I visit my local teashop frequently. On my most recent trip, I had a conversation with the owner, a very eccentric woman who appears rather ordinary — until she speaks. Her love for teas flows out in conversation sometimes in a very passionate manner. By now, she knows me as a regular. On this day she was taking the time to show me some of her newer teas, including one Earl Grey variety that had vanilla in it. I kindly dismissed the tea, and told her that I liked staying as close to the original flavor of the tea as possible.
“Oh, you are a tea traditionalist,” she said in a questionable tone.
At first I was a little taken aback; I thought this was an insult. “What does it mean to be a tea traditionalist?”
“Traditionalists are people that stick very close to unadulterated tea varieties: blacks, greens, sometimes whites,” she explained. “They never seem to go for any infusions or flavors that are blended.” She thought it was okay to be a traditionalist, but made it clear that she was not a part of this category. Unlike me, she enjoys her teas infused with different fruits and flavors.
The thought of someone being able to categorize my taste in tea was actually kind of exciting. I had a category that I fit into. It’s true that I’ve never enjoyed infused tea flavors and always prefer a simple green or black tea. Upon further investigation of my traditionalist mentality, I realized that even the way I prepare my tea is relatively simple and shockingly traditional. The woman at the tea shop was correct: There is nothing that irritates me more than the American obsession with adding sugar to tea.
American beverage culture is one of excess — excessive colors, excessive levels of sugar, and excessive quantities. And there is no bigger offender than Arizona Iced Tea, which both of my roommates obsessively drink and refer to as “tea.” Surely they’re not alone in their obsession over a drink that barely deserves the title.
In other parts of the world, teas are sacred, revered for their healing properties and gentle, delicate tastes. They are brewed using specific instructions and special tools. Arizona Iced Tea is neither delicate nor does it maintain any of the customs that tea traditionalists like me would support. Its version of “green tea” includes an ingredient that renders the beverage more of a science experiment than a drink: high fructose corn syrup. Sugar and especially high fructose corn syrup mask the true flavor in the tea leaves and creates a beverage that’s basically sweetened water — no better than soda.
The adulteration doesn’t stop with iced tea. Hot teas often experience the same treatment. I cringe when I see people drinking their morning “tea” with heaping amounts of sugar – especially when it’s green tea. People often over-steep a bag of cheap green tea, only to complain that it’s too bitter and then add two to three scoops of sugar to their cup. How can anyone call this mixture tea? People who subscribe to this methodology are missing the point of drinking tea. Quality tea should be drunk in an unadulterated form, relying on the sweetness inherent in the leaves rather than an additional ingredient. The tea’s flavors should be enough make the beverage enjoyable, not the added sugary sweetness.
The only real solution to this problem is to stop masking teas with sweeteners. Instead of hiding what teas truly are, embrace what their flavors want to be. If you need to add heaps of sugar to your tea, perhaps you don’t actually like tea at all. Or maybe you’re drinking the wrong type of tea for your palate. However, there is hope.
If you find that tea is “bitter,” odds are that you’re preparing it incorrectly or merely using the wrong ratio of tea leaves to water. Or, perhaps the solution to your unsweetened tea woes is a different kind of tea. If you’re searching for a sweeter green tea, my favorite is jasmine green tea. Jasmine flowers give the tea a distinctive floral sweetness. When properly brewed, this tea is very fragrant and light. Or, try a white tea. Their delicate flavors could never be considered too bitter. Different teas will result in varying degrees of sweetness naturally without any additives.
The best place for a sweetened-tea addict to begin their reformation is their local, independently-owned teashop. The tea bags sold in grocery stores often contain lower-quality leftover leaves grown by people who are selling their teas through corporate middlemen. Local tea shops do a much better job connecting consumers and tea cultivators than conventional grocery stores, and the loose-leaf teas they offer are almost always higher quality.
The experience at a specialty tea shop is also much more interactive. Instead of selecting a sealed box from a shelf, tea shop employees will let you smell different varieties of tea and occasionally allow you to taste them. If you are someone who thought that they would never like unsweetened tea, you might be surprised to discover that tea can be blissfully sweet in its own right. There is no substitute for going to a tea shop and seeing all of the metallic canisters lined up on the wall, waiting to be opened. Going to the grocery store and picking up a box of tea is nothing in comparison to the olfactory experience of a specialty tea shop.
I’m proud to be a “tea traditionalist.” I believe tea is best when in its purest, most unaltered form. Putting sweetener in your tea not only dilutes its health benefits, but also makes its subtleties disappear completely. Don’t fall into the trap of American beverage culture: more is not always better, and tea traditions exist for a reason.