Cynthia Gold is a tea sommelier at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel. In our last interview she discussed the history and culture of tea. Now she’ll help the tea enthusiast navigate the ever-growing landscape of tea merchants, accessories, and both local and online resources.
Q: For a coffee drinker wanting to switch to tea, which teas would you recommend?
(and would it depend on whether they are a mild or French roast drinker?)
For people used to the intensity and richness of coffee, especially if they enjoy milk in their coffee, breakfast blends (English Breakfast, Irish Breakfast, Scottish Breakfast, etc) are often a good place to start. For unblended teas, Chinese Keemun, Northern Indian Assam, Southern Indian Nilgiri and low grown Sri Lankan teas are excellent choices. Another popular choice, which is NOT a true tea but an herbal, would be a roasted mate.
Q: Do you drink coffee?
People are often surprised to hear this, but yes, I do. Sometimes if I’m looking for a quick caffeine push, especially early in the morning, it’s coffee I turn to. If I have time to relax with it and savor a good cup, then it would be tea. It also depends on the quality of what is available. I tend to choose good fresh coffee over mediocre tea, and unfortunately, mediocre tea is still what you find in many establishments. Fortunately however, this is changing!
Q: The Boston Park Plaza hotel holds afternoon tea every Friday through Sunday (3-5 PM, Grand Lobby). Would you mind offering a little advice for those who may be intimidated by afternoon tea?
There is nothing to be intimidated about. Tea can be as formal or as relaxed as you enjoy, and good service should be about meeting your needs and your comfort level. That should be attentive, but not intimidating. If you go to an establishment with snooty service, that is an establishment that doesn’t have enough respect for their guests and doesn’t deserve your patronage! If you accidentally use the wrong silver for a course, they’ll replace it when needed…no worries! If it’s not the service but the tea itself that one finds intimidating, ask questions. Ideally, come in for a tea tasting to learn more about tea so that you can find the styles of tea that you most enjoy.
Q: Boston’s relationship with tea is steeped (ha, haaa) in history. One of the more unique items in the city is the giant 227-gallon teapot on the Sears Block at the top of Court Street, made in 1873 for the Oriental Tea Company. Are there any other tidbits of history that you’d like to share?
Well of course one can visit the site of the ‘original’ tea party. Another lesser known place of interest is the US headquarters for Salada tea that was built in Boston in 1917. They installed the most amazing bronze doors at the entrance. You can still see these doors which are over 12 feet tall and depict the early history of the tea trade at the old Salada Tea Building at 330 Stuart Street in Boston.
Q: What are some of your favourite spots in Boston to enjoy tea?
You mean besides the hotel??? Seriously, a great place to enjoy a good cup of tea is Dado Tea House with 2 locations in Cambridge.
Q: Some online shops have become portals to the tea world. Adagio Teas and Lupicia USAare two such shops. Are there any other online shops that you feel bring quality and education to the tea consumer? What about mass merchants such as Teavana?
Teavana has some beautiful teaware, so it’s worth the visit for that. I often recommend Upton Tea Importers. They have a spectacular selection of Darjeeling teas, but all of their teas are fresh and fairly priced. They are wonderful people to deal with as well!
Q: Beyond shops, sites such as Steepster.com foster a sense of community among tea drinkers. Is there a local “tea guild” of enthusiasts and connoisseurs that someone can join?
If someone is really serious about learning about tea, I recommend the Specialty Tea Institute and their certification level courses. Information can be found on the website for the Tea Association of the USA. As to local enthusiasts groups, I’m afraid I don’t follow them, so although I’m sure there are some wonderful ones out there, I wouldn’t know which ones to recommend.
Q: Many merchants are making their own blends. Locally, tea merchants feature seasonal blends and personal favourites (TeaLuxe’s Creme de la Earl Grey was a favourite of mine). Online, sites such as 52Teas.com push the boundaries of reason with wild concoctions. What are some of your signature blends? What’s the craziest tea blend you’ve ever attempted? And where can the public buy one of your blends?
Currently I’m only blending for the Park Plaza or periodic charity groups and events. Our blends are available via the hotel only. Our most popular are the 80th Anniversary Blend which is a blend of 4 black teas, 2 green and a hint of citrus and jasmine, and the Plaza Autumn Reverie which is a blend of 5 different black teas and a touch of fruit (peach), chinese herb (gynostema) and flower petals (chrysanthemum). My tea blends tend not to be too crazy as I prefer subtle ingredients that highlight the tea rather than take center stage, although I have done some rather unusual custom blends for specific events. My tea cocktails however can push all sorts of envelopes!!
Q: Electric kettles are adored for their ease of use. Do you use an electric kettle? Do you have suggestions for particular kettles?
I’m in love with the zojirushi hot pots which can be adjusted to a variety of critical water temps. I use them when I do offsite classes or lectures and I use one at home as well.
Q: Steeping tea is very important. Do you ever use tea bags or sachets? Tea infusers? How much room do leaves need to unleash their flavour?
Expansion room is critical, and depending on the leaf size and roll style, the amount it expands can vary dramatically. I don’t recommend those little teaballs that everyone seems to have in their kitchen drawer, but large infuser baskets can be quite handy as long as they are made from a reasonably fine mesh or nylon. Avoid the ceramic ones with large drilled holes as the broken leaves can flow out of, or clog the holes. The make your own tea bags, like T-Sacs can be handy, but use larger sizes than recommended on the box to make sure you have plenty of expansion room.
These days there are better and better teabags out there, although you’ll never find the best teas in a bag. One application where the bags can be handy is to assure that you have the desired blend of leaves and added components. In blends, smaller or heavier components can fall to the bottom of the mix over time, so if you don’t stir them up regularly, you might not be getting the blend as it was designed. Individual bags guarantee that settling won’t be a worry for your blend.
Q: Sweeteners have changed dramatically in recent years. Some purists still insist on only using sugar, while others enjoy sweeteners, agave, or honey. What do you suggest for those with sweet tooths?
Personally, I rarely add sweeteners of any sort, and I’d recommend avoiding artificial sweeteners, but in the end, it comes down to what a person most enjoys. The one thing that I request is that one always taste before adding anything, and then deciding what and how much you would prefer by taste, not out of habit.
Q: Very few Americans note a difference between a coffee mug and a tea mug. The latter, of course, has thin, tapered sides to allow tea to “fall” into the drinker’s mouth, much like the delicate sides of a teacup. Do you feel it’s important to have the proper teacup or tea mug with which to drink tea? Or does any mug serve the purpose?
I prefer a thinner ceramic or china, but again, personal preference should prevail. One should try to avoid paper cups, especially ones with any coating and please please please: don’t ever use Styrofoam!!
Q: Beyond avoiding light and heat, how do you recommend storing tea?
You need to avoid moisture and air as well. The reclosable pouches that you can push the air out of are a good choice. Those beautiful decorative tea tins and caddies typically leave a lot of air up against your teas. They are best for short term storage only. If you have clear jars, make sure to store them in a dark cabinet. Don’t store tea in that convenient cabinet above the stove! It may be close to your kettle, but the temperature changes are sure to decrease the shelf life of your teas. And never never scoop out more tea with a wet teaspoon.
Q: Any final thoughts?
Since freshness is so important for all but the aged teas, you should also buy conservatively. Don’t stock up. Better to buy the smallest amount you can of all but the favorites that you drink constantly. Then keep buying fresh. It may be tempting to buy larger amounts to save on the purchase price, but if those teas are sitting around for 6 months or a year, you are doing yourself (and the teas) a disservice.
The Boston Park Plaza features Afternoon Tea every Friday – Sunday from 3:00pm – 5:00pm in the Grand Lobby. Reservations recommended; call 617-654-1906.
This article first appeared on Examiner.com.