Monday, September 21, 2009

First Cold of the... of the....

ACHOO!... Season.

I'm sick. I have that lovely scratchy feeling behind my nasal cavities and down my throat a bit. At least it doesn't feel like the spiky golf ball I had in my throat near the end of last flu season. That sucker required antibiotics.

Still, life will be tough for the next few days. When you have mild congestion and a sore throat, coffee tastes like butt. One of my great loves in life tastes terrible. Just imagine if your husband/wife looked and smelled like a donkey when you had a cold. Same thing. And yes, I just compared coffee to your loved one.

But I'm taking this time to partake in one of my lesser romances: tea. My partner loves tea. She's a tea fiend. She feels strongly about many parts of tea. For example, anyone who says you should add the milk to a cup before the tea is out of their mind. Just try and argue this with her. See what happens. So about two years ago, my girlie's love of tea was too much for me to take. Being male, I'm naturally competitive. I thought about just killing her and thus removing a rival, but instead opted to learn to love tea as much as her.

Tea is a great drink. It's light, low in caffeine (but still enough for a kick), and comes in a bewildering variety of flavors. Tea is truly a drink for kings. Now to begin my discussion of tea, I'll turn to a god amongst men, the first person to mix pop-culture geek and cooking: Alton Brown.

This episode is getting a bit long in the tooth, and since the creation of Food Network and the logarithmic growth of the internet and its offerings, the world of tea has grown well beyond what Alton knew about at the time. Local grocery stores offer super-wide selections of bagged tea, with many stores offering loose-leaf in multiple varieties and brands.

For me, the internet was my best friend. The number of tea reviews available makes learning about tea a one day endeavor, leaving you to only go out and experience. I quickly discovered my love of deep and powerful black teas. Russian Caravan and Scottish Breakfast became instant favorites. While tea flavors are not as versatile as coffee, they are so amazing varied. Also unlike coffee, one tea can taste completely different from another tea. They can go well with milk or not, iced or not, some red teas I've had have needed no sugar to be sweet. Coffee always tastes like coffee. Tea, seemingly, can taste like almost anything.

Tea ReviewsMy own experiences indicate that many store teas are great teas for the price. I've had no complaints with Twinings, but the world has changed a great deal, and unless you're worried about price, there's basically no reason to buy the cheap teas. Mighty Leaf bags give you some of the best tea in the world conveniently in little hand-sewn pouches, and brands like Revolution Tea give you better tea for not much more than the cheap brands. You can also save a little money and buy in bulk. You'll never get down to the levels of Twinings or Bigelow, but you'll do well.

My favorite "big" tea has definitely got to be Mighty Leaf. They are the best bagged tea available, and they're beginning to penetrate farther into supermarket shelves. The various common brands have a few winners amongst their ranks, like Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime Tea, and you won't be disappointed, but they take up space from higher-end teas that could be made available.

If you're willing to order online, I highly recommend both Teavana and Mark T. Wendell. You'll get some of the very best teas from both places, but M.T.W. is local (for me, anyways), so it's best to support them. Teavana does have nearly one hundred locations nationwide, which allow you to walk in, sample teas, talk about each variety, and generally begin immersing yourself in the tea-drinking world. I've never had any problems with Teavana, but it's locations, clientele, and marketing are hard-core pretentious (namely, you're superior for drinking this tea), and they're pricey, even in the world of high-end tea. You can avoid this by ordering online, but then I prefer M.T.W. again.

The major players are also not the only ones in the game. Many, many smaller companies produce a whole rainbow of blends and varieties.

Others worth mentioning-A note on Numi. Their bagged teas aren't anything amazing, but they are quite pricey. It's their fantastic blossoming teas that make them truly worth it. Their loose-leaf is also very good, as one would expect, but I still prefer M.T.W.

And in closing, a bit of advice on sweetener. Lots of tea fanatics prefer as neutral a sweetener as possible, which usually means white sugar. I've found that more natural cane sugars can add some serious depth to black teas, and keeping a variety of honey around is a must for lighter teas. Hell, some teas are best drank as honey-water with a hint of tea. I find myself almost never using white sugar. Perhaps some of the finer details of the tea are lost, but I don't care. Beautifully layered experiences from tea as it slowly cools, from the tea itself and the quality of the milk, all the way to the sweetener. You can blend as many flavors as your tongue can distinguish. Don't be shy about dumping stuff into a cup. The myriad flavors of tea almost demand such experimentation. And the healthful benefits of tea means that you can basically drink it until you explode. Tea is a perfect drink. So do so.

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