"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."
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 cafÃ©, 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.
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.
Please email us to report offensive comments.
Posted by: DC Cubefarm | October 22, 2007 10:30 AM
Posted by: DrinkingTeaSinceIwasaKid | October 22, 2007 11:55 AM
Posted by: Reine de Saba | October 22, 2007 1:03 PM
Posted by: Reine de Saba | October 22, 2007 1:05 PM
Posted by: Gretchen | October 22, 2007 2:06 PM
Posted by: Jeffrey Myint | October 23, 2007 6:15 AM
Posted by: Jack Sprat | October 23, 2007 8:58 AM
Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | October 23, 2007 11:17 AM
Posted by: magpie | October 23, 2007 11:47 AM
Posted by: maya | October 23, 2007 2:03 PM
Posted by: Reine de Saba | October 23, 2007 4:05 PM
Posted by: Charlotte | October 23, 2007 4:47 PM
Posted by: jon | October 23, 2007 5:06 PM
Posted by: Rick | October 23, 2007 5:35 PM
Posted by: Bill | October 23, 2007 6:05 PM
Posted by: Billy | October 23, 2007 8:34 PM
The comments to this entry are closed.