There’s been a lot of talk in California about tea parties of late, but not the political kind.
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Tea is experiencing growing popularity across California as the bicentennial of the War of 1812 approaches, whose most lasting effect — some claim — was to have coffee overtake tea as the national hot beverage. Tea rooms are proliferating, while coffee houses are diversifying by adding more types of tea. Why even Starbuck’s is removing “coffee” from its logo when it turns 40 in March.
Perhaps that’s so because after water (according to the World Tea Expo), tea is the most consumed beverage in the world. U.S. tea sales are expected to nearly double to $15 billion in 2012, up from today’s $8 billion.
Indeed. Tea parties are becoming more fashionable, even in liberal San Francisco. There are at least 334 tea rooms in California, according to teamap.com which ranks them based on diner reviews of their variety, artistry, service and food. Nearly all California’s tea rooms seem to be designed in an English cottage style, with floral interiors, finger sandwiches, petit fours and lots of lace on the windows. It’s a turn-off to guys who squirm uncomfortably in their girlie interiors, worried that the tea will arrive in a hand-painted cup that can only be held by thumb and index finger, or that they won’t need two fists to hold their sandwich.
On a recent trip back from Yosemite, we stopped at Dori’s Tea Cottage in Groveland (rated ninth by teamap.com). Before entering the tea room, my wife suggested I might be more comfortable having lunch next door at the historical Charlotte Hotel (tri tip was the luncheon special), but it was her birthday, so I figured she’d enjoy the tea room more and, besides, I could always knock down a shot of Jack Daniels when I got home, to restore my masculinity. At least, that’s what I told my editor, when advising him I’d be writing about tea this week.
Greg Jones, Dori’s husband, must have noticed my discomfort as we entered the tea cottage and eased me into the experience, suggesting a smoky cup of Lapsang Souchong, a tea whose leaves are dried over pinewood smoke, conveying it the manly scent of a campfire. “If you don’t like it, I’ll make something else for you,” reassured Greg. The pot arrived moments later, smelling of Camp Six. I settled back to enjoy it, and somehow the windows didn’t seem so lacey.
Starting Dori’s Tea Cottage, Dori explains, was the result of her lifelong passion for tea. First introduced to it by her grandmother when she was a young girl, Dori has always drunk tea — never coffee — and as she and Greg neared retirement, she looked for something to do for which she had a passion, explaining, “The tea room was a perfect choice.”
Dori stocks 65 types of tea at her tea room. That might seem like a lot, but there are tea rooms in California with up to 85. Dori’s include familiar ones… English Breakfast, Darjeeling and Earl Grey, but then continue through fruity varieties of blueberry, pomegranate, apricot, black currant, and passion fruit, to spicy hot cinnamon and pumpkin spice. There are candy bar (chocolate, milkie way, almond joyful and peppermint patti [sic]) teas, ones flavored with anise, licorice and vanilla, and exotic Aged Pur-erh, Dunsandle Nilgiri, Ti Kuan Yin and Silver Needle.
Despite this variety, all tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant, a warm-weather evergreen. How the leaves are processed and their level with oxygen determines the resulting types of tea. Herbal teas do not come from the Camellia sinensis, but are an infusion of leaves, roots, bark, seeds or flowers. They lack many of the unusual properties of tea, so says the Tea Association.
There are a few yellow and white varieties, but most tea falls into one of three categories: black, oolong or green. Tea was discovered accidentally around 2737 B.C. by Chinese emperor Shen-Nun who was sitting beneath a tree waiting for his water to boil when leaves fell into his pot. America’s contribution to tea drinking is that we invented iced tea; over 80 percent of tea consumed in the U.S. today is sold as an iced drink, the World Tea Expo tells us.
Dori is quick to encourage the idea that tea is mostly a drink to enjoy, saying “the challenge we face is so many still selling it as a panacea, while we are trying to shed the idea of ‘tea as medicine’ and encourage tea drinking for enjoyment.” Surely, teas are comforting and research is ongoing about the health benefits of tea, but for tea room proprietors like Dori and Greg, drinking tea is about exploring their many styles and flavors.
Part of enjoying tea is the ritual of preparing it: heating water until the kettle whistles, spooning the right amount into a tea pot infuser then steeping the tea to perfection. The pot should be covered while the tea is brewing and if a tea bag is used, it should never be dunked. Just let it steep. Some tea leaves can be reused two or three times before they are depleted. Most tea is consumed neat. Britons sometimes add a little milk and sugar to their tea — never honey or cream. Though, there’s no right answer as to whether you add the milk before or after the tea is poured in the cup. Indisputable, however, is that coffee and tea conflict, so it’s best to never serve coffee from a tea pot or vice versa.
The distinctions between coffee and tea are at times humorous. Coffee is served in coffeehouses; tea, in tearooms. You read your future in tea leaves, while coffee grinds are best discarded like the past. Coffee is thought of as being bold; tea, as being civilized. Coffee is something you drink while working; whereas, work stops for afternoon tea.
When we stopped for lunch at Dori’s Tea Cottage, a couple of women were engaged in conversation. A gaggle of giggling girls sat nearby, celebrating a birthday with (what else?), a tea party. And then, there was the two of us, returning to El Dorado County, looking for a good place to dine, and not expecting to find a trend brewing in a tea room.
To find tea rooms and tea in California, visit doristeacottage.com or teamap.com.
John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.