Tea Time

Though probably more of a coffee town, Juneau tea drinkers can find much to love

Posted: Thursday, March 25, 2004

From a morning cup of English Breakfast to a Japanese green tea ceremony or a steaming Russian samovar, tea drinkers around the world have their own preferences and rituals associated with the millennia-old beverage. Juneau is no exception, and though it lacks a tea house or specialty store, tea drinkers need not resign themselves to bags of Lipton or other mass-produced blends.

Recent expansions in tea offerings at Rainbow Foods and the Silverbow Bakery indicate that tea consumption and awareness may be on the rise in Juneau as it is in the rest of the country. But tea still is significantly more popular overseas than in the United States, according to the New York-based Tea Council of the USA.

"In the world, tea is the most popular beverage outside of water," said Joe Simrany, president of the Tea Council, an education and public relations organization for the tea industry. "In this country, tea probably falls into sixth or seventh place. Number one is soft drinks, number two is coffee and I think beer is in close pursuit. Tea falls pretty far down, but it's becoming more popular."

Tea sales in the United States have increased from $2 billion per year to $5 billion in the last 10 years, Simrany said. But "specialty teas," those drunk by quality-minded connoisseurs, still account for just 10 percent of sales. Juneau stores carry a significant number of specialty teas, and Heritage Coffee, Rainbow and the Silverbow offer those teas exclusively.

Specialty teas are generally defined as single-origin teas that come from specific regions. Most supermarket brands are blends, Simrany said.

"Lipton, for example, could be a blend of 36 different lots of tea. That can come from multiple countries," Simrany said.

Specialty teas encompass all the different kinds of tea, including black, green, oolong, white and herbal. They tend to be grown at high elevations in India, Sri Lanka and China, where the days are warm and the nights cool. The temperature changes allow the plant to develop more slowly, which Simrany said causes the flavor to develop more fully.

"Some of the best teas are developed during droughts. Whenever the tea bush is stressed it tends to produce some high-quality teas," he said.

Many high-quality teas are available in Juneau.

Rainbow Foods recently began selling loose teas, including a beautifully delicate Jasmine Dragon Pearl. The tea has a heady, flowery aroma and a slightly sweet taste. The tea comes in tight little balls which unfurl upon infusion. The tea sells for $50 a pound, but don't be alarmed at the price. A pound of the tea would do a dedicated drinker for months, and you don't have to buy it by the pound.

"This is a good way to try something new in a smaller amount," said Rebekah Foy, who orders the tea for Rainbow.

Rainbow also sells Pai Mutan white tea, and "first flush" and "second flush" varieties of loose Darjeeling, which comes from tea estates in the Darjeeling region of India. The "first flush" refers to the first plucking of leaves from a bush during the spring harvest.

"The second flush is of slightly less quality but it's still a very good tea," Foy said.

Heritage Coffee counts among its customers both dedicated tea drinkers and people who drink both coffee and tea.

"A lot of people will drink coffee in the morning and tea in the afternoon. There are a lot of people who are dedicated chai drinkers. There's actually a pretty good variety here in town," said company Finance Director Brandilyn McDonald said.

Heritage sells about a dozen varieties of Mighty Leaf tea, a whole-leaf tea in large pouches. The caffeine-free Chamomile Citrus is a light, calming blend of Egyptian chamomile, rosehips, hibiscus and mint. Citrus and lemongrass gives the tea some zing. Though chamomile has gained stature as a soothing bedtime drink, this blend has enough kick to qualify as a good morning beverage for those trying to avoid caffeine.

McDonald said Heritage discovered Mighty Leaf at a coffee show.

"We've had a really, really great response to it. We actually sell it retail as well to other restaurateurs and coffee shops around the state," she said.

The Silverbow uses loose tea from a Minneapolis-based company called Tea Source and offers varieties ranging from the classics like English Breakfast and Earl Grey to eclectic herbal blends. Evening in Missoula is a light, relaxing blend of ingredients encouraging chamomile, rosehips, papaya and cherry bark.

"I imagine Juneau is probably more of a coffee town, but we have been selling a lot more teas," said owner Jill Ramiel.

Ramiel said many customers choose tea because of its health benefits. Green and white teas have been touted as containing high levels of cancer-fighting antioxidants. Silverbow stocks about a dozen different teas and is looking to bring in another 10 to 15 varieties in the coming months, including more greens and whites.

"We're working on all these samples, I've been drinking different ones every single day for two weeks, Chinese greens and Japanese greens and white teas and herbal teas. It's just like wine; I write 'This is lovely, would be great iced,'" Ramiel said.

Indeed, tea tasting is akin to wine tasting. Tea retailer Stash Tea, which sells a wide variety of specialty teas through its catalog, includes a "Tea Taster's Glossary" on its Web site. The glossary includes terms like "body," which is defined as "the tactile sensation of weight and substance of the liquor experienced in the mouth." If a tea has "muscatel flavor," its taste may be reminiscent of grapes.

With its terminology and ritual, tea is a beverage that lends itself to connoisseurs. Perhaps it is for that reason that Simrany offers the idea that, as a group, tea drinkers are more educated than coffee drinkers. They are also less stressed out.

"It's really a different personality style. Coffee drinkers are associated with type-A personalities, but tea drinkers are associated with people that are more laid-back," he said.

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