Category Archives: How To Tea

What Not to Do at a Tea Party

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman, at some point in her life, will be invited to a tea party.

It could be for a little girl’s birthday, a bridesmaids’ luncheon, or tea time with the Red Hat Society, but undoubtedly it will happen. (For men, I can’t say tea parties are quite as inevitable.)

And tea parties can be stressful. There are dozens of rules, spoken and unspoken, that you are supposed to follow. All of a sudden you’re faced with an alien dining situation that can make you feel less like a lady and more like an exasperated Alice in Wonderland.

Chai Tea Chick; tea party etiquette rules
Illustration by John Tenniel

All these rules were a mystery to me until I was a senior in high school and took several etiquette lessons for a club I was in, including one by etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore.

Tea etiquette may seem silly, but one day that tea party invitation will come, and you’ll probably want to know at least the basics. Don’t do the following things, and you’ll look like a tea-etiquette pro.

Don’t eat dessert first.

Chai Tea Chick; tea party etiquette rules
Photo by Adam Wilson / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Your mom was right all along. You shouldn’t be eating your Little Debbies before dinner. When she slapped your hand as you reached for a Swiss Roll, she was just teaching you proper etiquette.

As tempting as the marble macarons, chocolate cream puffs, and strawberry scones may be, you’re supposed to start your tea party with the savory and sour. That means salads, sandwiches, quiches, and soups.

Just think of it like this: you’re saving the best part of the meal for last.

Don’t raise your pinky finger.

This is the greatest misconception about tea etiquette. Someone who gently raises her pinky as she sips from a teacup may think she is being proper; in reality, it’s the number one way to show you don’t know what to do at a tea party.

The “pinkies up” school of thinking actually started in ancient Rome, where the elite ate with three fingers and the commoners with five. In the 11th century, this etiquette was misinterpreted and eventually led to a mistaken belief that you should stick your pinky out. Ever since, etiquette experts have been desperately fighting (and failing) to rid the world of this misconception.

The best way to handle a tea cup is what you would do naturally. You don’t need to loop your finger through the hole. Just hold it on the side. And make sure your pinky doesn’t get a mind of its own and stick itself out.

Don’t clink your spoon.

Chai Tea Chick; tea party etiquette rules
Photo by scoutjacobus / CC BY-NC 2.0

Everything is going well at the tea party. You’ve primly poured your tea, avoided the desserts, and your pinky is staying down with the rest of your fingers. Then, in a quiet moment, you add sugar to your cup and stir it in, and the loud clink, clink, clink of your spoon grazing your cup fills the dead air.

Although I don’t think it’s a huge deal, etiquette experts stress that you shouldn’t hit your spoon against your cup because it can be disruptive and, worst of all, unladylike (gasp). When you stir tea, do it slowly in little circles and pay attention so you don’t make too much noise.

Don’t lift the saucer (unless you’re standing).

Saucers make me nervous. A whole plate whose sole purpose is to hold a cup? Seems fishy.

When I started going to tea shops, my instinct was to pick up the saucer each time I took a sip, probably because I’d seen it done in movies before. Don’t go through the extra hassle, though. The saucer can stay on the table. The only time you need to lift it is when you’re standing up.

Now, I’ve said a lot of DON’TS here, so I want to end with a DO—and the best one at that.

Do eat with your fingers.

Sometimes we feel we should use utensils because it’s “proper” and “classy,” but they’re called finger foods for a reason. The actual proper way to eat a scone, for example, is to break it into small pieces with your fingers. A sandwich can be eaten with utensils or your hands.

scone;Chai Tea Chick; tea party etiquette rules
Photo by Stacy Spensley / CC BY-NC 2.0

Really all these tips show that you shouldn’t overcomplicate your conduct at a tea party. They may seem intimidating, but most tea parties aren’t “mad” like Alice’s was in Wonderland. Yes, there are certain rules, but if you act intuitively and don’t worry too much, you’ll have a great time.

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How to make Southern-style Sweet Tea

In the South, we have a saying: We like tea with our sugar.

If there is one thing Southerners take seriously, it’s sweet tea. In Georgia, for instance, the legislature once proposed a bill that restaurants could only serve sweet tea, not iced. The bill was a joke, but the main proponents said they “wouldn’t mind” if it became law.

How to make sweet tea; Chai Tea Chick; sweet tea recipe
Photo by enigmachck1 / CC-BY 2.0 

Although I’m from Florida, my family comes from all parts of the South, and a family gathering is not complete without my grandma’s sweet tea. Whatever the holiday—Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Fourth of July— sweet tea will be part of it. My grandma’s from Mobile, Alabama, and nothing shows her Southern hospitality more than sweet tea.

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Here is one of said family gatherings. My grandma is at the front. Can you tell were Gators fans?

Now, I’m going to pass on the secrets to you. Northerners, be warned, this tea is really sweet.

1. Get tea bags.

For once, I’m telling you to not go with loose-leaf tea. Traditional sweet tea uses black tea bags. Don’t buy a specific blend, like Earl Grey or Spiced Chai, but a generic black tea. My grandma generally uses Lipton or PG Tips tea bags.

2. Boil water and add bags.

Bring 3-4 cups of water to a boil. Then, take the water off the stove and add 7-8 tea bags. Cover the pot and let the tea brew for 10-15 minutes. The longer you brew the tea, the stronger it will taste.

3. Dissolve sugar and stir.

Once the tea is finished brewing, pour it into a pitcher. Then, begin the most important step: adding sugar. My grandma has no exact measurement. It’s just a matter of putting more and more sugar in. For real “sweet” tea, you’ll want to add at least 2 cups of sugar, but that’s a bare minimum. Keep adding until the tea tastes sweet.

4. Let the tea cool.

Do NOT immediately add ice to the sweet tea and serve. The ice will melt and just create a weak tea. Allow the tea to cool down to about room temperature.

5. Serve tea.

After cooling, you can either serve the tea then or put it in the fridge and serve later. Again, do not add ice to the sweet tea. Instead, when you serve the tea, add ice to individual cups and pour the tea over. Make sure to add a lot of ice because it will dissolve quickly.

How to make sweet tea; Chai Tea Chick; sweet tea recipe
Photo by Connie Ma /  CC-BY-SA 2.0

You’re sweet tea will now be ready! Add a lemon wedge and enjoy your tea with family, friends, and a big, homemade meal.

Now, go out there, get your tea bags and sugar, and let me know how it goes.

What every new tea drinker should know

Over the past week, we’ve gone over everything you need to know to get started on your “tea journey,” but before I let you loose to buy infusers and brew tea, I want to give you my patented Chai Tea Chick advice.

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Part of my growing collection of mugs

1. Be adventurous. Try new teas, tools, and ways of brewing. Don’t pin yourself in by choosing one type of tea and sticking to it. I thought I was only a black tea fan until I drank green tea, and I thought I was only a black and green tea fan until I drank oolong tea. Sure, you won’t like every tea you drink. I’ve learned I don’t like fruity-flavored ones, but you expand your knowledge every time you try a new tea. There is more than Earl Grey and Spiced Chai. Don’t be scared by teas with five-word titles that are hard to pronounce. They need love, too.

2. Have fun. I want you to go wild with tea. Champion it. Savor it. Make an original iced tea recipe. Treat yourself with a latte at the local cafe. Put on your gloves and go to a fancy tea party with your friends. Tea can be so much more than a drink; it can be an experience.

3. Find a tea community. This may be my most important advice. Tea is a good drink, but when you enjoy it with others, it creates a community. For me, that community started with my sister, who I previously mentioned was the first tea freak in my family. We love going to teashops together, excitedly flipping through the menu, and deciding what we’re going to get. Over time, we converted my dad into a tea enthusiast, and our little community expanded.

This blog, along with other online resources, is a great way to connect with tea drinkers from around the world. I also strongly suggest you to find a local community. Do research into your area and look for teashops or restaurants. You may be surprised what you find. I live in Gainesville, for example, and found Volta Coffee, Tea & Chocolate, which has become my go-to place to try interesting teas. There are even tea clubs and organizations.

4. Keep an open mind. This advice is for a more general audience. In America, tea is still growing, but coffee is king. Many people have never even really considered becoming tea drinkers. I don’t want everyone to become extreme tea enthusiasts (because there would be less tea for me). I just want people to realize that tea can fit into their lives. Even the biggest coffee drinker can make time for it. All you have to do is buy a cup of tea at Starbucks, and see where it takes you.

How to brew the perfect cup of tea (and the fastest)

Every tea drinker needs to learn two ways to make tea: the right way and the fast way. I’d like to think I practice the first way more often, but let’s face it: When it comes to early mornings, I’m usually in a competition with the clock and running around my apartment like a madwoman. For when I’m on the ball, though, I like to do it the right way.

THE PERFECT CUP

The key to the perfect cup of tea is attention to detail. At every step, you have to be attending your tea. The whole process doesn’t take more than 10 minutes, but your focus cannot waver.

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1. Decide the tea.

Before you touch a tea kettle, infuser, or packet of sugar, you need to pick what type of tea you will be drinking. The different types have different steep times and temperatures, which will affect the process.

2. Heat the water.

The best way to heat water is with a tea kettle, although there are plenty of other ways that I discussed yesterday. The kettle, though, gives you precise control of how hot the water is, which is important because different teas need to be brewed at different temperatures. The numbers aren’t exactly agreed upon, but in general, water should be nearly at a boil for black and oolong tea and around 175-180°F for green and white teas. Art of Tea provides a good breakdown of these temperatures.

3. Prepare the tea.

For each cup, you will want one tea bag or one teaspoon of loose-leaf tea (hence the “tea” in “teaspoon.”)  If you go the tea-bag route, try to get a pyramid-shaped bag, which gives the tea more space to expand as it brews.

Loose-leaf tea needs to be put in a strainer or infuser that allows water to pass through. I have a teapot with a nifty strainer in it that I can pull out when the tea is finished brewing.

IMG_00594. Brew it

The tea leaves or tea bag should always go in the cup first and the hot water poured over them. This will make the brewing faster and make your tea more flavorful. Like water temperature, brewing times vary based on tea type. Green tea has the shortest brewing time of only about 30 seconds to a minute. Black and oolong tea should be about three to five minutes. If you want to get it just right, use a timer. If not, you may over-brew your tea, and it will taste bitter.

5. Enjoy

Read the newspaper, go on your iPad, sit outside and listen to the birds. You’ve now made the perfect cup of tea. Enjoy it in all its glory.

THE FAST CUP

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Now, everything I just told you—the patience, the attention to detail, the strict rules—throw that out the window. Instead of a calm, peaceful morning, you overslept and are rushing to get ready for work. (If you’re a night owl like me, this phenomenon is all too common). Sometimes you need to make tea the quick and dirty style. The process is much simpler:

  1. Fill your cup or mug with water.
  2. Put the water in the microwave or a water heater.
  3. Heat up the water.
  4. Put in a tea bag or loose-leaf infuser.
  5. Let it brew for a few minutes and enjoy.

In the world of tea, not all cups are created equal, but sometimes you just need to make one on the go. Join me tomorrow as I wrap up my “How To Tea” blog series with some key advice for tea drinkers.

The Essential Tools of the Tea Drinker

My sister is a bigger tea drinker than me, which may be somewhat surprising since I am the Chai Tea Chick. In our family, though, she is famous for her all-consuming love of tea.

 In the last couple years, our extended family has caught on that tea accessories are easy gifts to buy for her that she will always enjoy. Her apartment is now overflowing with tea devices and tools, and she still wants more.

The amount of tea tools out there seems endless, and every day businesses like Teavana are inventing new contraptions designed to make tea drinking that much easier. I think, though, the tea drinker only needs a few key tools to get a quality cup of tea.

The Teapot/Tea Kettle

Chai Tea Chick; tea tools; tea pots

The ultimate symbols of tea, teapots and kettles are actually not synonymous. A teapot is for brewing tea, although some types can be put on the stove to warm water. Tea kettles are solely designed for heating water on the stove.

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The Sunbeam Hot Shot (and my Beatles mug)

A tea kettle is a great tool but don’t feel like you have to get one right away if you’re starting out with tea. There are plenty of other ways to heat water. An alternative that I like is the Sunbeam Hot Shot, which heats water with the touch of a button. It’s become my way to brew tea when I’m rushing around in the morning. Another tool, one many tea aficionados might scoff at, is the microwave. Put your mug in for one to two minutes, though, and you’ve got hot water. The real fun of teapots, of course, is all the different styles and types you can buy.

Steeping Tools

You’ve got your hot water ready to go, so the next step is to steep your tea. If you’re using tea bags, all you have to do is rip open the package, but if you read my previous post, you’ll know loose leaf is usually the better option. A must for tea drinkers is a tea infuser, pictured here.

Chai Tea Chick; tea tools

The tea goes inside the pouch, and you leave it in until you’ve finished steeping. I have a few of these in my kitchen, and I go through them every week. There are several styles of infusers and strainers, but they all accomplish the same goal.

One of my favorite new items for steeping is Teavana’s Perfect teaMaker. Basically, you put tea leaves into the teaMaker and pour hot water over the leaves. After the tea is finished brewing, you put the teaMaker over your cup or mug and the tea automatically drains into the cup. It is a magical device and makes me feel like Harry Potter.

Teaspoons, Mugs, and Cups

The final tools you will need include a teaspoon, which you can use to add loose-leaf tea and sugar. It’s important to use the right amount of tea per cup, which is generally one teaspoon.

It’s also time to start buying yourself loads of mugs and at least one teacup. I drink most of my tea out of mugs, but you never feel quite so good as when you drink from a fancy old teacup. Here is personal pictorial evidence of said phenomenon:

Chai Tea Chick; Jennifer Leggett Ah, yes, tea bliss!

 

4 Types of Tea (and Which One You Should Drink)

Chai Tea Chick; types of tea
Tea plants at the Charleston tea plantation in South Carolina. Photo by Corey Seeman / CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

The world of tea flavors can be confusing. You’ve got different types, varieties, and flavors, and it can be hard to decide what you should drink. Well, I’m here to guide you through the wilderness.

All pure teas comes from the same plant, Camellia sinensisThe different types are created based on how the plant is processed and how much it is oxidized, which is a way to release tannins and break down chlorophyll.

Don’t worry about those concepts, though. There are six main types of tea: black, green, white, yellow, oolong, and pu-erh. I will focus on the four you’re most likely to find  in North America.

1. Black Tea. Love deep, bold flavors? Looking for tea with a caffeine kick? Then, go to the store now and buy yourself some Darjeeling, assam, or ceylon. Black teas have the deepest flavors and are the most common type in America, with the vast majority of tea being black. The reason for its deep flavor is because it is more oxidized than other types.

Many of the most popular black teas are actually tea blends, which have other teas and ingredients added. Chai, Early Grey, and English Breakfast are all tea blends. Earl Grey, for example, blends black tea and bergamot oil.

2. Green Tea. Black tea may be most common in North America, but green tea’s popularity is growing each year. For the health conscious, green tea is for you. This type is most often associated with health benefits, especially related to heart health and cholesterol. It has an earthier, lighter taste because it is not oxidized after being plucked. Green tea is actually the most popular tea in the world because it is ubiquitous in Asia.

A great way to bring green tea into your life is to substitute it for regular iced tea. Although my parents aren’t heavy tea drinkers, my family and I have been drinking cold green tea with our dinners for years.

3. White Tea. “White” tea is a bit of a misnomer; it’s actually a pale yellow. Like green tea, white tea is either lightly oxidized or not oxidized. I like to think of white tea as a lighter, more fruitier green tea, although it can taste very different based on how it’s processed. Both white and oolong tea are not as common in America, so you will have to do some hunting to find them.

4. Oolong Tea. This type is semi-oxidized and has a fascinating creation process if you’re interested in reading more about it. This tea is good for someone looking for a happy medium between green and black tea. It has the richer black-tea flavor but is still lighter like green tea.

What is your favorite type of tea to drink?

Tea Bags vs. Loose-Leaf: The Great Tea-bate

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If you’ve spent any time around tea drinkers, you’ve probably heard us babbling about loose-leaf tea. The flavors! The aromas! The depth!

For most Americans, though, tea bags are all they know. More than 65 percent of tea in America is brewed with tea bags. In fact, the tea bag is an American invention.

For beginners who may not know, “loose-leaf” means exactly what it says: the leaves are loose. It’s useful to think of tea bags and loose-leaf as briefs and boxers. Tea bags are the briefs, tightly packing everything in. Loose-leaf is the tea world’s boxers, allowing for more airflow and letting it all hang loose.

Recently, tea bags and loose-leaf met up in my kitchen for a thrilling throw-down to decide which one is ultimately better.

Tea Bags

Pros: The tea bag’s biggest strengths in this match-up are its speed and ease of use. The tea bag’s convenient packaging results in a quick, easy cup of tea—all you have to do is add the bag to hot water. Tea bags are also easy to obtain; they can be found in any grocery store, and the selection continues to grow.

Cons: The tea bag’s weak point is flavor. Generally, tea bags are less flavorful than loose-leaf because they are made of “tea dust,” which is the leftovers of the tea plant. Tea dust is like the last crumbs in a bag of potato chips—still tasty but not as good as the first chips. Loose-leaf tea has actual leaves, while a tea bag has small fragments.

See the difference between these fierce competitors for yourself.

tea bags vs. loose leaf; Chai Tea Chick

The bowl on the left contains a loose black tea called Buckingham Palace Garden Party Tea (drinking it makes you feel like Kate Middleton by the way). On the right is Bigelow’s English Breakfast Tea from a bag. As you can see, the loose-leaf tea is vibrant with large leaves, while the bagged tea is more granular.

Although the tea bag is a speedy competitor that can throw a quick jab, it’s lack of flavor is a significant weakness.

Loose-Leaf Tea

Pros: Loose-leaf has a lot more variety and flavor, making it a dynamic player. While tea bags have limited variety, there seems to be an endless array of loose-leaf tea blends. Nearly everything exists, from Mayan Chocolate Truffle to Winter White Chai. In addition, loose-leaf’s fresh leaves and ingredients create a much tastier brew.

Loose-leaf also contains more healthy minerals and vitamins because more nutrients can be extracted from whole leaves rather than tea dust.

Cons: Though it packs a flavor punch, the major problem with loose-leaf is that it can be hard to find in America. Because tea is not as popular here as coffee, there is not a large market for loose-leaf. For tea drinkers, nothing is quite as depressing as running out of a favorite loose-leaf tea. You scrape at the bottom of your canister, desperately trying to cobble enough leaves together to make one last cup.

To find good loose-leaf, you have to do a little more hunting than just visiting your local grocery store. With shops like Teavana and The Spice & Tea Exchange becoming popular, though, we may just be entering the golden age of loose-leaf.

The Winner?

After a rather eventful showdown, in which tea bags threw quick jabs and loose-leaf swung back with taste and variety, a winner has been selected.

Drum roll. 

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Loose-leaf is our champion! Its flavor, diversity, and health advantages make it the ultimate winner. Tea really is all about flavor. To find the boldest and most interesting teas, you have to go with loose-leaf. I’ve noticed most serious tea drinkers eventually transition to loose-leaf and rarely look back.

With that said, I do think tea bags and loose-leaf can peacefully co-exist. I, for example, prefer loose-leaf tea but keep bags around because they are convenient. The most important point is that you’re drinking tea, and that is a wonderful thing. So, what do you prefer: tea bags or loose-leaf?