WELCOME TO THE TEA PARTY
The following originally appeared in the September issue of Luxury Las Vegas, and is reprinted with their permission. You can see it with all the artwork by clicking here.
It’s the second most popular beverage in the world, behind water. While beverage companies spend billions every year marketing soft drinks and energy drinks, none can put a dent in the global market share of tea. For millennia, it’s been enjoyed in countries around the globe, often in elaborate ceremonies.
“Tea is an international sign of welcome,” explains Ruby Fung of Tea Leaves, which supplies teas to luxury Las Vegas properties such as Mandarin Oriental, Four Seasons, and MGM Grand. “If you welcome someone into your space, into your home, into your restaurant, a lot of time you’re offering tea to them.”
Moreover, while tea leaves contain more caffeine than an equal amount of coffee beans, a cup of tea generally has only 15 to 25 percent the caffeine that you’ll find in a cup of coffee. Add in a hearty dose of antioxidants, and it’s no wonder many health-conscious Americans are finally beginning to embrace tea as their beverage of choice. But navigating a selection of gourmet teas can be intimidating to novices. So Luxury spoke to some tea experts to provide you with a primer on high-end teas.
AGELESS & EVERGREEN
Legend has it tea was discovered accidentally by Chinese Emperor Shen Nung, around 2700 BC. There are several versions of the story, but they all seem to agree on one thing: at some point a stray leaf blew into Shen’s cup of hot water, producing the first example of the beverage now enjoyed by billions.
That leaf would have come from an evergreen bush known to scientists by its Latin name, camellia sinensis. While so-called herbal teas are often made with flowers or leaves of other plants, all true teas come from this one. Their different characteristics come from the climate and soil where they’re grown, what part of the plant the leaves are taken from, and how long they oxidize after they’re cut. They can then be scented either through artificial means, or by allowing the leaves to dry next to natural aromatics such as jasmine or orange blossoms.
The four best known categories of tea are white, oolong, green, and black. When Fung recites the tale of Shen’s discovery, it is white tea, the rarest and most expensive varietal, he discovers.
“He liked to mediate,” she says of the ruler. “And when he meditated, he took a cup of hot water with him outside in his garden, he sat under a tree and he meditated. And when he finished, he’d drink the cup of hot water as a final, cleansing finishing. So one day while he was meditating, a leaf from a nearby bush actually floated into his cup. So he took a sip and the thought, ‘Wow, this actually tastes really, really good, what is this?’ And from that day forward he would get virgins with white gloves and golden scissors to go out to these bushes and cut off the top bud and leaf for him to make. And that’s actually how white tea came to be.”
READING THE TEA LEAVES
White teas, so named for the silver, downy hairs on the leaves, come exclusively from the youngest buds on the top of the plant, and are unfermented. As soon as tea leaves are cut, they begin a chemical process known as oxidation or fermentation that increases the flavors and caffeine present in the plant, and decreases the level of antioxidants. Twisting or pressing the leaves hastens the process, while heating them halts it. In white teas, the leaves are steamed immediately after being cut to preserve their natural flavors. They may then be set to dry alongside other natural botanicals such as jasmine or mandarin blossoms in order to absorb those scents.
Another type of unfermented teas is oolongs. While the chemical process is the same, they are made with older leaves taken from lower on the plants. Green teas are partially fermented. They have more flavor than the unfermented varieties, but still remain relatively low in caffeine and high in antioxidants. Black teas, which are fermented as fully as possible, are the richest and darkest teas, highest in caffeine.
SIZE DOES MATTER
Whatever style of tea you prefer, experts insist the size of the leaf matters.
“What you get if you buy a box of Lipton or something, is what they call tea fannings, which are like the dust of what has settled or broken off of whole tea leaves,” explains Carolyn Johnson, who blends her own teas at her Las Vegas company Indie Tea. “It all starts out whole, but through handling or whatnot you get the tea dust, and that goes into tea bags. So there are different cuts of the tea leaves.”
At her company, she says, “I wanted to focus on the whole leaves, because I think you get a lot more flavor out of that and it just tastes so much better.”
Johnson says the size of leaves or buds is also an important factor in herbal teas. Peppermint or chamomile teas, for example, will taste better if the producer uses whole peppermint leaves or chamomile flowers rather than shavings.
PREPARATION IS THE FATHER OF INSPIRATION
Once you’ve chosen your tea, it’s important to properly prepare it. All teas are basically steeped the same way. About one teaspoon of leaves for each cup of tea being brewed is placed into hot water. They can be placed directly in the water and strained out before drinking, or placed into some type of diffuser with a built-in strainer. The way they’re diffused and strained has no bearing on the quality of your tea, but the temperature of the water and the time the leaves steep does.
“A lot of times people brew it too long, or steep certain types of tea too hot, and kind of wreck it for themselves,” says Johnson, who notes doing that can make a tea taste bitter.
But the proper steeping temperature and time depends on where you are. The Japanese never remove the leaves, in order to bring out more of the tannins, or what they call the “golden notes” of the tea. In India, the tradition of chai teas involves boiling tea with assorted spices for long periods of time. But Western tradition holds that boiling water is too hot for steeping real tea (although it is appropriate for herbal teas), and leaves should be removed from the water quickly. If you’re making tea at home, you’ll need a thermometer to test the water temperature.
Green teas require the lowest temperature and shortest amount of time: 180 degrees Fahrenheit for one minute, while white teas are best steeped at that same temperature for three minutes. Oolongs are best at 200 degrees for three minutes. And black teas require 210 degrees (just two degrees shy of boiling) for two to three minutes.
Once you’ve made your tea, the next question is what condiments to put into it. The tradition of adding milk, sugar, honey or even jams to tea is a holdover from days when storage conditions were poor, and the condiments were needed to mask the unpleasant tastes leaves absorbed during transport. Today, the experts recommend enjoying green, white, and oolong teas plain. Milk, sweeteners and lemon are, however, considered proper with black teas. But use milk rather than cream, which contains more fat and will curdle in hot tea.
Ultimately, of course, the type of tea you choose, the way you prepare it, and the way you serve it are all a matter of personal taste. Experimenting with them to find your likes and dislikes can be as much fun as exploring new types of wine — without the hangover.
A spot of tea at all the city’s hottest tea spots
If you want to experience tea in style, a few of Las Vegas’ top resorts provide that opportunity. Here are some of the best.
Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas
The resort’s tea lounge, located in the hotel’s 23rd floor Sky Lobby, offers more than 20 types of tea and an amazing view of The Strip seven days a week. They offer traditional English afternoon tea daily, paring tea with a selection of miniature sandwiches, scones, spreads, and pastries. There’s a grown up version that includes French champagne, and a kid’s version.
The resort also offers the traditional Chinese Gung Fa Cha service. Literally meaning “making tea with effort,” this is a five-step process in which a server expertly warms your traditional clay cups and pots with boiling water several times at your table before steeping and serving the tea. www.mandarinoriental.com
Bellagio Las Vegas
Accompanied by a live piano player, the resort’s caviar lounge, Petrosian, has afternoon tea service with a choice of a dozen loose or bagged teas, choice of sandwiches, scones and pastries, with or without sparkling wine. www.bellagio.com
Four Seasons Las Vegas
Every Monday through Friday, afternoon tea is available in the Verandah Lounge featuring a choice of nine teas, scones, and a seasonal assortment of sandwiches and pastries. You can also add champagne or a green tea martini. www.fourseasons.com/lasvegas
Luxor Las Vegas
Tender Steakhouse offers a post-meal tea featuring a selection of six teas, garnished with chocolate shavings, candied lemon, and orange zest. www.luxor.com