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Tea Chic

Could this ancient brew with all of its varieties and complexities, be the new wine?

By JANET K. KEELER
Published February 7, 2007


To many Southerners, tea is familiar just two ways: sweet or unsweet. And always on ice.

Well, hold on to your sweating glass. There's something brewing around here, and it isn't coffee.

Tea is hot.

Consumption is steadily rising, thanks to baby boomers searching for something more soothing than coffee. Teahouses are sprouting up around the country, bringing the tradition of sharing a pot of tea out of the nation's urban Chinatowns and into suburban shopping malls.

One of them is Teavana, a national Starbucksian chain with an outlet in International Plaza in Tampa and seven other locations in Florida. More are planned.

Loose tea has always been a mainstay of health food stores, but wide selection is becoming more mainstream. The tea section in many grocery stores rivals that of coffee, taking up as much space and offering more choices. Lipton and Luzianne are being challenged by Tazo, Stash, Good Earth, Republic of Tea and a host of other brands.

Lipton, in fact, is changing our 100-year-old notion of a tea bag. Its new, silky, pyramid-shaped bag allows water to circulate through the tea fully, drawing more flavor from the leaves. Lipton is not the first company to produce pyramid bags, but it is the biggest.

The increased interest in tea is good news for Kendra Rodriguez and Shawn Hooker and their teahouse in an evolving downtown St. Petersburg. Hooker Tea Co. is at the base of the new Parkshore Plaza condominiums, facing Straub Park and beyond that strip of green, Tampa Bay.

"We want to bring tea to the masses in a comfortable, nonthreatening way," Rodriguez says. "We think people are ready to think outside the 'Bucks."

A place for tea

Rodriguez, 28, is the tea devotee, and Hooker, 34, is the business guy. They met while working at a title company, and her passion for tea rubbed off on the boss. She was glad she worked for someone who tolerated a desk cluttered with tea paraphernalia. Last year, they junked the paperwork for tea and haven't been sorry.

They envisioned Hooker Tea as a retail shop, selling sleek teapots, brewing equipment and lots and lots of loose tea. But customers wanted to sit awhile and share a pot.

The communal nature of tea trumped the business plan, and out came cushy chairs and high-top tables and stools, plus outside seating under wide umbrellas. Pots of steaming tea are delivered to tables on wooden trays.

"There is something about tea in general that is calming," Rodriguez says. "Just making it is a soothing process."

She talks about teas with the same adoration a mother has for her children. Indeed, some are her children, the results of her own creative naming and blending.

Take, for instance, Forty Winks, an herbal blend she concocted for her mother, who was having trouble sleeping. It is a soothing and aromatic melange of chamomile, rose hips, orange peel, lavender and lemongrass.

"There is so much more to tea than sweet or unsweet," she says.

It's likely to take some time to convince everyone. According to the Tea Association of the USA, 85 percent of the tea consumed in the United States is on ice.

But here's another statistic to bolster a fledgling business: Tea is the second most popular beverage worldwide. No. 1 is water.

102 and counting

Hooker Tea carries 102 loose teas and a very few tea bags for the stubborn. The loose tea is priced per 2 ounces, some as little as $4, others more than $15. Each 2 ounces makes 25 to 30 8-ounce cups of tea.

Large tins of tea are tucked into dark wood cubby holes, recalling an old-fashioned apothecary shop. And, indeed, some teas claim to cure what ails you, especially the herbals. Others, like smoky Lapsang Souchong, are an acquired taste. That Chinese tea is dried over a pine wood fire, and some customers buy it to use in barbecue rubs, rather than steep it for sipping.

Kyoto Cherry Green is refined with cherry pieces, and Silver Needle is a white tea made of silver buds "plucked at dawn only a few days a year in Fujian Province." A portion of the sales of Paper Airplanes, a fruit blend tea, is donated to a local nonprofit organization that works with terminally ill children.

Many of Rodriguez's names are fanciful (Dr. Feelgood, Lemon Red Snapper, Good Morning Sunshine), and the descriptions on the tea menu show that tea is complex and maybe even a bit mysterious. For instance, Matcha Genmaicha is a green tea blended with rice kernels and popped corn. Who knew?

"They say you can learn everything you need to know about coffee in a day, but it takes a lifetime to learn about tea," Rodriguez says.

When describing teas, Rodriguez speaks of bitter tannins and smoke, notes of chocolate and earthy aromas. Is tea the new wine?

It just might be. At the recent World Tea Expo in Atlanta, there were seminars on tea pairings, matching the leafy flavors with desserts, cheeses and other dishes.

What to do, though, about Americans who love their convenient tea bags? The ease of the bags often wins out over the fuller flavor that comes from chunky loose tea.

A little education from places like Hooker Tea might help. A bevy of trendy European products that allow drinkers to brew tea at their desks could change minds.

Can you imagine the servers at the local diner 10 years from now?

"Sweet, unsweet or Yerba Mate?"

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at (727) 893-8586 or jkeeler@sptimes.com.

About tea

Tea has been political, ceremonial and medicinal, not to mention communal. Its roots stretch back 5,000 years to China, and there are hundreds of tea blends, though black, green, oolong and white teas all come from a plant called Camellia sinensis.

The differences in the tea are the result of processing and levels of oxidation. After processing, some are blended with other ingredients, such as dried fruit or herbs. According to the Tea Association of the USA, black tea is oxidized for up to four hours; oolong for two to three hours. Green and white teas are not oxidized after processing.

Varying parts of the plant are used for tea, including the buds and leaves at all stages of development. Smoking the leaves over different types of woods also affects the taste.

Premium teas are from whole leaves and often come from a specific tea estate or garden. The tea found in mass market tea bags are usually "finings," the dust and leaf bits left after processing.

There are teas made from rooibus, a South African red bush, and also teas made from blending dried herbs such as lavender, rose hips, peppermint and lemongrass.

IF YOU GO

Hooker Tea Co.

Hooker Tea, 300 Beach Drive NE, Suite 124, St. Petersburg, is open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday. Call (727) 388-3518 or go to www.hookertea.com.