Tea Geeks

"It's time for tea," Mary Lou Heiss declared to me in our phone conversation last week.

And in this case, Heiss, who owns a specialty foods shop in western Massachusetts with her husband, Robert, doesn't mean that the kettle is on. Instead, she means that tea, as an artisanal product, is finally getting its due in the United States.

"Earlier this year, we went to the World Tea Expo, a sort of newish trade show (it launched in 2003), and we met so many people who are about to start a tea business," says Heiss. "Within the next year, tea is going to explode."


Tea experts Mary Lou Heiss and Robert Heiss. (Steve Garfield)

The Heiss's, who sell about 120 kinds of loose-leaf tea at their store, Cooks Shop Here, have just published "The Story of Tea," an impressive body of work that is part travel journal, brewing manual, history lesson and reference guide, chockfull of tea lore, processing from A to Z, customs and culture, a pictorial of the six known classes of tea (white, yellow, oolong, green, black and pu-erh) and recipes.

With their first-hand accounts, meticulous research and passion for the subject, The Story of Tea has all the makings of becoming the definitive source for tea. And it's time -- for a tea book of this caliber.

Herewith, a peek at my conversation with Mary Lou.

Note: my comments are in bold.

So you and your husband have owned Cooks Shop Here, your cookware/specialty shop for 34 years? That's a lifetime.

Yes, it's been that long, and we've been in the same space in Northampton, Mass., the whole time. When we first opened, it was more of a café, before Starbucks and before cups were made to go in the car. We sold coffee beans, which was considered unusual because at that time, people bought their coffee in a can at the Stop 'n' Shop. And we sold loose tea. Our love for tea developed as we tasted them.

In the early '80s, when Dean & Deluca came into the market, selling olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes, pesto, it changed the way we looked at food. Customers started coming in, asking for these things, and so we expanded the store and stopped serving food and beverages.

Then we realized that tea is one of the last undiscovered foodstuffs, still out there waiting to be learned. As we tasted more and more tea, we discovered that the information available in this country was really finite. So we decided to go to the source. We made our first tea trip in 2000 and have been to Asia three times -- China and Japan. In the spring, we are headed to Taiwan (where they make spectacular oolong teas) Yunnan, China and to Darjeeling, India.

Do you still sell coffee?
Yes we do, but it has become so competitive. Everybody and their mother sells it. Coffee is interesting, but tea.... is unbelievably interesting. There are so many more types -- within each country.
There are six classes of tea -- and China makes them all. For each class of tea, thousands of types of teas are made in China. China alone is a lifetime study.

We do drink coffee, but not very much. We were complete coffee drinkers until we went to China. For about six months before we went to China for the first time, we started drinking tea to get used to it. After that first trip, we never went back to coffee. I still love a great cup of coffee, though.

What are some of the myths and misconceptions about tea among Americans?

Americans, and East coasters, in particular, are greatly influenced by Europe, whether we want to admit to or not. And our tea drinking habits are directly influenced by Europeans, particularly the British. As a result, pound for pound, we sell more black tea than green and other types. After all, for many of us, our ancestors come from Europe.

So, because of these influences, there's a misconception that you don't get a tasty cup of tea unless you brew it for six minutes, and that all green tea is bitter. Wrong.

The other thing that's really a shame is that most people who have a bad experience with green tea is because of the bad tea that's so often served in Chinese restaurants. It sets the tone for people.

If you're in Chinatown and you think you're getting great tea in one of those shops, you aren't. People who love good tea have it sent from family in China.

Do you drink tea?

I do, but usually as the weather gets cooler. I like green or an herbal tea in the afternoon while I work.
Well at least you know the difference. That's another misconception, herbal blends are not tea.

So I see here that you sell yellow tea. I've never heard of yellow tea.
Yellow tea is green tea up all the way up to the first drying.

You mean before it's fermented?
Actually there's only one true fermented tea and that's Pu-erh, from Southwest China. What people mean to say is oxidized. But green tea is not oxidized at all, and yellow tea isn't either. You get it to a final dry product to maintain its color then it gets steamed and covered with a damp cloth before drying. Instead of leaf, it comes mostly in bud form.

You've mentioned that the one brewing tip worth remembering is to buy great tea -- what does that mean?
Buy tea from a shop that specializes in tea or a gourmet foods store with a selection that is fresh. You don't want to buy tea where there's way too much of it yet the store is always busy. Don't buy it in jars sitting in the sun, for example. Check out the place and how they store it before buying.

What about tea bags? Is that a no-no?
Packaged tea is a mixed bag. If there seems to be more packaging than tea, then you have your answer. Stash has very good tea, and so does Peet's Coffee & Tea.

So how do I brew loose-leaf tea ?
Boil water, let it cool to the proper water temperature, measure the leaf properly and steep the correct amount of time for best flavor. (Heiss's Web site offers detailed instructions on steeping time and tea amounts).

In our store and our book we talk about using two grams of tea per six ounces of water -- but two grams of tea can be a small measure or a large measure depending on the fluffiness or compacted-ness of the leaf. Visualize the difference in mass between a pound of nails and a pound of feathers and you see why it is essential to adjust the measure of tea according to its volume.


Are you and your husband both from New England?

I am, but my husband is from Missouri. We met in San Francisco, on the job. We both worked at TV Guide. At that time, the office was very close to Chinatown and to Little Italy, and we would have our secret lunch dates in restaurants in either neighborhood, for about one-and-a-half years. I guess it set the stage for where we are now.

By Kim ODonnel |  October 22, 2007; 7:32 AM ET Cook's Library , Liquid Diet
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Comments

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Ooooh, I love tea - both actual tea and herbal "tea". It's my favorite hot drink. I prefer red and green over black and white, but I've never had yellow tea. My absolute favorite is genmai tea - green tea with brown rice. It has sort of a nutty flavor. Loose tea has a much better flavor, in general, than tea bags. I pretty much only keep tea bags on hand for quick fixes and guests. A friend gave me an Ingenuitea brewer (from Adiago teas), and it does make loose tea easier to make.

Posted by: DC Cubefarm | October 22, 2007 10:30 AM

I drink tea several times a day, and have been drinking tea grown in all corners of the planet.
Arguably the best teas in the world grow in Darjeeling and Assam, India.
Darjeeling tea is called the "champagne of teas" and is the most expensive.

Posted by: DrinkingTeaSinceIwasaKid | October 22, 2007 11:55 AM

Thanks for the informative interview, Kim! I can't drink coffee anymore - sigh - but I am really learning to enjoy tea. It's too bad there's so much crappy stuff out there, not to mention herbal "tea," which I really can't stand anymore. It's so frustrating to go to a restaurant and be offered such a lame selection of mass-produced teabags to choose from (think it's ok to bring my own?).

Posted by: Reine de Saba | October 22, 2007 1:03 PM

Oh, forgot to mention - my favorite Middle Eastern grocery store, Yekta, which I think is Persian, has huge amounts of tea from all over the world, both loose and in tea bags. (They don't sell it in bulk, though.)

Posted by: Reine de Saba | October 22, 2007 1:05 PM

OK, where is Yekta?

Personally, I love white tea and some black teas. My current favorite tea shop is in San Francisco, but I can order online with them, and with many others. I think tea is much tastier than coffee, which I can only drink with a gallon of milk and sugar!

Posted by: Gretchen | October 22, 2007 2:06 PM


Dear sir/madam,
Yes, we drink tea also.
Very informative and interesting.Here in Myanmar,we eat tea leaves that are sort of pickled. And the other ingredients included are sessamum seeds,fried garlic slices,dried shrimp,raw garlic,green chillies,lime juice squeezed,some salt,seasoning powder,sliced tomatoes and fried peas.Peanut oil or sessamum seed oil is poured generously over all these items and eaten just like that or eaten with rice.And plain tea is accompanied.

Regards.

Posted by: Jeffrey Myint | October 23, 2007 6:15 AM

I have a question about brewing times for green tea. I drink tea for the medicinal qualities, not the taste. Is it better to let it steep overnight or should the tea be taken out sooner?

Posted by: Jack Sprat | October 23, 2007 8:58 AM

Jack Sprat, I asked Mary Lou Heiss to respond to your question. Here's what she writes:

I highly doubt that there is any added value in steeping tea for great lengths of time. In fact, the most likely result is that one will only negate the positive benefits inherent in consuming green tea in the first place. If you have been experimenting with steeping green tea for longer than usual, or letting steeped green tea sit around, you have probably noticed that it turns darker and coppery in color. This is a natural oxidation process that may actually break down some of the 'plant goodness' that was in the cup or the teapot after a standard 3 minute steep.

Just as overcooking vegetables negates vitamin and nutrient gain, or food that is kept too long in the refrigerator loses its healthfulness, aggressive oversteeping of tea fails to add any desirable qualities to the brew.

As far as I know, there is no research being conducted on using tea leaf in this fashion - the focus is all on what might be gained from traditional use of tea: ie, steeping and sipping. If you want to make sure that you do get the most gusto out of the tea that you are drinking, drink whole bud green teas rather than leaf teas. The buds contain the highest level of antioxidants - and please, do not be fooled into thinking that teabag teas contain the same level of antioxidants that good quality whole leaf tea does. There is a natural pecking order of goodness as concerns antioxidants and other phytochemicals in tea that is determined by the pluck time and the placement of the bud and leaf on the plant from top to bottom. Better quality tea not only tastes better but it contains more of the goodness of the plant.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | October 23, 2007 11:17 AM

One thing that really needs to be emphasized is that green tea should never be made with boiling water. It stews the leaves and makes the tea very bitter.

Ideally, water should be heated only to steaming (steam coming out of the kettle mouth). You can boil the water and then let it cool until it hits the right range for the particular tea (usually between 170 and 190 degrees). But I've always found it easier just to watch for the steam.

JUST DON'T BOIL!

Also, many of the more delicate greens -- particularly Japanese -- need very short brewing, sometimes as little as a minute.

Posted by: magpie | October 23, 2007 11:47 AM

I'm a tea freak! I learned to love tea while living in India and have been addicted ever since. It was easy for me since my southern mother always served vast quantities of sweetened freshly brewed iced tea in summer. Indians drink sweetened brewed black tea laced with warm milk and I just can't give up that style. Tea time is full of conversation,gossip, delicious snacks and hot satisfying tea.

Posted by: maya | October 23, 2007 2:03 PM

Yekta is on Rockville Pike, close to Congressional Plaza but on the east side. It's right next to Joe's Noodle House. They don't actually have particularly fancy teas, just large quantities.

Up the road a piece (Wintergreen Plaza), if you're out there anyway, is the Ten Ren Chinese tea shop, where you can get all kinds of nice teas in bulk.

Posted by: Reine de Saba | October 23, 2007 4:05 PM

Just reading these comments make me almost taste the next cup! Being addicted to green (or white) tea is paradise -- you never stop learning and savoring. I love going to Old Town Coffee Tea & Spice in old town Alexandria (215 So. Union St.). They sell loose tea of all kinds in lined brown tin tie bags, and mark each bag carefully. A great read: "The Chinese Art of Tea," a book delving into the history, use and folk myths surrounding each kind of tea.

Posted by: Charlotte | October 23, 2007 4:47 PM

Addicted to Nuwara Eliya and Tippy Yunnans.

Posted by: jon | October 23, 2007 5:06 PM

Don't forget Washington's own local Teaism restaurants (I didn't want to use the term café, hahaha), where you can get some really nice teas fresh brewed (and they also sell wonderful exotic varieties of tea). My favorite is still the one in Dupont Circle at Connecticutt Ave and S Street, N.W.

--Rick

Posted by: Rick | October 23, 2007 5:35 PM

I'm pretty disappointed with the commentary here. Why can't this discussion of tea devolve into a yelling match between secessionist libertarians and anti-bakuninite totalitarians, or, worse, Democrats and Republicans? How are you people from the DC area?

Posted by: Bill | October 23, 2007 6:05 PM

I have a bird called Faddle. It's my faithful chum.

Posted by: Billy | October 23, 2007 8:34 PM

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