Saturday, July 2nd, 2011

Sin City Goes Tea Total

This article was first posted at the New York Sun in July 2011.

Readers of The New York Sun can be forgiven for assuming that a lead story here on a tea convention in Las Vegas must be Tea Party-related. “Did Sarah Palin play the slots?” you might be wondering.

But for once, tea actually means camellia sinensis.

While grass-roots conservatives claim ideological descent from revolutionaries dressed as Mohawks who deposited 342 chests of precious China tea into Boston Bay in 1773, the World Tea Expo, now in its ninth year, is devoted to people who really do drink the stuff – and grow it, box it, bag it, turn it into gelato, serve it in tea houses, bottle it as bubble tea or ice tea or chai masala, blog about it or analyze it in laboratories for its purported health benefits.

Norwood Pratt speaking at a previous meeting of the World Tea Expo.  Photo (c) 2009 Jennifer Leigh Sauer
Norwood Pratt speaking at a previous meeting of the World Tea Expo. Photo (c) 2009 Jennifer Leigh Sauer

Tea is undergoing a revolution of its own in American drinking culture. True, cha is still a poor relation to Joe as the stimulated beverage of choice for the convenience-driven nation. Where Americans consume, per capita, an average 150 cups of tea per annum, the number in Canada is double that, in Europe is around 400 (more in the UK obviously), and in Asia it is 700 plus. Tea, in fact, is the second most consumed liquid in the world, after water. Even in America, however, the country cousin of tea imbibers, there are market indicators of a shift under way. For the first year ever, for instance, US imports of tea matched those of the UK. There is exponentially greater choice at grocery counters and cafes alike. And it isn’t tea bags of ubiquitous supermarket tea that is stimulating the change, as World Tea Expo’s President, George Jage, points out, but rather specialty teas. These are galvanizing new constituencies of taste, whether it is oolongs or senchas that appeal to longevity-conscious baby boomers or the muscatel second-flush Darjeelings, sourced to individual estates, wine chateau-style, that are awakening a new class of connoisseurs.

World Tea Expo is a three-day event with around 300 stands representing anything from tea growers associations, with whole aisles, for instance, devoted to China and India; importers and exporters; bakers and confectioners; teabag machine manufactures (they can run to millions of dollars) and mesh suppliers; flavor merchants; publishers; purveyors of tea services, designers of the newest pots and hi-tech to-go cups, not to mention providers of scone mixes, water filtration systems, and sticks of honey perfect for the simultaneous sweetening and stirring of your brew. WTE also hosts tastings and seminars for its hundreds of delegates, who include retailers, beverage industrialists on the look out for ingredients and trends, and even the stray fanatical consumer, such as this author. There were championship finals and panels on topical issues such as the nuclear impact on Japan’s tea (bottom line: non-existent except in public perception).

“I can guarantee that in the next hour you will drink some of the worst teas in your life.” These are unusual words to hear if you have made it all the way to Vegas to have your mind blown away by new tea experiences. But David Walker, a consultant with over 45 years experience as a planter in East Africa, is leading the session, “Detecting defects in tea manufacture” that samples horrible teas and how they got that way on the journey from the field to the cup. Color-coded pots are wheeled to the sampling tables to illustrate each wrong turn a factory can take as leaves are withered, oxidized, sorted and dried. Quite the “organoleptical” experience it is to savor the measly thin insipidness of an over-withered tea or the harsh, weedy “hay taste” of its under-withered counterpart.

But the mouth soon recovers in a focused tasting session lead by Joy Njuguna who talks you through the offerings of her family company, Royal Tea of Kenya. These include the clean, bright flavorful “Grandpa’s Anytime Tea,” a pure black that could satisfy a yearning for “Breakfast” blend. It is grown on the foothills of Mt. Kenya and named for the founder of the company, Ms. Njuguna’s grandfather, who is still going strong at 110. Kenya, as London-based tea historian and consultant Jane Pettigrew points out, supplies over half the content of UK supermarket tea bags, a huge market. But whereas such generic tea is produced by the modern, mechanized CTC (crush/tear/curl) system – Lipton, the US giant, gets most of theirs from Argentina – Grandpa’s Anytime is made using an “orthodox” machine for breaking up the leaves, producing a less astringent and less caffeinated leaf. Royal also produces an elegantly sweet, smooth white and a delicately vegetal green, surprising specialty yields from a country of industrially scaled plantations.

Fringe events and focused tastings also brought teas of Vietnam, Hawaii and Nepal to delegates’ attention, but on the expo floor India and China reigned supreme as Cha’s perennial superpowers. At the oversize stand International Tea Importers, a wholesaler and retailer of over 500 fair trade, organic and conventional teas and tisanes, a series of tastings were conducted each day by the eminence grise of leaf aficionados, James Norwood Pratt. Mr. Pratt’s Tea Lover’s Treasury, and his authoritative Tea Dictionaryof trade terminology, have both been reissued by imprints of ITI and were showcased at the expo. Sampling second flushes from five Darjeeling estates, Mr. Pratt – a wine critic in an earlier phase of his career – cheer-led his audience on the need to “interrogate our senses.”

But it is China, with its thousands of years of continuous tea cultivation, that will likely forever dominate connoisseurship with the range and sophistication of its offerings. The legendary, “barn yard-like” Pu-erh tea of Yunnan province, preserved in bricks or cakes with embossed seals, is a “made tea” that undergoes continued secondary fermentation. This makes it rare among teas in that taste actually improves with age making it a collectable, like wine.

Pu-erh is often considered a class of tea in its own right, distinct from other blacks, or from the unoxidized white or by-degrees-partially oxidized yellow, green, and blue (oolong) categories. But in a fascinating and provocative focused tasting, wholesale importer Bill Waddington, founder of TeaSource, made a case for placing Pu-erh itself as a sub-category of dark. His audience sampled a range of dark teas from Anhua County, Hunan (Pu-erhs must be from Yunnan). Darks all employ secondary fermentation, although unlike Pu-erh their taste stabilizes after six years, ceasing thereafter (though it lasts for years) to mature.

Mr. Waddington’s samples challenged the palate of this writer who will admit to being a bit of a pure tea snob, fancying that blends and flavorings (Earl Grey, Jasmine) compromise the sense of connection to the earth that is true glory of the tea experience. (If compromise one must then go the full nine yards with the sensory overload of an authentic Indian Chai, none heartier or more decadent than Tipu’s.) But Mr. Waddington met that preconception with a little heart-shaped Hunan delectably scented with a trace of rose oil that was just enough to subtly enhance the earthy nuances of this dark tea. The author began to look upon little red hearts on the slot machines of Vegas with special affection.

Suggested Further Reading:

The tea blogosphere is rich is information – and disinformation, too. For two of the best places to advance one’s online education, please visit the websites of the founder members of the Tea Bloggers Association: Walker Tea Review and GongfuGirl.

For New York purveyors of fine teas the author recommends Harney & Sons, 433 Broome Street, between Crosby Street and Broadway; In Pursuit of Tea, 33 Crosby Street, between Broome and Grand streets; and Gschwendner, 2169 Broadway, between 76th & 77th streets.  [2015 update: the last two New York tea shops are, alas, long since closed but the companies can be found online.]