As with any other commodity that alters your state of mind—wine, beer, weed, or otherwise—my general philosophy when buying coffee and tea tends to be: The more expensive, the better it probably tastes.
Thus, I've been spending more money on fancy teas lately—in particular, matcha green tea powder and obscure loose leaf tea varietals that I can't pronounce correctly. This is because caffeinating myself with coffee, which I still do every weekday, often involves me going down a vicious rabbit hole of amplified anxiety and an increased heartbeat without any changes in my exhaustion level whatsoever. And something tells me that I'm not the only one who is trying to transition to the less-jittery kind of high that tea provides.
Which is why I found myself inside the American Tea Room one afternoon, gingerly sipping on a glass bowl full of matcha tea dusted with a 23-karat gold leaf and a glass of En Shi Jade Dew green tea that goes for $1,145 a pound. I was there to see if my totally unscientific approach to buying expensive stuff that makes you happy also applies to the world of tea.
"This has a really great bright, piney, mountain flavor, and it's almost chocolatey," said Jordan G. Hardin, American Tea Room's beverage director. (Those are almost the exact same set of terms that I would apply to a good, splurge-worthy beer, by the way.) Hardin walked me through a tasting of this thousand-dollar tea, which naturally involves a big whiff of the dried tea leaves first. "More expensive teas will have a higher amount of tea buds in it, like this one." Yet again, another characteristic that can be applied to good weed and good IPAs.
We then took a whiff of the tea as it was steeping, which smelled like a glass of warm, full-fat milk. I took my first sip and immediately let out a loud "What the fuck, this is crazy!" The flavor was so intense at first that it threw me off guard. It was creamy, thyme-like, and chocolatey all at the same time. "This tea is believed to have inspired Japan's sencha green tea style," Hardin note. After that, it was time for the second steeping, which is supposed to be another revelation in itself.
And it was. More anise-like that time, tasting kind of like tarragon. "This tea was harvested and processed right after the spring rains in China," said Hardin.
Then came a sip of of the baller-ass, gold-plated matcha tea, which is priced at $165 for a 30-gram tin. It is the reserve label from a family who has been making matcha tea for the last 400 years outside of Kyoto, apparently. It was smooth with a faint, stevia-like herbal sweetness (as opposed to matcha's usual, intensely bitter, espresso-for-horses taste). The sweetness grew as it got colder.
Americans taking tea more seriously is correlated with the recent explosion of third-wave coffee shops in the country.
This temporary tea-induced nirvana opened up a can of worms for Hardin. Apparently, Asia doesn't like to share its true, top-shelf shit with the US because it thinks we coffee-guzzling American idiots don't know how to value the good stuff. "Most insanely great quality teas in China will never be sent to the US; they don't think we know anything about it. They are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in China. This is their culture, after all."
Hardin theorized that Americans taking tea more seriously is correlated with the recent explosion of third-wave coffee shops in the country. "With so many of those, some people are also looking into the world of tea and seeing what is happening in this world." He's already received a few new customers that spilled over from long lines at the Stumptown coffee shop a block away. "Coffee is great and I love to drink it, but there is a narrow range of flavors when it comes to coffee. With tea, you have a lot more possible flavor variations, five to six more to be exact."
Hardin added that if I were to drink ten cups of coffee per day, people would probably tell me to see a doctor. "[But] if you drink ten cups of tea a day, people will probably commend you for being so healthy," he said.
"American tea culture is on the way up. A lot of our customers are on the younger side, so I think that it is on the verge of blowing up," he concluded.
That's hard to deny, but the high-end teas probably won't ever go as mainstream as matcha. And after tasting them, I can say that these thousand-dollar varieties are worth the extra money—if you can afford it. (That leaves me out.) But you can still satisfy your craving with the everyday sticky-icky, mid-grade kush—err, I mean pu-erh.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in November, 2015.