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Two Teas and a Bush

Last month, we had our first tea tasting event of 2019, led by This House of Book's general manager and tea guru Gustavo Belotta. Before serving any tea, however, Gus displayed several jars, one containing a black tea, one a green, and one an herbal, and asked what the difference was.

"Caffeine!" supplied nearly everyone in attendance.

Not so! Although herbal teas are not actually tea at all, since they don't come from the Camellia sinensis plant, Gus explained that differences in caffeine have more to do with brewing methods than processing methods. Processing involves applying heat to arrest oxidation, with darker teas allowed to oxidize longer, and this affects the flavor profile but not necessarily the amount of caffeine. In other words, the common idea that black tea has the most caffeine depends on it generally being brewed at higher temperatures - and sometimes longer - than green and white teas. Additionally, which part of the plant being used also affects caffeine levels: buds have the most while stems have the least. One of the most popular tea brands in the world, PG Tips, makes a specific reference to the fact that the 'tips' of the tea leaves, the youngest part of the plant, are the highest in both caffeine and antioxidants.

After the science lesson, Gus prepared the first selection of the night, our House Black, which is grown in Vietnam. Using nearly-boiling water and steeping for three minutes brought out the essence of the tea without the tannins overpowering the flavor. Some participants not inclined to enjoy black tea admitted that the bitterness they usually associated with it was attenuated by Gus's precision preparation. As a follow-up, Gus shared the Russian custom of sweetening tea with jam rather than sugar or honey, offering everyone a second sample of the black tea swirled with huckleberry jam. (If you would like to try it, ask Gus for your tea "Russian style" the next time you come in!)

The following selection was our Green Darjeeling, grown on the famed Glenburn Estate high in the Himalayan foothills of India. Just like wines, teas absorb the essence of where they are grown, with moisture, heat, and elevation all playing a part. Preparing them properly allows each tea's unique traits to emerge. Given the delicacy of this tea, Gus steeped it only for two-and-a-half minutes and also used cooler, 175-degree water. As a result, not only did this sample have less caffeine, it also had more subtlety of flavor. Nevertheless, the audience - perhaps swayed by the huckleberry jam - seemed to prefer the House Black. Perhaps at our next tasting event, we will include one of our popular flavored green teas as a contrast.

As mentioned earlier, the last selection of the evening, our Red Rooibos, is not a tea at all. Pronounced "roy-boss," meaning "red bush," the plant is unique to South Africa, despite efforts to cultivate it elsewhere. It does not contain caffeine and is often used as a base for herbal blends. Like most herbal "teas," rooibos can withstand higher temperatures and longer brewing times without compromising flavor. Consequently, Gus used the same near-boiling water that he had used for the House Black and left the brew to steep for a full four minutes before pouring and serving. The result was a beautiful, red beverage with a mild aroma and a fruity flavor reminiscent of citrus. It was a welcome counterpoint to the winter wonderland embracing Billings.

To ensure that love was in the air - it was the day before Valentine's Day, after all - each participant went home with a small bag of the tea of the month: Love Potion No. 9. It was the perfect choice to complete the evening's lesson, since, like the rooibos, it is not a tea at all. However, unlike rooibos, it contains caffeine. As its base, Gus used guayusa, a caffeinated holly plant, unlike anything else tasted during the evening and a perfect prelude to future tastings, which will expand to include our more esoteric and exotic offerings. Stay tuned!