“More tea?” My best friend at work ping each other with this message countless times every day, so much so that when I try to search my inbox for a real work-related email by her name it’s a hopeless quest to find the relevant message. Tea, though, has become just as important a part of my workday—and life—as an ultimate panacea for all kinds of things: upset stomachs, upsets brains, upset hearts, and even the more positive flip sides of all those too-real feels. What is it about pouring hot water over leaves that’s so…calming? Why does the slow rise of the steam from the cup (which is as important as the tea itself, mind you: it needs to be big enough to hold a significant quantity for, say, 50 pages of reading, or 15 minutes of chatting) signal my muscles to relax, whereas that same steam from a cup of coffee does almost the exact opposite?
There is an old Chinese quote that goes “Tea is drunk to forget the din of the world,” which I suspect is part of the answer to these burning (or steeping) questions. In my own life, there’s the recent tea-friendship(s) I’ve found with other ladies (and gents) who prefer the more mindful and deliberate task of refilling a cup of tea at the office to pressing a button that dispenses truly unpotable “coffee,” eyes glazed over as the stream of pressurized boiling water fills yet another paper cup (that won’t be recycled, most likely).
But going father back, I can see that my fondness of tea was taught to me, if not brewed right into my very blood. For years while I was growing up, my sister and I would practice for our piano lessons at the home of my cousin, who lived around the corner from us. Every day after school we’d walk over with our mom, and while we spent a few hours tinkling in alternate sessions the women would talk…and consume pot after pot of tea. It wasn’t anything special—plain Lipton black tea, or Red Rose, which was bought in bulk when it went on sale at the A&P. Microwave popcorn was the finger food of choice. At the time, I didn’t have the palette for plain black tea in the middle of the afternoon, but the conversation and bonding that occurred with each sip was something I intuitively thirsted after. I genuinely enjoyed playing piano, but I think I enjoyed more the times when it was my sister’s turn to practice, and I got to sit with the ladies and absorb their gripes about men and money, best cleaning tactics and juicy new TV shows, and one debate about the frozen-ness of a certain Thanksgiving turkey that’s become a family legend. These tea times were a pause from the day-to-day for them, a moment to acknowledge the true absurdity for some of their problems, but also to acknowledge the real stress that even the most trivial of matters bore on them.
When it was finally my turn to be a lady, sometime during college when I was home on break and privy to a tea party, I’d already cultivated a taste for certain kinds of teas depending on my moods. (I never did quite warm to Lipton, except when I have a cold and a cup with lemon and honey is really the only medicine that does anything.) Our many campus coffee shops stocked Tazo by the rack-ful, and Awake (a strong black tea, with more of a kick than espresso I still find), Berryblossom White, and Passion were my go-tos throughout the day (and night). In our dining halls, Bigelow’s Sweet Dreams kept my bladder full while reading into the night, even if it did have the adverse effect of making those old English novels seem even more yawn-some than in the day time. As my friends and I would refill our tiny mugs with water over meals, extending dinner for hours after we’d finish eating just to put off starting that paper a little longer, I discovered the true magic of a good cup of tea: it slows things down and focuses you in the moment, affording a certain clarity with every cautious yet eager sip. The patience one cultivates in properly steeping loose tea, or simply waiting for a cup to cool down, can’t be taught any other way. And yet, that mentality extends into every part of the tea-drinker’s life.
I wouldn’t call myself a tea expert by any appreciable standard, especially since my tastes in the most ancient of tea cultures—Chinese and Japanese—are extremely underdeveloped. I know what I like and what I don’t, but sometimes the lingo of a tea’s “body” or “notes” can get hopelessly confusing. Still, I’ve used my fox personality to whittle down a list of my top 5 teas: those that I buy without question, and love in an unconditional, verging on obsessed, state:
1. Classic Chai Mookie Blend + Letterbox Black Chai: When I started following a stricter Ayurvedic diet, chai tea was one of the best beverages to drink in the morning because of its combination of spices to fire the digestive system as well as soothe. Chai had long been a favorite of mine, and I’d gone through dozens of different blends and brands to find one too spicy, one too bitter, another too sweet. Combining these two blends made for a just-right cup. The Chai Mookie is all-herbal, which means it would also make for a great baking spice. You don’t need a ton, maybe 1/2 tsp. will do if combined with the same amount of the Letterbox for a little caffeine kick.
2. David’s Tea Grand Cru Matcha: When matcha tea became a thing, I happened to be on a coffee-hiatus and suffering from intense caffeine withdrawal. Boasting a healthy dose of caffeine comparable to coffee even, I tried it at a local cafe despite the cringe-worthy price tag. Turns out this super-fine, ultra-concentrated version of green tea is the real deal, and after scouring NYC for the best flavor (not too grassy, but not too creamy) I settled on David’s. Although David’s is mostly known for their flavored novelty teas, this matcha variety is quite pure and simple; it’s the middle grade among their options, which I think is why it falls so nicely between creamy and astringent. Besides the health benefits of matcha–it’s high in antioxidants, boosts the metabolism and detoxifies, and is a source of chlorophyll, vitamins, and fiber–I love the ritual of making it. You literally can’t rush it otherwise you get a clumpy mess. First, you spoon 1/2 tsp. of powder into a wide mug or bowl. You whisk it to remove lumps, add a small amount of just-boiling water, and whisk again until a small froth foams. Then you add the rest of your water, whisk for good measure, and enjoy.
3. Yogi Tea Kava Stress Relief: The secret ingredient in this herbal tea is the carob, which lends an earthiness to the otherwise sweet combination of cinnamon, ginger, kava, and sarsaparilla. Plus, I’m convinced that the combination of purple packaging (think third-eye chakra) and the delightful messages on the tea bags themselves automatically lowers stress, even before the first sip. I dare you to buy any Yogi tea without gathering a collection of tags that somehow just speak to you in the moment…as I write this, I’m drinking a cup that tells me “If we give happiness to others we will end up happy.” Food, or drink, for thought.
4. David’s Tea Forever Nuts: This tea is PINK. I’d think that’s a ‘nuf said situation, but if you need more convincing: it’s a nutty and mildly sweet herbal blend that works well on its own or as a latte. Plus, if you’re daring, you can even sprinkle some of the tea itself on yogurt or oatmeal for a crunchy topping.
5. Numi Golden Chai: Okay, so I have a thing for chai. This blend also bears a bit of nostalgia for me. I’d get it every week at my favorite local coffee shop, which sadly closed over a year ago. The shop has a fantastic old-Hollywood vibe: the benches were covered in crushed velvet cushions, and they played old black-and-white movies on silent on a TV screen in the corner. Sitting there for hours made me feel tres parisienne, and sipping on Golden Chai now transports me to that place no matter where I am. It’s a lightly spiced variety so milk is optional, but a splash and a dab of honey was the perfect way to warm up on a cold morning.
There are so many teas that didn’t make it this list, but my aim here is not to advocate for one tea over another. Rather, it’s the fact that there even exists such a thing as a scoop of dry leaves that can so profoundly change one’s mood and physical state. Science has given us proof of what it’s capable of, so there’s no reason why you shouldn’t cozy yourself up to a cup any time of day or night. You owe it to yourself to steep yourself a bit of magic.