Meaghan Anderson and Alex Stubenrach. Photo by Ann Culey/The Commuter.

Steep me a tall one

By Ann Culey

Trendy tea is more than a steeped beverage on Downton Abbey. Tea is a beverage that can be served hot or cold tea is still as trendy as it was centuries ago.

“Today tea is the No. 2 beverage in most of the world with the exception of the United States. It is in the top 6 here in the states,” says Mary Jean Clark, owner of Voila! In Frederick ~ Special Teas & Other Goodness in downtown Frederick, Md.

Tea can be a natural dye for old sheets to make a mummy costume or a child’s school project on Egyptian sarcophagi have that authentic appeal. And while tea is still used to soothe sore and swollen eyes it is also prescribed by the dentist. When Alex Stubenrauch, tea seller at Voila!, had teeth extracted her dentist gave her tea bags and said to use them to stop the bleeding from the open wound. The tannic acid in tea helps the blood to clot.

Tea is referenced in media ranging from Star Trek to Downton Abbey and even in Wolf of Wall Street. Many celebrity teas are now on the market.

“People come in and ask for Downton Abbey tea,” said Stubenrach. She said her brother asked her about the tea drank by the character Captain Jean-Luk Piccard on Star Trek, The Next Generation.

Meaghan Anderson, another tea seller at Voila!, says there are 5 main types of tea, black, green, white, long and yellow; each based on its region of origin and fermentation or oxidation. The process of rolling the dry leaves causing them to break and oxidize releases flavors and continues to develop until they are fired – heated – which gives them the autumnal color seen in consumer packaging.

There is often disagreement about what tea really is. It is made from the leaves of the camellia sinensis plant, an evergreen native to Asia.  Ingesting tea originated in southwestern China as a medicinal drink but was popularized as a recreational drink in the Chinese Tang Dynasty, 618 -907 AD. Today many other items are added to teas to make flavored teas from berries to flower buds to spices to dried fruit and even popcorn.

“Some people get picky about the dictionary definition of tea and even walk right past our traditional tea wall,” said Stubenrauch, “There are 70-80 traditional teas when we are fully stocked but the flavored teas are the ones people seem to notice most because they are the ones to sample and are by the front door.”

Revival has come to an older form of tea, now a trendy tea is Pu-erh. This post fermented black tea goes through further processing which gives it a deeper darker earthy flavors and smells much like a barnyard in its unsteeped form. It is often packaged in small cakes and can be used several times and does not get bitter as some teas only stronger.

A new tea option favored by coffee drinkers is cascara, Spanish for peel or skin of the fruit. Taking the waste left over outer covering of the coffee cherry, coffee beans are the ground seed of the fruit. Although it is coffee and not officially a tea it is still listed on menus as a tea and brewed the same way as tea.

One of the fun trends are flowering tea balls. A dried flower wrapped inside tea leaves is placed inside a teapot and steeped, as the bundle re-hydrates the leaves unfurl and resembles a flower blooming.

“My father first introduced me to tea as a young child. My first sip was pure magic!” said Mary Jean, owner of Voila!

Clark uses various teas as ingredients in mixed drinks she has for sampling to her over 21 customers on first Saturdays in the warmer months. Now with the holidays coming samplings will be those that pair well with chocolate and spiced holiday foods.

Tea has been thought of for millennia as a friendship beverage, something to be prepared and shared not in a fast manner but over time and talking, exchanging information or trading goods.

When asked what their favorite teas were Meaghan and Alex had similar stories.

“Alex’s Cranberry Pear Deliciousness” said Stubenrauch. She had tasted a new arrival and really liked it, when she returned from her vacation it bore her name.

“Meaghan’s French Toast,” said Anderson, “used to be maple toffee but I liked it so much she renamed it.”

On a rare vacation in Paris in September 2009 Clark kept discovering amazing little tea shops and thought it was worthwhile to bring this experience to Frederick, Md. Prior to opening in 2010 Clark tasted over 3000 teas but narrowed it down to 250 which has grown to over 350 teas.

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