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Teas of the World Pt 2: The US of A

American Version of Tea (aka Coffee + donuts)

It is probably unfair to have Part 2 be the USA when Part 1 was the UK. On the other hand, contrasts are useful…

For the unaware, tea is not an American thing. This is no accident, either - the stirrings of resentment that morphed into the US War of Independence (or Revolutionary War depending on which side of the Pond you are from) were in large part due to tea. British tea was emblematic of unfair, lazy and corrupt treatment by the Crown, and the Colonies felt that drinking British-taxed tea indicated acceptance of such disturbing injustices. At first, in the 1760s, people moved towards drinking smuggled Dutch tea. But then, in the heat of rebellion against the bastard Brits, colonialists forgot that Dutch tea was innocent and soon any tea drinking was considered to be pro-British. Inns started hanging out signs saying, ‘Tea drinkers are unpatriotic wankers’.* And so the New World moved to a non-British drink, coffee, and learned how to not make that very well instead.

Two hundred and forty years later, Americans still have an uneasy relationship with tea whatever the talk of a ‘special relationship’ with the old colonial masters.

* Paraphrased for length and vocabulary by the author

There are many different ways to make a mug of tea, and they all shatter British conventions. Microwaving water + teabag is a known occurrence and bagged Lipton is considered a drinkable substance. The gamut includes:

The Brooklyn Brew

This is a cheeky example, as it was only our presence that resulted in any tea being brewed. Our AirBnB had a shared kitchen that was fully stocked with almost all kit a decent chef would like to see. But it lacked three key items for the tea drinker abroad: a kettle and a teapot and mugs. It did have the traditional flame-powered tea kettle that sits bathed in fire on the stove stop, whose whistle upon boiling even bothered the plastic garden flamingo outside, but the boiling time on one of those runs into the decadal range. It served its purpose, though, of ultimately providing hot water and a secondary lesson in patience.

For a teapot, we repurposed a French press that happily lacked any coffee odour. This is possibly even better than the classic teapot, as the filter is a joy to use and the glass means that unwavering observation can occur.

For mugs, plastic drinking glasses did the job, though we felt uneasy.

The Brooklyn Tea Shop

Disclaimer: No tea was directly consumed here. However, it was purchased so it is included, end of. When we entered the shop, the redolent odour of coffee sieged our nostrils and stayed with us while we contemplated the wall of 50+ teas that rose up behind the open vats of coffee beans. We smelled about ten and selected two that had a light Columbian roast smell to them, as compared to the others which had a few more espresso notes. (For the avid reader, we purchased a Sencha Earl Grey and a Jasmine 1st Grade for $4, a price we later realised was actually not good value.) I asked the clerk which teas she preferred - she looked at me for a moment before saying she only ever drank coffee and added, uninvited, that she detested tea.

The Central Valley Approach

Upon arrival at my sister’s home, we set about investigating the tea situation - almost identical to the Brooklyn arrangement: caveman kettle, no teapot, but this time two mugs and several coffee travel mugs. In the cupboard, though, there was a selection of tea: liquorice, berries, herbs, and a few others that take the name ‘tea’ without any awareness that they are not Camelia senensis. (At the very back, though, we found a canister of Darjeeling and we revelled in the discovery of the Champagne of teas, although it was third flush.)

Side note: Americans love herbal tinctures and infusions, buying ‘tea’ bags full of chopped up leaves and petals that will help them recover from colds, lose weight or stop being the source of gossip (I’m certain that last one exists somewhere). If an American wants caffeine, they will drink coffee. If they want to go to sleep, they will drink chamomile. Tea does not factor into the day’s activities.

To make these ‘teas’, the go-to approach is to boil the water then steep the bag in the mug until you are finished drinking it. That way no flavour will have escaped. It doesn’t matter if the water has gone cold in the meantime.

The Cuppa in Vermont

A kettle, at last! A proper electric kettle! Albeit inspired by multiple visits to the UK, but there are no complaints here. It is sleek, it is silver, it holds 1.7 litres of water, it takes...ten minutes to boil?! Because, ah yes, American electricity. Going back in time, Thomas Edison’s light bulb only worked well on 110 volts and he convinced the US that anything higher than that would be dangerous. Europe, with the UK included, decided that 220 volts made a lot more sense, as no one had that much time to spend waiting for water to boil. The result? One can make a lovely pot of tea with the best tap water known to man, but that hot water is not going to come quick. As for type of tea? Liquorice, chai, and a few members of the Grey family make regular appearances in bagged form. It is a reasonably civilised household.

The Grocery Store

Each aisle has a sign hanging above it stating what is for sale. If you want to buy tea, go to Aisle 5: Tea. But wait - it is a disappointing arrival when you discover only jugs of ready-made tea, sitting there in a plethora of containers, flavoured and sweetened and NOT BEING ACTUAL TEA.

Aisle 6: Coffee - that’s where the bagged tea is sold. Do you want loose leaf? How about no, and kindly don’t ask again. Do you want bagged black or green tea? Buy this one brand. Liquorice? You’re in luck!!!

The Minnesotan

Minnesota is farm country. Fields stretch in all directions and in summer we imagine it must feel like a labyrinth of corn. But the agriculture keeps giving all year round – in the form of contaminated groundwater. Our friends’ well water had been tested and came up horrifyingly positive for many dangerous things and, one thing leading to another with repairs, frozen ground, broken well caps and so on, our February visit involved the systematic obliteration of wholesale water bottle packs. The impact on tea drinking was measurable, exactly in the sense of the word. One mug equalled 0.7 bottles of water, two mugs a bottle and a half, and three mugs two bottles to avoid opening a new bottle for that last 0.1 glug of water.

Method: pour bottles into the caveman kettle, take oven knob down from the top of the microwave to turn on burner, replace so that toddler fingers can’t get involved with fire creation. Leave lid askew for regular assessment of boiling progress, as otherwise it will be impossible to know if the water is heated or boiled off. Pour over chamomile tea if you are: not us / exhausted and desperate to go to sleep.

Alternatively, pour over our travel tea filters which have been filled with some very exciting new leaves. Where did these teas come from, I hear you ask? No other than the Montreal teamonger David’s Tea in their little store in the Mall of America, their shelves resplendent with milky oolong, a fine Ceylon, an average Japanese Cherry Blossom Sencha and the most stunningly rare find of our journey: Golden Monkey tea.

This tea is so difficult to source because it is made from the most tender tips and buds of the plant that are used to make white tea (already a pricey tea). Then, when the white tea would be dried and packaged, Golden Monkey is oxidised, giving it a smooth, round and beautifully honey-like liquor.

Drinking this tea almost made us weep with delight, as it was beautiful even in bottled, salted Walmart water. Thank you, Minnesota.

Bonus: Our friends have hopped aboard the tea wagon since our visit, with at least one of them joining the ranks of us daily tea drinkers (having lapsed years before for a number of forgivable reasons). It is difficult to overstate our happiness at this, our first conversion.

The South Hadley

Speaking of lapses, we had the good fortune to spend time with a lapsed scobi user, and her ‘mother’ was dead in the cupboard which we verified upon arrival. (Yes, you just read that sentence correctly.) Instead of kombucha (the result of having a live scobi), we went fully old-school with our tea making. To replicate at home, do the following:

Fill a modest metal sauce pan with water (also, as in Minnesota, not from the tap due to agricultural contamination), cover with a lid and deluge with heat. When boiling, pour over the selected tea bag (green, chai or liquorice). If milk is desired, the coconut soy is a surprising alternative.

The Queens Suction Technique

Last but not least, our final few tea-drinking days before leaving the North American continent in pursuit of warmer climes, via Norway. Picture this: a room in a small house in Queens. A blizzard rages outside cancelling our flight, clacking the windows with ice and snow. The streets are empty, apart from one person shovelling out the wrong part of their parking space. The room is warm, the hallway to the shared bathroom is cold. With no winter boots, there is no option but to stay inside with the hoard of Ecuadorian food purchased the day before and the beautifully equipped kitchenette in our room: an electric kettle and two blue mugs.

Now imagine: the discovery of the silly musical Galavant on ABC, and the possibility of unlimited cups of tea, enjoying the haul from Mall of America. The need to make tea and watch the screen at the same time. The discovery – too late – of the dastardly flaw in the blue mugs.

It wasn’t that they weren’t water tight – if anything, that was the issue. Due to some designer disregarding the possibility of tea filters like ours, the mugs had tapered bottoms. This resulted in an extremely strong suction effect when hot water was poured over, as the filter touched the walls of the mug and a vacuum that would make Dyson weep was created.

If this happens to you, do not DO NOT do not guess that the filter is somehow stuck in the mug. Do not continue watching the show while vainly tugging on the filter, because when it goes there will be a volcano of freshly boiled water that empties most of the mug on to your hands and wrists.

If you do not follow the above, at least heed this: don’t be a muppet and repeat it the next day, and then once more for good measure.

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