That great warming morning beverage, that iced and sun-brewed afternoon cup, or that mug at the end of the day to help the sleep come. Mmmm, tea.
Not being able to stand the taste of coffee, in high school I turned to tea to help get that morning caffeine kick or power through the night-before-the-due-date papers, and in the years since, I’ve really tried to develop a wider appreciation for the drink, its history, and its various forms. Given the variety of flavors and styles out there, it’s very surprising to remember that it all tracks back to one species of plant, and it’s up to the drying, cooking, aging, and flavoring to get to that final, unique product.
When thinking about tea, most people might first name the bitter green teas or the standard black or earl grey blends (hot or iced), or perhaps mention some of the health benefits to tea drinking. Mississippi Market has a wide selection of teas, ranging from the classic stand-bys to herbal blends with extra, healthy characteristics to the occasional seasonal specialties. Looking to try something new, or have a favorite style and want to get a lot at one time? Check out the bulk teas, by the herbs and spices. Bulk vs. bagged? I usually buy bulk, because when I sit down to get school work done, I’ll often go through a pot as a time. Also, I find that loose-leaf tea has a stronger flavor than the bagged varieties. However, sometimes nothing beats the convenience of being able to drop a bag in a mug of hot water while getting groceries stocked out in the morning! Many of my favorite teas can be found on the co-op’s shelves; here are some suggestions on what to check out next:
Lapsang Souchong has become one of my morning standbys ever since I moved to working early shifts because it’s hard to over-steep and it’s got a pretty high caffeine content. This tea is one of very few to be dried by smoking, and the pinewood used in the process imbues a bold smokiness that comes across in both aroma and flavor (very reminiscent in this to another brown beverage I enjoy from Islay. Somewhat sadly, we don’t currently offer a smoked tea in bulk, but I’m a fan of the Taylor’s of Harrogate box—50 tea bags for under 9 bucks!
Second on my favorites list is also my newest passion: Pu-erh. This ancient Chinese-style tea (which you may find in a variety of spellings) is processed in a fascinating way. Leaves are usually air-dried, then lightly pan-toasted to stop the natural enzymatic processes within them. At this point, the leaves are allowed to ferment over the course of multiple months, during which time the chemicals that give tea it’s normally characteristic bitterness are all but eliminated and the anti-oxidant levels rise in replacement. The end product steeps into an incredibly smooth, earthy-tasting tea, often looking as dark as coffee. We offer pu-erh in bulk loose-leaf, and at specialty tea shops you might be able to find bricks, where the leaves have been highly compressed to preserve the flavors.
Blue Flower Earl Grey is one of my wife’s favorites (as I think it appeals to her sweet tooth without actually being sweetened). This blend is a standard Earl Grey (black tea with a touch of citrus oil) with dried petals of blue malva flowers. The oils from the flower give an ever-so-light floral essence to the tea, which helps to mellow the boldness that often comes with the typical Earl Grey, and the ever-so-slight natural sweetness that’s hard not to enjoy.
Jasmine Pearl is another slightly sweet tea you can find in the bulk set. The fresh, still-green leaves are hand-rolled, dried, and then set overnight in a room of jasmine flowers at their peak of fragrance; even this short exposure is enough to turn the pearls from just green tea to something magical. A fun aspect to steeping pearls of tea is watching them unfurl as they sit in water; I find this a reminder that tea is in fact a leaf, not a bag of dried herbs. Want to see what I mean? Try some!
While talking about green teas, matcha also comes to mind. Most people see the green powder and think of the Japanese Tea Ceremony, which makes prominent use of the fine-ground leaves. However, having matcha around can help bring tea out of the mug; it’s strong flavor and light color lend themselves to a number of food uses, such as cakes, frostings, ice cream, smoothies, and light cream sauces for desserts, salads, and entrees alike.
Lastly, let’s not forget about chai. While the chai lattes offered in many coffee shops today are often very milky and sweet, it’s really easy to make a calorie-friendly spiced tea bev for yourself at home. We carry a couple different bagged forms (from Tazo and Tulsi, for example), as well as the 500 Mile Chai in bulk. Prepare as directed, and add just a splash of milk and maybe a pinch of sugar—sweetened condensed milk works well, too—and this way you can control the interplay of the spice, sweet, and fat to make your perfect mug.
Ben Zamora-Weiss is a staff member and blogger for Mississippi Market’s Eat Local Challenge. As mentioned above, you’ll also find him at the Selby store keeping the shelves stocked with the best locally baked breads we can find.