For nearly 5,000 years, tea has reigned supreme throughout the world as the beverage of choice. Cutting across social barriers, it was favored by aristocrats and peasants alike, served in working-class taverns, and at the celebrations of noblemen. Tea had its origins in China and Japan, but made its way across Europe and finally to America in the 17th century. When Lipton introduced the Flo-Thru tea bag in 1954, the convenience and thus popularity of tea was dramatically enhanced, earning it a favored spot on the breakfast table.
Then came Starbucks. The first store opened in 1971, and we more or less abandoned tea as a breakfast beverage. Who knows why. Maybe preparing tea implied patience, and the slap-in-the-face caffeine content of coffee better resonated with our modern hurry-up attitude.
But once again, for whatever reason, tea is hot. Much of this shift has to do with the health benefits of tea. It is lower in caffeine, less taxing on the adrenals, and higher in antioxidant polyphenolic compounds than coffee. For those of you who still consider Lipton an acceptable black tea, we've got brews for you. I prefer loose, but have listed bags too, since they're marginally more convenient. A few of these bags are beautiful-made of silk, pyramid shaped, they're little works of art in a cup. Some to try include the following:
Basic black. It's the most versatile color for evening-wear and tea alike. But just as a little black dress comes in many cuts, so it is with tea. Varieties number in the hundreds, but all come from the Camellia sinensis plant. Growing regions account for the differences. For example, Darjeeling, a fruity, complex tea, is grown at elevations of nearly 7,000 feet in the Himalayan foothills, while Assam comes from a low-altitude region in northeastern India, and has a full-bodied, malty flavor. Differences in harvesting and processing techniques further develop individual tea flavors.
If you're a hard-core coffee drinker, try vigorous blends that have the same wake-up-fast quality (and robust caffeine content) as coffee. Three good bets: smoky Russian, a blend of Lapsang souchong and Chinese teas; Irish breakfast, a hearty, full-bodied tea that's usually a blend of Assam teas with Chinese or other blacks; or English breakfast, traditionally made by blending Assam and Ceylon teas. Black tea may also be flavored or scented with other ingredients. Earl Grey, for example, is flavored with bergamot, a citrusy flower; others may contain jasmine, lemon, even dried rosebuds. Brews for you: Numi Chinese Breakfast Tea; Tazo Awake Tea; Stash India Darjeeling Summer Tea; Choice Organic Russian Caravan.
How much caffeine is a cup of tea? An 8-oz. brew of black tea has about 45-47 mg, whereas green ranges from 30-50 mg per cup; white tea has about 15 mg per 8 oz.
Oolong in between. Not quite black tea, and not quite green, oolong teas fall somewhere in between. They're only partially fermented, so they have a deeper flavor than green, but are not as bold as black, with a smoky flavor and golden brown hue. Brews for you: Choice Organic Magnolia Oolong Tea, with fresh magnolia blossoms; Revolution Dragon Eye Oolong Tea (get the ones in the pyramid-shaped bags).
Green revolution. Green is our favorite color for energy sources, automobiles, packaging, and sometimes for tea. Though it's markedly different from black, green tea also comes from the Camellia sinensis plant. The difference is in the processing. Green tea leaves are steamed, crushed, and rolled after picking to release flavorful volatile oils. Because green tea is not fermented or oxidized like black teas are-a process that converts some of the antioxidant polyphenols-green tea is exceptionally high in healing compounds. It's also lighter in color and more delicate in flavor, with less caffeine. Some of the most popular varieties include genmaicha, sencha, bancha, and houjicha. Brews for you: Stash Amaranth & Jasmine Flowering Green Tea; Tazo Zen Green Tea; Numi Monkey King Jasmine Green Tea; Revolution Tropical Green Tea (in a pyramid infuser).
Whiter shade of pale. Black may be the most versatile hue for both evening wear and hot beverages, but stark white is a stunning statement as well. White tea comes from the same plant as black and green, but it's uncured and unfermented, a process that yields a subtle flavor and delicate hue. Bai hao yinzhen, or silver needle, considered the highest grade, consists of the pale, unopened buds of the tea plant; it's also the lowest in caffeine content. Brews for you: Numi Velvet Garden White Rose, with rose petals; Choice Organic Lychee White, with lychee fruit and osmanthus flowers; Republic of Tea Silver Rain.
Seeing red. Red tea, or rooibos, is made from an indigenous herb that hails from South Africa. Red tea, which has no caffeine, is fermented, turning the leaves from a bright green to a deep ruby hue and developing a full-bodied, and mildly sweet flavor. Though it's not from the Camellia sinensis plant, and thus not a tea to purists, it boasts both antioxidants and a rich enough flavor to impress most tea drinkers. Brews for you: Revolution Honeybush Caramel Tea (in a pyramid infuser); Celestial Seasonings Madagascar Vanilla Red Rooibos; Republic of Tea Botswana Blossom Red Tea.
Herbal brews. They're not really teas, but they're prized for their calming qualities and sometimes for their medicinal benefits. Peppermint and ginger teas are lovely after meals, and a little chamomile tea before bedtime is always soothing. Brews for you: Traditional Medicinals herbal teas; Yogi Tea Mexican Sweet Chili; Celestial Seasonings Mint Magic.
Product Examples (from left to right):
Traditional Medicinals Organic Throat Coat
Revolution Tropical Green Tea
Choice Organic Magnolia Oolong Tea