I am a coffee girl. I like cappuccinos, macchiatos and lattes. I know what my perfect cup is, and I drink it more than I drink water -- that’s a different health issue we’ll tackle later.
But lately, everyone and their mother has been listing tea as their go-to beverage. And I just don’t understand the obsession. Why? What’s so great about it? Why does my floormate squeal like a little kid on Christmas morning when her parents send her tea bags? How do you even make tea?
Okay, maybe that last one is going a little too far. But you catch my drift.
I set out into Columbia to figure out exactly why people swear by tea; and I attempted to convert this hardcore-Starbucks addict (Veranda Blend, ladies and gentlemen) to a bona fide tea girl.
Stop One: Coffee Zone
N. 9th Street, by the Blue Note
This was the first stop of the morning, and I was feeling those nerves. When I got to the bar, which is literally, a bar (it’s vintage, hipster and fabulous), I just asked the barista for the most popular tea drink and to make it how he takes his tea. And he did.
For just $2 I got a very tall and large cup of Stassen Pure Ceylon Jasmine Green Tea. He also added a squirt of honey for about four seconds or so (at first he asked me to say “when,” but quickly realized that I was about as clueless as him. It was comical).
At Coffee Zone, they have a fantastic selection of teas. From blacks to greens and fruit mixtures to everything in between – it’s all displayed right behind the bar. It can be a lot to take in. Just ask the barista, and decide what you like from there. Their staff is knowledgeable and helpful and made this experience much less painful for me than it could have been.
Lesson Number One:
Tea is hot. You’d think that as a coffee girl for life, I’d know this. But no. I decided to take a preliminary sip after only about two minutes of cooling the tea. This is dumb. This is stupid.
You know they make tea with boiling water, right? Yeah, I know.
It’s revolutionary. And painful.
Lesson Number Two:
My friend Lydia, a barista back home and my personal guide for the day, made a point to remind me that the longer I leave the tea bag in the water/tea mixture, the stronger it will taste. I think the proper verb is “to steep.” As in, “don’t let the tea steep for too long.”
Are you taking notes?
When it finally cooled, I took my first sip. It smelled calming, peaceful and light, and it tasted the same. What struck me was how I could taste the water behind all that tea taste – it was surprising and refreshing.
The honey made the tea sweeter and added a lightness to the already earthy taste. One thing I couldn’t take was the after-taste. Maybe it’s just a tea thing I’ll have to get used to. I am a rookie, after all.
Personally, the tea was a little too sweet for me, but definitely one of the better green teas I had ever tasted.
Stop Two: Bubble Cup
23 9th Street
After finishing most of my green tea, Lydia and I walked up the street a way to Bubble Cup. We spoke with Jocelyn Kuo, the barista about the business. Boba tea is basically tea with quite a hefty serving of milk mixed together and served in a cup with a vacuum-sealed top (fair warning: sticking the straw through this top requires a some moxie; just go for it.)
But Boba tea wins uniqueness points, because at the bottom of the cup are little brown squishy tapioca balls called (wait for it) — Boba! These are all the rage in Taiwan and have slowly made their progression through the U.S. until finding a safe haven in Columbia’s tea drinking niche.
Boba tastes a lot like whatever tea they accompany. Essentially, they’re tasteless, so chomping on one can be a little bit of an unsettling experience. Generally, I liked them. They’re chewy like gummy bears and sweet in the center.
Keep in mind that the straw included with Boba tea is large for a reason. The intention is that as you sip the tea, the Boba randomly travel up the straw and – SURPRISE – you sometimes get a little Boba with every sip.
The list of hot, cold and Boba teas in the colorful, bright Bubble Cup shop can be intimidating. Where to start? I played it safe and asked for the most popular choice, which happened to be Thai iced tea with Boba (the Boba balls are an optional choice, and you can always opt out if the texture is just too much).
The Thai iced tea is this fantastically bright orange color with brown little Boba balls in the bottom of the cup. And for just over $4, it’s a lot of tea. It’ll last the average thirsty tea-drinker a good half a day or at least a few hours of leisurely sipping.
In fact, this was probably my favorite tea of the morning. It tasted a little bit like iced coffee, so that’s definitely a big reason. This drink is an easy bridge from iced coffee to tea, especially for curious coffee addicts. If you’re nervous about the distinctly tea-y taste of regular tea, try Bubble Cup, and I especially recommend the Thai iced tea. It’ll satisfy your curiosity and won’t scare you away from the prospect of more well-known cups of brew, like Earl Grey.
Bubble Cup had given me hope that, perhaps, one day, I too could be a super-hip, interesting, Why-Yes-Sometimes-I’ll-Take-Tea person.
Enter the most well-known and intimidating tea of all: Earl Grey Tea.
Stop Three: Kaldi’s
29 S. 9th Street
Kaldi’s is pretty well-known in Columbia, so I was surprised when the teas weren’t posted on the menu above the counter. When I asked for the “organic tea” that was listed, I was handed a small Tea Menu, on which were basic types of teas and their notes, ingredients and flavors.
I settled on traditional Earl Grey tea because I had yet to purchase it and because I felt a moral obligation to try at least one black tea during my adventure. The $2.50 cup felt like a great deal, because the portion was huge. Not once at any of these locations did I ever feel even slightly ripped off.
When the barista handed it to me, I was warned that it was very hot (oh, the irony) and that I should let the bag steep (VOCABULARY!) for approximately four and a half minutes. Let me also add that the staff was very helpful and sweet in helping me pick my tea. I definitely felt more at home in the warm, open and comfortable spaces in Kaldi’s. (It would make a great study spot *hint, hint*).
Of course, I didn’t leave my sass at the counter when I picked up my tea. It smelled, and I quote myself here, “like England.” I also felt the irrepressible need to suddenly buy a scone and talk about the Queen.
The barista shut me up by adding 2 teaspoons of honey to the cup and stirred. (Side note: One thing I’ve really come to dislike about tea, it seems to take forever to cool. Maybe that’s just me? Coffee always seems more schedule-friendly. I can’t wait for this thing to cool all day.)
Finally, when the tea cooled to not-boiling temperature, I got to taste it.
You know... I may not be an Earl Grey person.
It was stronger, more tangy and bolder than the green tea. They could’ve been cousins, but if green tea was the calm, normal cousin, Earl Grey was the cousin who took surprise trips to Vegas on Thursdays. It was something I could see myself drinking – no, sipping – on a rainy day. You don’t rush Earl Grey tea. It felt warm and spicy, and the honey was essential for me (as were a few additional packets of Splenda) to drink it comfortably without making these faces...
But as ambivalent as I was to the Earl Grey, Lydia, our resident tea expert for the day, tried some and said it was “very good.” So “tea people” like this tea.
I was getting a little hysterical at this point, so Lydia decided to take the tea away from me after I finished half a cup. (In her defense, comparing black tea to “tyranny” and coffee to “freedom” à la the Revolutionary War and the Boston Tea Party probably wasn’t the sanest thing I’ve ever said.)
The most important thing for any coffee addict to remember, however, as they dip their toes into the world of Tea People is this:
You tried. You got out of your caffeine-induced comfort zone and took a risk. You may end up like me and learn that green tea is incredibly delicious, but that Thai iced tea will always be a favorite.
Remember that there is also nothing wrong with giving up and going to Starbucks (or Panera).
Yeah, it might burn your tongue, you might hate the taste and you might whine through the experience. But you might also accidentally stumble upon one of your new favorite things.
And in that case, if that happens...
By: Alise Murawski
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