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What Bartenders Should Know About Tea

Here's a primer on what to consider when adding the leafy stuff to your cocktails
Bergamot black tea syrup is an easy way to get some flavor -- and a little kick -- into a cocktail.
Bergamot black tea syrup is an easy way to get some flavor -- and a little energy boost -- into a cocktail. (Photo: Sarah Scarborough)

Tea is one of the world's most popular drinks. It's also a versatile and flavorful ingredient that can (and should) be a part of every bartender's arsenal, according to tea experts Robert Schinkel and Sarah Scarborough.

Schinkel, who's been bartending since he was 17, is global ambassador for Dilmah teas and founder of Pekoe Tea Liqueurs. Scarborough, who has been a tea buyer and consultant for companies like The Republic of Tea, is the founder of Firepot Nomadic Teas and author of Nomadic Tea Party. Both agree that a deeper knowledge of tea can expand your horizons behind the bar.

"Within the world of tea, there are so many flavors, colors and textures to play with," says Scarborough. "The sky is truly the limit as far as adding creative elements to your cocktail."

Much like with wine, spirits and liqueurs, ingredient education is the perfect starting point for developing an understanding of what tea can do for your cocktail program.

All tea comes from the same plant

Most people use the word tea rather loosely. Any assortment of dried herbs, flowers and fruit steeped in hot water might be called tea. But that's a bit of a misnomer. Strictly speaking, it's only tea if it's made from the camelia sinensis plant.

"According to the British tea tradition, there are five categories of tea: white tea, green tea, oolong tea, black tea and pu-erh tea," Schinkel says. "All are made from the same plant but treated differently after the picking of the leaves."

How those tea leaves are treated determines the type of tea they will become. Exposure to oxygen changes the shape and flavor of the leaves. In general, more oxidized leaves produce a stronger and darker type of tea.

White tea is the most delicate and light-bodied of all the varieties. It's minimally processed and dried through filtered sunlight. This unoxidized tea is subtle and slightly sweet. You might also see white tea under the name silvery tip pekoe.

Green tea has a light to medium flavor and aroma. Green tea is also unoxidized, but the leaves are either steamed or pan-fired shortly after picking to capture the fresh, grassy flavor. Matcha is the finely ground powder made from green tea. Sencha, gyokuro and gunpowder tea are also among the different types and preparations of green tea.

Oolong is a medium-bodied tea with a fruity character. It's semi-oxidized, meaning the leaves are allowed to dry but are then heated before they become fully oxidized. This traditional Chinese tea varies widely depending on where it's grown and how it's treated.

Black tea is the most common variety of tea and also the boldest. This type of tea is fully oxidized, which gives it a rich flavor and aroma. Darjeeling, English breakfast and Ceylon are names you might see when looking at black teas and black tea blends. Earl Gray and chai are black tea blended with other flavorings.

Pu-erh tea is the strongest in flavor and aroma. It's oxidized and is the only tea that's also fermented by letting the leaves age in a large pile. Complex and aged, this tea has an earthy quality. Pu-erh tea is often used medicinally or for weight loss.

Where the tea is grown matters

Terroir isn't a new concept to most bartenders. The environment that grapes, grains or agave grow in plays a big role in creating the character of a wine or spirit. This is true for tea plants as well. China, India, Kenya and Sri Lanka are the top tea-producing countries, although tea is grown all over the world. Each region imparts its own flavors to tea.

"High-grown tea regions like Darjeeling at the foot of the Himalayas in India or Nuwara Eliya in Sri Lanka produce very delicate, grassy and floral black teas," says Schinkel. While lower regions such as "Galle District in Sri Lanka and Assam in India produce malty, earthy and full-bodied teas."

A bartender doesn't need to memorize every area's nuances. But understanding the importance of terroir makes sourcing easier. Taste-testing a few different brands from different regions can let you know which one has the flavor profile that works best for your recipes.

"Tea is also a fun way to experiment with cocktails that evoke a place, like ... a Chinese cocktail that uses oolong or a Japanese cocktail with gyokuro [green tea] and Japanese whiskey," says Scarborough. "Because the element of terroir is so central to tea, you can convey the essence or taste of a place, using a tea from that place."

Tisanes are also complex ingredients, even if they're not officially tea

Branching out from the camelia sinensis plant, many of the herbal infusions we've come to know as tea are more accurately called tisanes. Popular tisanes include chamomile, hibiscus and rooibos, which is made from a red bush of the same name in South Africa. Like traditional teas, these infusions will expand your mixing possibilities.

"Everyone is talking about the butterfly pea flower tea that changes color when you add water, lemon" and other ingredients, says Scarborough. "Rooibos is brick red and has earthy and mineral qualities. It’s a full-bodied ingredient that works great for ice cubes or for the base of the tea, achieving both visual and flavor effects."

A Darjeeling fizz incorporates the famed black tea into a cocktail. A Darjeeling fizz incorporates the famed black tea into a cocktail. (Photo: Sarah Scarborough)

There are many ways to capture and use tea's flavor

If you're using brewed tea in a cocktail, Scarborough recommends brewing it at double or triple the strength so the flavor and aroma don't get lost. But that's not the only method for making tea a part of your cocktail program.

Schinkel likes to strain spirit-forward cocktails like the martini through tea leaves to give them a "subtle tea edge." He also recommends serving tea on the side of a sipping spirit.

Tea syrups and ice cubes are creative and often beautiful ways to incorporate tea into a cocktail. Scarborough steeps two tablespoons of bergamot black tea with a cup each of sugar and water for a simple syrup that pairs perfectly with prosecco. She also makes Darjeeling tea ice spheres to accompany her Darjeeling gin fizz.

Matching the flavor of tea with the cocktail will become second nature to bartenders who are used to complementing or emphasizing the flavor in a spirit with other ingredients. For example, the tannins and citrus notes in a black tea like Earl Grey work well with gin. Garnishes are another way to harness the power of tea.

"I’d love to see bartenders using teas as garnish," says Scarborough. "A tightly rolled oolong or Jasmine pearl will unfurl over the time it takes to drink a cocktail, adding a very unique and theatrical visual element to the experience."

Tea offers more than flavor

The world of flavors that can be found in tea are just the beginning. Aside from varying levels of caffeine, tea also contains antioxidants and compounds that effect mood and organ function.

"Tea is the one drink that gives you energy and relaxes you at the same time," says Schinkel. "Tea contains theanine which gives you energy, and it contains polyphenols that relax you."

When it comes to green tea, Scarborough talks about a state she calls being "tea drunk," a feeling of lightness, meditative focus, peace and wellness.

"Something I think bartenders should keep in mind that, like alcohol, tea is a substance with mood-altering components depending on the type of tea," she says. "This shouldn’t be ignored when blending cocktails because there are some really cool things you could do."

Whether guided by experts like Schinkel and Scarborough or through trial and error, bartenders can experiment not only with complementing a spirit's flavors but its effects.

"Teas can offer bartenders new and unexpected flavors, textures and colors," says Scarborough. "It adds a bit of something extraordinary, really making your cocktails unique."

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