Tea. We dilute it with ice, froth it into lattes, swirl it into smoothies and drown it in heavy cream and sugar. That Americans are so eager to pervert 3,000 years of culture, ritual and history is perplexing; maybe that whole "Boston Tea Party" ordeal still doesn't sit right. Still, there's a renaissance afoot in Chicagoland, a network of loose-leaf-loving aficionados thinking outside of the bag, no cream and sugar needed.
Monkey-picked Wulong at Dream About Tea
Grown high in Fujiyan's Wuyi Mountains, the tea's name stems from an ancient lore about monks who trained wild monkeys to climb the tallest trees and harvest the leaves. Earthy and sweet, "monkey picked" teas have been revered by tea connoisseurs for centuries, and Dream About Tea gives the casual drinker a chance to experience the delicate brew kung-fu style.
No, they don't make you fight for it; kung-fu refers to a traditional Chinese tea-drinking ceremony. Loose, whole leaves are placed in a small clay pot and steeped in 190-degree water for one minute. The resulting liquid is poured into a tiny porcelain cup, which the drinker caps with a slightly larger cup and then flips the conjoined vessels, transferring the tea into the drinking cup. This might seem like a lot of work, but the ritual allows you to slow down and appreciate every nuance the Wulong has to offer. Ceremonies start at $22.95 for two people; nab a mug of the stuff for only $4.50.
Greenhouse at Hi Tea
It can be daunting for a habitual coffee drinker to make the jump into tea territory. All those leaves unfurl into a scary jungle to navigate, prompting many first-timers to dabble with such ludicrous concoctions as chai lattes. But head to the South Loop's most knowledgeable tea shop, and you’ll be swapping morning beverages in no time.
Hi-Tea is chiefly concerned with helping people understand and eventually adore tea culture. Each varietal on the seemingly endless menu has gone through a grueling selection process; an indecisive customer wouldn't stand a chance if not for the staff's near-clairvoyant guidance. As far as transitional teas go, the Greenhouse blend has all the goods. Made from first-flush (meaning harvested early for a light color and less bitterness) Darjeeling and organic Sencha, which adds sweet tones and a gorgeous green hue, this tea is aromatic, earthy and gentle on a novice’s palate. Priced $3 to $4 a cup, it'll be your gateway drug.
Pyramid of the Sun at My Place for Tea
Want something warm and soothing without the requisite caffeine jolt? Look to the array of Rooibos blends at My Place. While grocery-store tisanes are sullied with artificial flavoring or stale rinds of freeze-dried fruit, this tea shop customizes each flavor in-house. Frequently referred to as Red Bush, or simply Red Tea, this South African favorite actually stems from the legume family, and can be accented with everything from flower petals to chocolate bits.
Blended with cinnamon, coconut, orange peels and bits of chili peppers, the Pyramid of the Sun variety at My Place is quite the inspired potpourri. Sweet and delicate, with just the right touch of spice, the brilliant ruby infusion packs in antioxidants and free-radical-zapping flavonoids. Proprietors Enrico and Minerva regularly hold lectures about the health-boosting benefits of the beverage and periodically offer yoga classes, which are, of course, immediately followed by tea tastings.
1997 Vintage Bamboo-scented Pu-erh at NoMI
Aged in caves, vintage Pu-erhs are harvested from ancient tea trees in Yunnan, China. Because growing conditions can vary so much from year to year, tea harvests (much like grape harvests) can sometimes yield particularly impressive vintages that aficionados scramble to acquire. Similarly, the cave-aging process is much like barrel-aging wine, in that it controls the environment to protect tea from odors, humidity and temperature.
NoMI's Pu-erhs date from 1949 to 2000, a collection impressive enough to warrant needing a tea sommelier. The 1985 Royal Reserve comes priced at $250 per pot, but you don't need to dole out that kind of cash to sample high-caliber teas. The 1997 Vintage Bamboo-Scented Pu-erh might only cost $22, but it's worth every cent. Stuffed into fresh bamboo shoots, it was aged for over seven years to achieve an earthy, woodsy taste. Drinking aged teas isn't all about status; Pu-erh allegedly has numerous medicinal benefits, most notably in the aid of digestion.
Take your tea to go
Ten Ren Tea and Ginseng Co.
Nestled into the heart of Chinatown, this little sundry-shop is a tea lover's paradise. Tell the staff here about whatever ails you, and they'll recommend a tea with curative properties.
Coffee & Tea Exchange
If you aren't quite ready to brave Ten Ren and think you're strong enough to resist a heavy fair-trade coffee aroma, try the Coffee and Tea Exchange. From simple English Breakfast to Hairy Crab Oolong, it boasts a great selection.