Every day, somewhere in the United States, a new teashop opens for business. Tea producers around the world are welcoming this increasing affection for their product in a nation whose beverage tastes have long favored coffee. A quarter century ago, the total U-S tea market was less than $500,000. Today, it's more than 6 billion ...and growing. An estimated 30 million Americans make a cup of tea a regular part of their day, but one of them gets much of the credit for steeping the culture in the joys of tea: Norwood Pratt.
Norwood Pratt started writing books about tea 25 years ago, and ever since, he has traveled around the United States talking about its virtues and teaching the many interesting facts about tea. The most fundamental, he says - and one he repeats constantly - is that all tea, whatever the color or flavor, comes from the same plant - the tea plant, which is in the same family as the Camellia.
"There's white tea, green tea, black tea," he says, listing the varieties, "oolong tea, which is in between green and black, then there's yellow tea, which we know nothing about in this country, and pu ehr tea, which we're just beginning to discover.
The teas differ in flavor, he says, depending on what is done with the leaf once it is plucked from the plant. "You're only looking for the new growth -- 2 leaves and a bud in the case of green tea or black -- the newest growth that has just appeared on the plant in the last week or 10 days," he says. "You take a great armload of this freshly plucked leaf and drop it in a hot wok. And steam will come out and the leaf will crackle as the moisture evaporates. And the tea maker will press that fresh leaf against the bottom of this wok and then raise it in the air and drop it for 5 minutes let's say, 7 minutes at most. And by the end of that time, that mound of fresh leaf is rattling like paper in the bottom of the wok. It's all dried out. You've just made green tea."
To make black tea Mr. Pratt says, "instead of dropping the leaf it in a hot wok, you roll it - you could roll it in between your hands - what you're doing is you're bruising the leaf, you're rupturing the cell walls inside, the juice of the leaf is now exposed to the air so that it can oxidize. That is to say it begins to turn brown. And when it does, that's when you apply the heat and kill the leaf, so to speak, arrest any further chemical change. What you've just produced is black tea. And it will taste different from green tea."
Mr. Pratt says green and black tea must be prepared differently. "To make black tea, it's always best to use boiling water and steep it for no less than 3 minutes," he says. "The opposite is true for green tea. Never use boiling water. And steep it for no more than 3 minutes, usually about 1 minute."
Tea does have caffeine, but not as much as coffee does: A cup of coffee American style is going to have at least twice as much caffeine as a cup of black tea. A cup of green tea is going to, generally speaking, have less caffeine than the black tea does.
Mr. Pratt says it is possible to decaffinate tea yourself. "Caffeine is one of the first things released by the leaf," he explains. "So if, after this tea has been steeping 30 to 45 seconds, you discard that water, you've just discarded much, indeed most of the caffeine that the leaf contained. Now, start over again steeping the tea. You haven't sacrificed that much flavor, very little, and you're drinking tea with no caffeine content."
Coffee has been the warm beverage of choice in the United States, but tea is catching on. Mr. Pratt suggests that's because coffee ceases to be your friend after middle age. "So I think the Baby Boomers are part of what's driving the tea market," he says. "Certainly the news of health benefits has a lot of Americans suddenly interested in tea. But the other thing is that we are new tea lovers in this country, and we have discovered this miracle of vegetation: the tea plant."
Norwood Pratt says even though people the world over have enjoyed tea for centuries, as new tea lovers, Americans have a unique advantage: these days, they can sample almost any kind of tea that's produced anywhere in the world in their local tea shop. For more information about tea, check out the website www.greentea.com.