It's rare to find a person who has never had a cup of tea. Tea has been around for more than 5,000 years and is second only to water as the world's most popular drink. Chris Chantler, co-owner of Vail Mountain Coffee & Tea, likes to joke about how tea was invented. According to legend, the emperor of China accidentally dropped a leaf into his hot water and, voila: the first cup of tea. Since that first sip, tea has transformed into a global empire of its own. Recently, many whole-leaf tea businesses have opened in the U.S."The whole tea industry has gone through a revolution in the last five years," Chantler said. "It's probably one of the fastest-growing segments of the hot beverage industry."Chantler said quality whole leaf tea is like wine, in that where it comes from and how it's grown have a big impact on the taste. The vast majority of tea comes from tea gardens in India, China, Japan and other parts of Asia. Due to the climate, tea is difficult to grow in North America. U.S. tea companies such as Vail Mountain Coffee & Tea focus on finding the best-tasting tea before anyone else has a chance to snatch it up."It's about having connections throughout the world (in order) to have an opportunity to bid on special lots of tea," Chantler said.Learning to taste the differenceIf the first brand that comes to mind when you think of tea is Lipton, think again. Tea is no longer just a way to flavor hot water. Loose-leaf tea drinking is slowly making its way into the American mainstream as more and more people become educated on the subject."You (have) to understand some of the characteristics of what makes a tea interesting and what makes a tea different," Chantler said. "You're looking for a tea that's sweet, smooth, with no bitter aftertaste that can stand up on its own without anything being added to it."Chantler said all types of tea come from just two different plants. How the leaves are pressed, oxidized and dried is what creates the difference between white, green, oolong and black teas. Although many think green tea contains the most antioxidants, black tea actually has the same concentration of antioxidants as the green variety. If you're looking to increase your dosage of antioxidants by drinking tea, hold off on the additives. Chantler said that once you add sugar or milk to tea, it neutralizes the antioxidant benefits.Heating up your cup in the microwave is also frowned upon, as tea connoisseurs believe the best way to drink tea is to brew it loose-leaf, without any type of bag."The upgrade in quality from a tea bag to whole leaf is like going from Boone's Farm to Dom Perignon," Chantler said. "A lot of people have been drinking green tea in tea bags for years and not really enjoying it. Once you taste a green tea that's brewed properly, people realize it's really good for (them), and it tastes absolutely delicious."
Some local restaurants have decided to toss out tea bags and offer a more refined tea-drinking experience. At Larkspur in Vail, tea is a centerpiece of the menu."They say the three worst words in the restaurant industry are 'hot tea, please' because of the amount of work it takes," said owner and chef Thomas Salamunovich. "It's quite a process for our service staff when people order tea. It's actually one of the more complicated things we do."Salamunovich sees tea as more than just a way to warm up after being outside in the cold. Tea has a history and a ritual to it that can enhance our daily lives."It's an indulgence that makes you slow down," Salamunovich said. "There's a romance about (tea), and it has such complexities of flavor."Salamunovich also thinks tea has a cleansing quality to it, making it the perfect drink to pair with a meal."Tea affects our palate (and) can really wake up our taste buds," Salamunovich said.Angelica Palladino, food and beverage director at the Four Seasons in Vail, wants to change people's outdated image of tea to something more alive and invigorating."We don't want people to only associate tea with old ladies sitting around the patio having scones and hot tea," Palladino said. "We want to make it accessible to everyone at every age. People are very willing to try a different kind of wine, but with tea, (they're) more traditional. It's about introducing people to tea for a different experience, without feeling like it's something formal or old-fashioned."
The biggest challenge for many tea enthusiasts isn't introducing people to quality whole-leaf brews but getting them to switch from that other popular hot beverage: coffee."The caffeine punch in coffee is so intense," Salamunovich said. "It's a drug and people are addicted to it. Tea is more subtle and subtleties always take longer. Anything that's sophisticated takes time, from opera to dance to food and beverages. It's very easy to make things taste good with sugars and a lot of seasoning. Tea is an artisanal that should be celebrated and enjoyed."Unlike other beverages, tea has a mystery and serenity to it that extends beyond its physical effects on the body."Tea puts you more in harmony with the beauty around you," Palladino said. "It's like meditation in a cup for me."