BOSTON AND TEA go hand in hand. We may have chucked a few pounds of it into the harbor a while back, but these days we’re trading in high-octane espresso-based lattes for camellia sinensis, thanks to its health benefits. Tea delivers anti-oxidants, vitamins, and minerals. It may also alter our mood — in a good way, explains Mary Lou Heiss, coauthor of The Tea Enthusiast’s Handbook: A Guide to Enjoying the World’s Best Teas (Ten Speed Press) and co-owner of Cooks Shop Here and Tea Trekker in Northampton. “Tea has theanine, proven to affect the neural transmission of alpha waves, which have a calming effect on the brain,” she says.
With demand comes supply, and in this region we now have teas aplenty. Heiss’s shop sells more than 100 varieties, while Harvard Square’s Tealuxe offers more than 90. Upton Tea Imports, a Holliston-based company, operates an online-only store with hundreds of offerings. Still, New Englanders have a clear preference. “I would say a good 70 percent of our customers are pretty die-hard black tea drinkers,” says Heiss. “New England has always been a great bastion of tea-drinking because much of our heritage is British.”
Preparing tea can be as pleasurable as drinking it, with the proper tools. No one knows this better than Cynthia Gold, the Boston Park Plaza Hotel and Towers’ tea sommelier. “Water temperature is critical. If the water is too hot, you will literally burn delicate leaves like whites and greens. This results in a duller-tasting tea,” she says (or bitter, in our experience). Gold recommends a temp of 175 degrees for white and green teas, 185 to 195 degrees for oolongs, and boiling water for black teas. She also stresses the importance of using fresh, filtered water and not microwaving it. Her book about cooking with tea, Culinary Tea: More than 150 Recipes Steeped in Traditions from around the World (Running Press), will be out in September.
Tea vessels are as varied as tea drinkers. “Choose a kettle that feels comfortable when you hold it,” Heiss advises. If selecting a tea vessel with an infuser basket, Gold suggests making sure the basket is large enough to allow the leaves to fully unfurl. “But if you want just one workhorse,” she says, “a classic English-style heavy, round ceramic pot is a good choice. The round shape helps to stir the leaves properly as the water is added.”
Still need helping choosing your vessel? Check out our picks for 10 of the sweetest teapots around.