A Kid in a Candy Shop

I stood in the center of the windowless little shop, turning in a circle to absorb the sight of floor-to-ceiling shelves, packed with glass jars. The air was filled with sweet fragrance, such a mingling of flavors that none stood out distinctively. I was amazed at the variety of offerings, every jar with something different, labeled with its name, ingredients, and origin. But, unlike the proverbial "kid," I was not in a candy shop. My experience was in a fabulous tea shop, in the town of Basel on the German border, with my Swiss friend Claudia. The teas in the shop were from all corners of the world - opening my eyes to the vast number of varieties, blends and flavors.

I am a tea fanatic, and I drink hot and chilled tea several times a day, year round. Here in the south, "sweet tea" is sort of the default drink - black tea with sugar, iced. But my choices of tea rarely includes black tea, and I find little need for sweeteners when the brew has no bitterness. I always have a half-gallon jar of herbal tea in the fridge, which I brew from a mixture of 6 tea bags - usually 5 fruity herbal teas along with one red tea bag (more info on red tea below). We drink it iced, enjoying the natural sweetness, and sometimes mix it with unflavored seltzer for a sort of homemade soda.

Here's a sampling of the many flavors and brands of tea bags which I enjoy year-round, hot and iced
The health advantages of GREEN TEA have been touted for several years, although I think we get more benefit from drinking it than from having it as a shampoo ingredient! I recently learned that green tea is the source of an amino acid, L-theanine, used to treat anxiety and stress. Green, black, oolong, and white teas all come from leaves of the same shrub, Camellia sinensis, but processing is different to attain different levels of oxidation. Each contains some level of natural caffeine, but less than coffee when compared cup by cup. HERBAL TEA does not use black or green tea as an ingredient, but relies on blends of other non-tea plant materials, and is naturally caffeine-free. Herbal teas are made not only from leaves (like mint), but also from flowers (like hibiscus), fruit (like cherries), herbs (like lavender), spices (like cinnamon), natural flavorings (like vanilla beans), or roasted roots (like chicory). RED TEA or ROOIBOS was introduced to me by my Swiss friend Claudia many years before I ever saw it sold in the US; it is now more common, but many don't know what it is. Rooibos is an Afrikaans word for "red bush", the common name of a plant from South Africa. It is a totally different plant than that used to harvest black and green tea. Its needle-like leaves have been used for  generations in South Africa for teas, but only in recent years in other parts of the world. Red bush processing produces a reddish-brown color. Nutritionally, rooibos is caffeine-free, high in antioxidants, and is reported to be healthful against allergies, asthma and skin problems.

Fresh and dried plant materials which can be brewed for tea.
Many blends traditionally made with black tea, such as Earl Grey tea (with the added oil from the rind of bergamot oranges giving it a distinctive taste) and Chai tea are now blended with green tea, or with caffeine-free plant materials. Blends such as these were developed long ago in India, China, and Southeast Asian countries, combining the native tea leaves with native herbs and spices; Chai blends include cinnamon, cardamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, and even black peppercorns. My standard morning beverage is either Earl Grey Green (Bigelow brand) or Green Chai (Stash brand). Traditionally, Chai tea is served with milk and honey, so some blends include sweeteners.  Beware of Chai teas sold in fancy cafes and in aseptic boxes - they are commonly very highly sweetened. My lunch is accompanied by Good Earth brand Green Tea, a mild tasting blend of green tea, lemongrass, rose petals and peppermint. At night, I enjoy Yogi brand Chai Rooibos, with the benefits of red tea and naturally sweetened with stevia leaves. One of my favorite herbal tea bags is Tazo brand Wild Sweet Orange, which is a blend of lemongrass, blackberry leaves, rose hips, spearmint leaves, orange peel, hibiscus flowers, rose petals, ginger root, licorice root and other flavorings.

I can't write about teas without mentioning MEDICINAL TEAS. Studies  show that populations with higher black, green and oolong tea consumption have a reduced risk of gastrointestinal, pancreatic, bladder, prostate, ovarian, uterine and breast cancer. Green tea is particularly rich in a polyphenol which laboratory studies show to inhibit cancer cell formation, proliferation, invasiveness, and metastasis - and it causes cancer cell death. Many are familiar with herbal chamomile tea, made from a white daisy-like aster plant, which is commonly used to help with sleep. Ginger root tea is wonderful for digestive discomforts, including motion sickness, as well as being my favorite remedy for sore throats (mixed with honey and lemon juice for their medicinal benefits too). When I did a post about air-dehydrating, many asked me why I dehydrated corn silk. Corn silk tea is an excellent medicinal remedy for kidney-related problems. It is brewed from fresh or dried corn silk, and has a very mild flavor. Yerba Mate is a traditional herbal beverage from South America, considered to have anti-cancer effects, boost the immune system, induce mental clarity, and support weight loss. There are teas for no matter what ails you, and loads of info online and in books. Learn more about healing teas from a respected herbal tea company Traditional Medicinals.

My prized antique silver tea strainer with saucer comes from England and is perfect for loose teas, like the chai blend shown.

Back in that wondrous German tea shop, they sold some tea bags, but most of the jars held blends of loose tea ingredients, sold by weight. Loose teas are often brewed by spooning them into a filtering container, such as a tea ball, and steeping them in hot water. Traditional "high tea" in Britain usually includes china pots of brewed loose tea, poured into the tea cups through a lovely silver strainer placed on top of the cup which looks and acts like a tiny colander to capture the steeped plant materials. For those who live near me, there is a nice tea vendor on Kingston Pike in Knoxville which I visited a few years ago. They are also a lunch and tea-time restaurant and art gallery (wow, so many of my favorite things!): Tea At The Gallery.

Like other prepared foods, teas vary in quality and price. Cultivation, growing location, harvesting, processing, and packaging are just some varying factors. Organic, natural ingredients are my preference, even though the cost is usually higher. For medicinal herbal teas, pharmacopoeial grade ingredients are important for effectiveness. Beware of artificial flavorings… I still don't comprehend an ingredient on a holiday tea offering from Celestial Seasonings brand, listed as "natural sugar cookie flavor!" I am a fan of their teas, but this left me feeling very curious and suspicious.

Various types of strainers for filtering brewed loose teas

It's not difficult to brew tasty teas from homegrown plant materials, which I do with mints, lemon balm, passion vine leaves, fennel, and lemon grass. As my knowledge of plants increases, I look forward to growing, wild-harvesting, and brewing my own plant materials for herbal and medicinal teas, including licorice root, dandelion, clover, anise hyssop, tulsi, dandelion, and others. I'll be reporting on my progress. If you have a favorite tea, let me know. In the meantime, brew yourself a satisfying mug of hot tea.