substantial pot of tea. He has special mugs for various blends and there’s an entire shelf above our kitchen windows that holds an assortment of metallic tea tins, all full of loose leaf.

As a child, on weekend trips to the city we would always stop at his favorite tea house so he could buy tea in bulk. As a semi-bored 9-year-old, I explored the attached book store wondering why they couldn’t just serve hot chocolate; I wasn’t ready for a dozen types of Oolong. But somewhere along the line, these jaunts created an appreciation for good tea in me, preferably black.

Tea culture is different from that of coffee, or any other warm drink for that matter. I am reminded of this by the quote that hangs by my father’s reading chair:

To the right, books; to the left, a tea-cup. In front of me, the fireplace; behind me, the post. There is no greater happiness than this. – Teiga

Coffee might be our fuel for the day, but tea is the calming element that we need to unwind with.

The United States isn’t high on the list of global tea drinkers – a whole 0.2 kilograms per person annually, compared to Britain’s 2.3 – and the drink has nothing on its caffeinated counterpart. In 2010 the tea industry in the U.S. accounted for $7.7 billion, whereas coffee stood at $47.5 billion.

But just as you can buy 12 ounce bags of coffee beans for $60, premium cups of tea have been known to go for double digits, and specialty tea culture is on the rise. Just a couple of weeks ago, I found myself nursing a concoction of Bourbon and Lapsang Souchong; I phoned my father immediately upon exiting the bar. If tea that tastes like a campfire is making its way into strong whiskey drinks, we should take notice.

Is tea the new foodie drink of choice? Although we’ve been drinking it for over 5,000 years, tea has taken a new turn in the food world. Rooibos has been deemed the “new pomegranate juice,” there are whole online communities devoted to discussing the drink, antioxidants have never had so much positive marketing, design bloggers are making their own tea bags, and don’t even get me started on the matcha craze. Sidenote: for the best matcha latte, check out The Fix in Nevada City.

Tea is striking it big time, and there’s a personality for every cup of it, just like there is for coffee. If double Americanos define the hip and edgy crowd, so do specialty black teas and the aforementioned Rooibos, while the fruitier blends attract a similar crowd as the double foam, no sugar, mocha something or other. Think about the first impression you’re making next time you share what’s in your reusable tea mug with a built in infuser. Not that I would ever pass foodie judgement on anyone.

And unlike those pumpkin spiced lattes that you guiltily love yet can’t seem to find the time to make at home, in turn forcing you to keep frequenting that coffee shop, getting creative with tea recipes is as easy as throwing some spices together. Start easy with a recipe like Coconut Mango, and if you’re really feeling up for it, whip up a few batches of Chai. A homemade tea blend not only says you’re on the cutting edge of foodie-dom, but you’ll end up with a nice hostess present to give at the next dinner party. So much more creative than that bottle of wine you were debating on sassing up with a fun ribbon.

Tea just might be finding its foodie stride, and in our overworked, stressed out culture, might be just the calming agent we need. I think Lao-Tzu said it best:

Drinking tea, eating rice, passing time as it comes; looking down at the stream, looking up at the mountains.

That’s a mindset we could all drink to.

Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’s weekly column at EcoSalon, Foodie Underground, discovering what’s new and different in the underground food movement, from supper clubs to mini markets to the culinary avant garde.

Images: Anna Brones

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.