Though it may never incite the sort of passion that coffee does, teas of all sorts are steadily gaining in popularity. People are finally discovering the many physical and emotional health benefits from steeping certain leaves, herbs, spices and roots. We’ll drink to that.
TEA IS THE SECOND-MOST-CONSUMED DRINK IN the world (after water), yet for over three quarters of Americans, tea means a sweet, iced beverage. Although most of us have a box of tea bags stashed in the pantry, very few of us have branched out beyond a mug of Earl Grey or a Starbucks chai latte.
But interest in tea is brewing, right along with many consumers’ new-found focus on wellness, clean eating, and a plant-based diet. “We’re seeing new tea drinkers who want an alternative to coffee. Some want less caffeine, and others are opting to remove sugar and creamer from their diet,” says Matt Zacharewicz who, along with wife Joyce, owns Short and Stout Tea Company in Albany. Founded online in 2011 (the couple opened their tea house on Western Avenue in 2013), Short and Stout focuses on farm-sourced, loose-leaf tea (over 60 varieties) with the goal of expanding customers’ palates and educating them on the many ways that tea does a body good—from aiding digestion to easing anxiety.
What exactly is tea?
You may be surprised to learn that not everything that’s labeled tea is actually tea. Only leaves from the camellia sinensis plant are technically tea, which includes white, green, oolong, and black tea. Everything else falls under the spectrum of tisanes, which are teas made from an infusion of herbs. “Tisanes are almost always naturally caffeine-free, except yerba mate. The ingredients vary from leaves, roots, spices, flowers, mushrooms, and even bark,” explains Zacharewicz. So, an apple-cinnamon tea is really a tisane. Teas and tisanes are cousins, and although no one uses the word tisane, at least now you know the difference.
Get it fresh
The best place to buy high-quality teas is a local shop such as Short and Stout, or The Ridge Tea & Spice Shop in New Paltz, which offers over 65 teas and blends. Some of their most popular selections are herbs they blend in house, like Purple Dreams (butterfly pea flower, lavender, and sage), Spicy Hibiscus, and Secret Garden (a white tea blend).
Supporting Valley tea shops is good for local businesses and for the environment. Grocery store bagged tea isn’t nearly as flavorful as loose leaf, but those bags can contain harmful micro-plastics. Purchasing tea leaves in bulk with reusable containers will save you money, too.
Fresh, loose-leaf tea can last for upwards of six months if you store it properly. According to Zacharewicz, you want to avoid exposing tea to light, heat, moisture, odor, and air. Choose an opaque, airtight canister and place it in a cool, dry spot away from foods or spices that have strong odors. Also, keep your delicate teas away from your strongly scented ones.
All you really need to brew tea is a sturdy mug, some hot water, and a strainer of some kind. But, if you’re looking to up your tea game, Chris Galeano, co-owner of The Ridge, recommends a thermometer and timer. Go even bigger with a tea infuser—a steeping vessel with holes that can be as small as a tea ball or as large as a tea pot. Infusers with larger diameters “hold loose tea and tisanes during the steeping process… it’s big enough for the material to circulate in hot water and allow the tea to expand,” explains Zacharewicz. He recommends 1 teaspoon of tea per 8 oz. of water, but types with bigger leaves (like white tea) might need a bit more water. Both Galeano and Zacharewicz note that temperature and time are the biggest factors when making tea because of tannins, natural compounds that cause bitterness when infused. Black tea can be steeped in boiling water (212°F for five minutes), but green, white, and oolong can’t (170°F for three minutes). All tisanes are unaffected by boiling water, so steep for as long as you like— Zacharewicz uses boiling water and brews for 7–10 minutes.
IN THE BAG
Although our experts highly recommend making tea with loose, fresh leaves, there are a number of excellent bagged brands you can buy online or at your local grocery store. A few of our high-quality favorites: Mighty Leaf, Pukka, The Republic of Tea, Rishi, Tazo, and Yogi. Although a trip to the Valley’s own Harney & Sons tea house in Millerton is a treat, you can shop for their teas at Target, Walmart, and harney.com.
What you may not know about Harney & Sons is that the company has an impressive line of CBD teas and other products including tinctures, sparkling elixirs, and bath balls. The Hemp Division features tea sachets like Boom (chocolate and coconut), Calm (turmeric ginger), Chill (chamomile), Focus (yerba mate, yaupon, and mint), and Sleep (holy basil and coconut).
A new brand worth trying is Bonne Maman’s line of herbal teas. Beloved for their flavor-packed preserves and jams, the French company recently branched out into organic tea and introduced five varieties this holiday season including: Contentment (star anise, black currant, and lemon balm); Dream (verbena, Damask rose, and lavender); Serenity (lemon balm, lemongrass, yarrow, and chamomile); Sweet Delights (apple, cinnamon, and elderflower); and Vitality (peppermint, hibiscus, and rose hip). Buy online at bonnemaman.us.
Plants with Purpose
PETAL TO THE METTLE
A daisy-like flower, chamomile is best known as a sleep aid that can promote relaxation and reduce stress and anxiety. Its flavor profile is mellow and calming, making it perfect to sip on post-dinner.
This sweetly named tisane has some history: passionflower was used as a sedative by indigenous peoples of the Americas and was subsequently introduced into European folk medicine after the Age of Exploration. These days many rely on it to promote gut health and induce sleepiness.
Also known as a pot marigold, this bright yellow flower is most popularly used as an herbal oil to combat bacteria, fungi, and inflammation. When steeped, calendula can ease stomach issues like peptic ulcers, certain bowel syndromes, and acid reflux. We recommend Tweefontein Herb Farm’s Calendula Surprise herbal tea blend (New Paltz; tweefonteinherbfarm.com).
A staple in ancient Chinese medicine, this simple flower can do wonders for headaches. Loaded with potassium, chrysanthemum is also used to lower blood pressure and stabilize compromised immune systems. Many believe it helps heal skin, too.
This beloved tropical plant is gorgeous when steeped—its fuchsia tone alone is worth giving it a try! Recent studies from the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) and the Journal of Nutrition have found evidence that hibiscus can reduce inflammation, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure in arthritic and hypertensive patients. It’s packed with antioxidants and vitamin C.
Though not everyone is a fan of its scent, this herb offers up a wealth of remedies for insomnia, digestive problems, anxiety, depression, and skin issues. Next time you turn to lavender for aromatherapy—try drinking it instead! According to Zacharewicz, lavender is easy to grow at home.
You’ve probably seen it all over your social feeds—and if not, we’re happy to introduce you to this pretty flower. When it hits water, it changes from a shimmering blue to a vibrant purple and is believed to be a stomach soother.
The minute you feel a cold coming on, steep some echinacea, an immune-boosting herb that fights inflammation and eases sniffles and other symptoms.
Peppermint and Spearmint
Mint-based tisanes can soothe holiday stress. Peppermint—a blend of spearmint and water mint—can be traced back to ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, where it was used to quell digestion issues.
Genmaicha, Matcha, Sencha
Consider these the holy trinity of Japanese green teas. Rich in flavor and color, the trio are packed with antioxidants, polyphenols, and chlorophyll. Green teas are credited with lowering the risk of heart disease and cancer, aiding in weight loss, and balancing blood levels. Low in caffeine, genmaicha is traditionally mixed with brown rice kernels. You probably know about matcha, a staple in both coffeeshops and Japanese samurai culture. In Japan, sencha is often consumed after meals because of its high catechin content, an antioxidant that may burn fat and boost metabolic rates.
Muddle some nettle and you may notice fewer allergy symptoms and less sinus build up. It has “stinging” in its name for a reason: fresh nettle can cause irritation, so make sure you dry, cook, or freeze it before incorporating it into your next drink.
This towering biennial plant can grow over six feet tall—but it can also loosen mucus, helping you overcome allergies, the common cold, and the flu. It’s also been known to ease coughs associated with strep throat, whooping cough, and bronchitis.
Perfect on lattes and French toast, cinnamon may just steal the show when brewed on its own. By taste alone, it can put a pep in your step—but studies show it can also prevent. Cinnamon pairs well with orange, lemon, and ginger.
An aromatic flower bud native to Indonesia, the NCBI considers clove “one of the most valuable spices” in medicine and cuisine. Compared to other spices, its antioxidant levels are outstanding and has antimicrobial properties, especially against fungi and certain bacteria. By steeping cloves with cinnamon, ginger, and star anise, it’s possible to treat diarrhea, says Galeano.
Arguably the most popular spiced tea, ginger is the easiest to make at home. Simply slice up a knob (no need to peel) and boil for 10 minutes—that’s it! Ginger is thought to have healing properties, including aiding in the prevention of hypertension and congenital heart disease
This licorice-flavored spice comes from Chinese evergreen trees and is one component of Chinese five-spice, a staple in Asian cuisine. Packed with vitamins A and C, star anise is best known for being an anti-viral flu fighter. It’s also thought to improve lactation, boost energy, and ease menopausal symptoms.
ROOT OF THE MATTER
Corinn Crawford, co-owner at The Ridge, lives by ashwagandha, especially for its calming effects on anxiety. An evergreen shrub native to India, it’s sometimes referred to as Indian ginseng or winter cherry. Used for over a millennium in medicine, ashwagandha promotes reproductive balance, builds resilience for stress, and guards against many diseases.
A root popularly used as a banchan or a side dish in Korea and Japan, burdock does wonders when steeped. Enjoyed hot or cold, burdock tea is both sweet and earthy and thanks to its antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties it’s used in many medicines to treat gout, hypertension, and hepatitis.
This root is used to combat sleeplessness and anxiety. Some research shows that after consuming valerian root for 1–2 weeks, study participants fell asleep faster and had a better night’s rest.