I didn’t grow up drinking tea. As a child, I had a big bowl of café au lait with plenty of sugar every morning, eventually graduating to espresso as a teenager. Until I was in my twenties, the closest I ever came to tea was soothing tisanes made with chamomile or linden blossoms when I had an upset stomach and couldn’t get to sleep. Tea was something the English did, and we, the French, would have none of it.
One summer, broke and between steady jobs, I worked in a small hotel in the mountains of Corsica, where I was something less than a waitress but more than a chambermaid. In the kitchen’s massive fireplace, there was a nail on which tea bags were hung to dry for reuse in case a customer was crazy enough to order this outlandish beverage. When I moved to Atlanta, I found that iced tea made my teeth hurt and gave me the jitters. And as a restaurant reviewer, I firmly believe that anyone who pays $3.50 for a tea bag dumped by a waiter in a cup of lukewarm water is the biggest fool.
Yet, thanks mostly to ethnic restaurants and a few inspiring shops, I have discovered my inner tea drinker. Moroccan mint tea, strong coppery Persian tea sipped through cubes of sugar, black Russian tea mixed with jam, Indian chai boiled with milk—I love them all and order them whenever I can. But the teas I truly worship and can’t live without come mostly from Japan and China.
Connie Miller of Zen Tea in Chamblee imparts extraordinary knowledge without a hint of geekiness. Official tastings are held every Friday, but Miller can’t help herself: She is like a Cheers
barmaid with a hint of meditative enlightenment, shaking leaves into a canister lid, encouraging you to admire and smell the delicacy of a white organic pai mu tan (her favorite) or the brightness of matcha green tea powder mixed with green tea leaves and pearls of toasted rice. Before you know it, you will have five or six cups in front of you, perhaps alongside an iced green tea latte or a tea spritzer in a stemmed glass.
Miller brews her teas using two Japanese hot-water dispensers kept at constant temperatures and a little digital timer. Like her, I believe that infusing tea leaves too long or using too much heat results in the kind of bitterness people refer to when they say they don’t like tea.
In a totally different, less technical genre, Dr. Bombay’s in Candler Park offers more than forty teas and, every afternoon, a very British high tea with cream, jam, scones, cookies, cupcakes, and tea sandwiches. Katrell Christie, the shop’s co-owner, recently spent a month and a half in India meeting with fair-trade tea growers, pickers, and importers, as well as setting up charities to support a destitute school near Darjeeling and fund a college education for orphan girls at risk of entering the sex trade. Christie came back from her journey with a new perspective on life—and a duffel bag full of Darjeeling tea.
As for me, I am still learning new tastes every day. I follow in the footsteps of my friend Tze Fong Li, who knows to ask for premium teas in the Chinese restaurants he frequents (Cafe 101, for example, has an especially fine high-mountain Taiwanese tea from Jiangsu’s lake region and some exceptional oolongs).
Because of everything I’ve learned, I have one word for our fancy hotels who present an ornate wooden box of tea bags as if it were something special: Don’t. Vital Statistics
Zen Tea 5356 Peachtree Road, Chamblee, 678-547-0877, ezentea.com
Dr. Bombay’s Under-water Tea Party 1645 McLendon Avenue, 404-474-1402, drbombays.com
Cafe 101 5412 Buford Highway, Doraville, 770-458-8883, cafe101atlanta.com Photograph by Emily Dryden