Wednesday, May 12, 2010

How I became interested in tea

Sir William of the Leaf posted a question on the leafbox forums, "How did tea grab your attention?", which is unfortunately no longer available. I started to write a reply but then realized that I wanted to write a little more than a brief forum post on the here's my story.

I grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in a family of tea drinkers. My parents would make a pot of tea every morning...almost always loose tea, and usually strong black tea or a darker oolong. Typical favorites were Earl Grey, Russian Caravan, Assam, stronger Darjeelings, or various breakfast blends. We also kept herbal teas on hand, which I was fed in great quantity when I got sick. But somehow, I never quite got "into tea" yet. At a young age I had a vague idea that I preferred certain teas other than what we had at home--Jasmine tea in particular, and Chinese and Japanese teas--but I never sought them out and didn't have access to them on a regular basis.

The mint family:

While some get "into tea" through high-quality loose tea, it was really the plants of the mint family that made me start focusing on the nuances of aroma. In the summer, we would make iced tea from herbs in our garden...the main ingredients were spearmint, applemint, and lemon balm, as these grew out of control. Our family would finish off a pitcher of our iced herbal blend every other day during the hot summer. I became interested in plants at a rather young age, and I was excited to learn that plants in the mint family were easy to grow from cutting. I also loved how each one had its own unique aroma...and how a lot of them really smelled like various types of candy. I became fascinated by being able to grow something that would produce such a beautiful aroma or flavoring, and I loved how most plants of the mint family grew in our yard with minimal effort (often, to my parents' chagrin, becoming pests and choking out the other plants in our garden).

I learned to notice the square stem...and I would smell anything I found with a square stem and take a cutting of it back to our garden. Soon our garden had spearmint, apple mint, peppermint, lemon balm, orange mint, two species of Monarda (Bee balm / wild bergamot), and even some mints that I could not identify, among many other mint-family herbs.

Where did actual tea (camellia sinensis) come in?

The first two teas that I remember really getting my attention were actually from a teabag. I had tried all of Bigelow's offerings in Oberlin college's dining hall, and while I liked them and had opinions on them, I liked their herbal blends much more than their true teas. (My favorite was sweet dreams). One of my friends in my dorm was from Hong Kong, and I mentioned to her that I liked Jasmine tea...and she gave me a box of Ten Ren's Jasmine Oolong, as well as a box of Ten Wu Tea (my review). I loved the Jasmine Oolong...but when I tried the Ten Wu tea (which is, still, in my opinion, the best tea available in teabags that I've tried), I was like--"Wow, tea can taste like this?"

Over a period of years I started shopping in Asian markets more, looking for Chinese and Japanese teas...which I realized that I liked a lot more than the styles of tea I had grown up with. A few years ago, one of my parents' friends mentioned Upton Tea, when asked where they buy their loose tea.

By this point in time, I knew certain things...I knew that I liked oolongs, especially lighter oolongs, and that I loved Chinese green tea. I just picked a few offerings from Upton and ordered...and I was astounded...I had another moment of "Wow, tea can taste like this!", particularly when I tried the Chun Mee Dao Ming (my review), which turned out to be my favorite tea from that first order.

Then RateTea:

II decided to program RateTea on a an active user of Rate Beer, I wondered if there were a similar site for tea, as I was starting to get into tea and wanted to use such a site. After searching and not finding one, I decided to make it. I started posting tea reviews on my personal site, (the reviews are still there) while I programmed the site. I must also give credit where it is due--that site really motivated me to get into writing about and thinking about the qualities of beer I was drinking--which carried over into tea, something I tend to drink more often than beer.

The next big discovery happened when I started adding tea companies and teas to the site...and researching about different types of tea and tea-producing regions...and sampling teas from different tea companies. It was like a whole other world opening up! So that's my story. I've gotten very into pure tea, but I'm also still very into the mint family and currently grow many herbs in my own garden.

I'd be curious to hear other people's stories if they want to post (or already have posted) one on their own blog, in the comments here, or anywhere. Unfortunately, the original discussion on the LeafBox forums is no longer around.


  1. I added a link to RateTea on my blog. It is a neat thing!
    And goodness I did not think that my forum post would go this far!
    I enjoy hearing stories such as this! =]

  2. Thank you! =) It's fun how little posts can spark creation of new works. The overwhelming majority of things I do in life are somehow inspired by seeing, reading, or hearing something that someone else put out there or created.

  3. I really enjoyed your story Alex. I'm inspired to post my own "how I started getting into tea" story too someday. Thanks!

  4. Your mention of Russian Caravan tea awakened very pleasant memories. Too bad it no longer exists.

  5. I'm curious to hear your reasoning about the existence (or lack thereof) of Russian Caravan tea...there are certainly a lot of places that still sell that blend (including the ones I grew up with)...or is there some reference here I'm missing?

  6. The only Russian Caravan Tea that I have ever been aware of was from Twining's. I have asked at places selling Twining's teas and have been told it is no longer available as recently as five or six years ago, I think.

  7. On we list 8 Russian Caravan teas...7 of them are loose. And our listing is not yet comprehensive...I'm sure if you looked harder you could find a number of other retailers selling it.

    I did notice, however, that Twinings stopped selling it, at least in the U.S. I suspect it may be available elsewhere, however...for example, Twinings' Australia site lists russian caravan. That probably doesn't help for actually locating it to buy though.