Keith Snyder
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A First Tea Order

There are only two things that reliably make me happy: ordering tea, and receiving the order.

So I decided to share. As you've probably figured out, I tend to proselytize.

Here in the U.S., no one of consequence drinks tea. Men drink coffee, women drink cappuccino, and teenagers drink gooey frozen things with caramel spurts on top. When we say "tea," we mean "that lame stuff that comes in little bags with strings on them and isn't coffee."

That ain't tea. That's what your friend's grandmother used to call "fannings." It's the dust and crumbs they sweep up off the floor and sell to Americans after they're done making real tea for the rest of the world. Calling it tea is like calling Night Train wine: if all you're looking for is the molecule, Lipton's or Night Train will deliver. If you're looking for something actually worth drinking, you're better off sipping kerosene.

My first flirtation with tea was when I was 15. I bought a sampler package of little tins with names like Gunpowder and Lapsang Souchong. I knew all kinds of things about these varieties. I was wrong on every point, but that straightened itself out eventually; for example, the word "fermented" is used in reference to some black teas, which are the same leaves as green teas, only they've been "fermented." It's called that because at one point, it was believed that fermentation was what caused the color change. We now know it's really oxidation; but the older term stuck--which is doubly confusing because some teas really are fermented. Fermented-fermented, not just oxidized.

You're not likely to encounter fermented-fermented teas unless you go looking for them, so even if you're squeamish about the idea, don't worry about experimenting. Unless you're buying unlabeled tea bricks from a little shop in Chinatown, or ordering something called "pu-erh" online, you're almost certainly dealing with your basic greens, oolongs, or blacks.

So here's the proselytizing part of this entry. I love tea so much, and see such ignorance of it in the U.S. (i.e., the belief that Lipton's is anything you'd want to defend as tea) that I'm going to suggest a first tea order from my favorite online vendor, Harney & Sons, whose bricks-and-mortar store is in Connecticut. It's going to be $30.50, before shipping. If that sounds like a lot, consider the fact that you're likely to get, I dunno, about a hundred cups of tea out of this. That's 30 cents/cup. A cup of Starbucks crap (made from a teabag) costs eight times as much.

Yes, you will be ordering loose tea. If you don't have a teapot and infuser, you can make it in a mug, with the leaves floating free, and pour it through a strainer into another mug. Just because we're snobs, that doesn't mean we're not pragmatic. But whatever you do, you must prepare it correctly. Steeping time and water temperature make all the difference. I'm not kidding. As a rule of thumb, black teas should be made with boiling water (not just warm or hot) and steeped for five minutes. No more. Six, and most black teas become bitter. The mistake a lot of people make when they want a really strong cup is to steep it longer. That doesn't make it stronger; it just makes it hard to swallow. You want stronger tea, use more leaves. And take them out after five minutes.

Seriously. Use a timer.

(A note before I start: My bias toward strong flavors and black teas will be reflected in Our First Tea Order. There's only one green tea I really like, a heavily spiced mint green tea called "Maghreb Mint," which I get from It's exactly the same stuff I used to get every night from a crepe stand in Paris when I'd knock off writing The Night Men and go out for a walk. Served sweet in a little glass, it takes me back to midnight in the 11th arrondissement.)

But for black teas, I'm a Harney's fiend. One of the nice things about them (which is true for most online vendors) is that they'll send you samples of anything they stock for $2 each. Even the wincingly expensive $200/lb. Assam Golden Tips will only cost you $2 for a sample. There's a limit of five samples per tea order. We'll be taking advantage of this.

All these teas are teas, not tisanes, also known as herbal teas or herbal infusions. Every recommendation contains the leaf of the Camellia sinensis plant--the tea plant. These are fully caffeinated.

Our First Tea Order

First are my two favorite morning teas.

  • East Frisian is a great cold-weather tea. The East Frisians (the former East Frisia is now Lower Saxony, Germany) drink more tea than anyone in the world except the Irish, averaging seven pounds of tea leaves per year per person. Four tea breaks a day, three cups of tea per break. This is strong, hearty stuff, meant to be drunk with heavy cream and rock sugar. I use Splenda. It's still good. A 4-oz. tin is $6.50.

  • The website calls their Hot Cinnamon Spice "remarkably assertive." Let me put it another way. This ain't no girly cinnamon tea, for relaxed sipping by people who think chamomile is an actual flavor. This stuff's like drinking liquid Red Hots. The stronger you make it, the better, so you'll probably want to use more than the one-spoon-per-cup measure of leaves recommended on the package. I like it sweet--the Red Hots thing really does it for me--but you can drink it however you like. If you prefer milk or cream, this tea takes it well. No milk is also good. A 4-oz. tin costs $6.50.

Next, my favorite fruity black tea:

  • Paris Blend is a black tea with bergamot (a citrus, also used in Earl Grey) and what tastes like lemon and black currant. They don't say what all is in this, but that's my guess. This is my favorite afternoon tea. A 4-oz. tin costs $7.50.

Those three tins bring our total to $20.50. Now we're going to get five $2 samples. I'm linking to the regular page of tins for each tea, but you can't order the $2 samples on those pages. You have to order them from the $2 sample page.

  1. Hao Ya "A" is a strong black tea with beautiful leaves from China. The "A" means it's a "first flush" (first harvest) tea. There's also a Hao Ya "B," which isn't quite as flavorful. This is a once-in-a-while tea for me, as it's expensive and I'm not always in the mood. But when I am, nothing else will do. Its flavor tends toward the tobacco/chocolate side of things. Not literally, of course, but you'll get what I mean when you try it.

  2. Earl Grey Supreme is an Earl Grey (black tea and bergamot) that uses a higher grade of tea than most Earl Greys, and also adds some Ceylon Silver Tip, an expensive and beautiful silvery leaf. I'm not honestly sure whether I can taste the Silver Tips, but they're pretty to look at while it's brewing. And I usually don't care for most Earl Greys, finding them too perfumey. I do like this one.

  3. The other three samples are your choice, because I just named the ones I feel most strongly about. For a slightly lighter, more delicate flavor, try a Darjeeling. For a really subtle flavor, try a white tea, like the Ceylon Silver Tips I mentioned above. (But note that white or green teas don't take boiling water, and they only steep for 3 minutes or so. And you're not supposed to put milk or sugar in them.) Enjoy English Breakfast, but want to try something slightly different? Try Big Red Sun, one of Harney's new blends, which is made from a Kenyan and a Kenilworth.

Three 4-oz. tins and five $2 samples: $30.50.

Obviously, this order conforms to my own tastes. As I said, I tend to prefer strong, robust black teas that I can doctor up with cream and sugar. (And since I'm most likely preaching to a coffee audience, that'll probably work.)

A warning, though. If you get into this, you won't be able to drink Lipton's again.


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