Tea Tasting

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In the third installment of the program's Summer Sipping series, a local tea expert suggests some of the summer's finest iced teas to help cool down during the summer heat. Join the show as they take a trip to Washington, D.C.'s Teaism.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Throughout the summer, we've been bringing you our Summer Sipping series, where we sample beverages to cool us off in the heat. Previously, we tried some microbrews, that's specialty beers, and some fancy rums. Today, though, we're doing tea. For this tasting, we ventured into Teaism, it's a teahouse in Washington, D.C., where we met with co-owner Michelle Brown.

Ms. MICHELLE BROWN (Owner, Teaism): Our teahouse was designed, you know, to bring tea to America, really. And we felt that Americans sort of needed to be hit over the head with a notion that tea comes from Asia, largely. So we have a nation-inspired menu.

MARTIN: And is tea just the leaf, or is there anything else?

Ms. BROWN: Yes, tea comes from one plant, the Camellia sinensis, and Americans also were confused about that because herbals are packaged and called tea, but they are really herbal infusions or fruit infusions. They have no tealeaf, meaning leaf from the plant Camellia sinensis.

MARTIN: But when we hear things like black tea or Oolong tea or green tea, and I also hear there's something called white tea now, are those teas?

Ms. BROWN: They are all teas, and they are all from the same plant. It's that the leaf after being plucked is processed in a different fashion.

MARTIN: So where does most tea come from?

Ms. BROWN: Most tea comes from India, China, Japan, Sri Lanka has beautiful tea, Kenya, and now, we're even seeing tea from Bolivia, which is what I am super excited about for today, and I've iced some for you.

Tea is wonderful because drinking tea is an ancient tradition, and to see beautiful exquisite leaf coming out of Bolivia is really kind of an exciting thing. And it's through the help of USAID that they've actually been able to develop this estate, and they've been producing now for over a year, and it's really exquisite tea. I'm just so very impressed, you know.

Well, I've iced some of the Bolivian green tea for you, and I have it here without any sugar.

MARTIN: All right.

Ms. BROWN: And then I have it here with a half a teaspoon of sugar.

MARTIN: And what am I looking for other than pure refreshment? Is there any particular quality I'm looking for?

Ms. BROWN: I think in refreshment, you'll find a nice astringent finish that is very cleansing to the palate and refreshing.

MARTIN: OK. It's nice. It tastes a little smoky. And I'm not going to lie to you, I'm a sweet girl, so I'm going to move right over here to the sweetened one.

Ms. BROWN: A little bit of sugar goes a long way.

MARTIN: You know, I know you're going to rock somebody's world here, but loose versus bagged tea, is there an opinion here?

Ms. BROWN: Well, yes, there is an opinion because here at Teaism, we sell only loose leaf tea. There is something that often goes into a tea bag. It's called dust and fanning sort of the bottom of the tea chest, you know, it's kind of what falls out, so it's always the worst stuff. It's also something that's mass produced. So they want to have high volume, and they want to sell the stuff all over.

MARTIN: You know, what I think a lot of people are wondering is how do you know how long to brew a tea? Or this is solely a matter of taste?

Ms. BROWN: It is a matter of taste and practice, really. So you need to decide how you like it. If you over-brew, you can always add a little more water to dilute.

MARTIN: OK, now, you've got this really interesting green one here. What is that?

Ms. BROWN: This is what we call Japanese sweet green tea. It is very sweet and very green, and kids love the color of it. It's this deep deep olive crazy green. You're ingesting the tea itself, so it's made from matcha, which is the tea that's used in the Japanese tea ceremony that's ground down to a powder. And in the tea ceremony, it's actually whipped and suspended in the water. So here it's also suspended in the water, but there's a lot of sugar in it. So it's very popular in Japan.

MARTIN: Oh, is it? I was going to ask if you have Japanese customers who come in and see this iced and go, oh, no! No! No!

Ms. BROWN: It's a real Japanese thing.

MARTIN: Is there caffeine in this?

Ms. BROWN: A little bit. A little bit of caffeine in the green teas.

MARTIN: Are there health properties to tea, or is that a myth that we just promulgate because we want to drink it?

Ms. BROWN: Well, definitely, there are health benefits. It's full of antioxidants, and I think, if you drink tea three or four or five times a day, you're definitely going to be fending off some of the issues, the health issues.

MARTIN: But are you going to be spinning close to the ceiling like you would be if you drink four or five cups of coffee?

Ms. BROWN: No. Absolutely not. A black tea, which is highest in caffeine, has 50 percent the amount of caffeine in a cup of coffee. So you're already backed off by 50 percent.

MARTIN: Now, I see something that really looks like me, that looks like a milkshake. What is that?

Ms. BROWN: OK. This is bubble tea, sometimes called Boba. We call it zhenzhu.

MARTIN: Where does it come from?

Ms. BROWN: It's from Taiwan, a popular, fun beverage. We serve it in its classical form, so there are these gelatinous tapioca pearls in the bottom. You get a big fat straw so that you can suck up the candy as you're enjoying the tea, and we brew a very very rich black tea, salon tea. We brew it really really strong in water, add some sugar, add a little half-and-half to finish it off, and I think it's really good. And this one carries some caffeine. This is the one that at four o'clock in the afternoon, I'd say, I got to have some.

MARTIN: This is great.

Ms. BROWN: Isn't that fun?

MARTIN: This is like chocolate milk for grown ups. Excuse me for chewing and making yummy sounds. Sorry. But this is really good.

Ms. BROWN: Aren't they fun? Yes. They are good. Very very good.

MARTIN: You know, a lot of people are into chai tea now. So is that really tea?

Ms. BROWN: It is tea. It's a black tea that's spiced. We cook it with milk and sugar. We serve it in a more classical form. A lot of places use concentrates and whatever, but we actually boil the tealeaf, we boil the spices with sugar, boil the milk, strain it. When we have Indian visitors, they always appreciate it. They always get that, you know, we put the effort into it, and it's better than - it's the real stuff. Yeah.

MARTIN: When you say boiling, how about the whole microwave? No microwave?

Ms. BROWN: No. No.

MARTIN: I'm just getting, like, all kinds of tea demerits here. I'm ashamed. I'm very ashamed.

Ms. BROWN: I think that the microwave imparts flavor to the water. There's something that you get off of the water that changes it.

MARTIN: But I'm thinking now that maybe that's partly why tea is relaxing because the process of making it is pleasant. And if you get the aroma...

Ms. BROWN: I love to cook.

MARTIN: Yeah. Maybe that's why. Because there's something about the doing that makes it nice.

Ms. BROWN: Yes. It is part of the process. It's the ritual. I mean, that's why you can enjoy exquisite tea in a paper cup if that's what you have or a hand-blown pottery piece that's like a hundred years old. It's the ritual that you want to make it in the moment, in that moment, whatever you want it to be, it can be that.

MARTIN: I would like it if you came and made it for me.

Ms. BROWN: I would love to.

MARTIN: Michelle Brown is the co-owner of Teaism. It's a teahouse in Washington, D.C. There are three. We are in the Penn Quarter location. Thank you so much for being a part of our Summer Sipping series.

Ms. BROWN: Michel, thank you so much.

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