Tea can be so simple - drop the leaves in heated water for a couple of minutes and drink. Yet drinking tea can also seem to be complex, particularly to those just beginning to develop an appreciation for tea.
On this page are some of the most frequently asked questions we hear at the Zen Tara Tea shop from our customers. If you have a question that isn't answered below or on our website, please feel free to reach out to us with your questions through our form on the "Contact Us" page of our website.
Click on the questions below to expand and reveal the answers.
QUESTION: Is there really a difference between tea bag teas and loose teas?
ANSWER: Yes, although the quality has been getting better with some recent tea bag teas. Tea is still in a bit of an incubation period here in the U.S. and we are going through a learning curve in appreciating the difference between higher quality loose teas and what in the past was dramatically poorer quality tea bag tea. For decades, in many stores in the U.S. these lower quality tea bags were virtually the only choice for consumers.
For tea, this was a time period similar to what coffee was like before companies like Starbucks ame along - there were only a few ground coffee brands in cans on the grocers shelves, plus an even smaller selection of freeze dried instant coffees. Eventually, with the rise of the specialty coffee business, whole bean and higher quality ground coffees became more common in the U.S., largely riding the wave of popularity of newer coffee shops serving better selections of coffee. Eventually, almost every grocery retailer began selling whole bean coffee that customers could grind and pack in the store or at their home. Better coffee had arrived.
The same evolution is now happening with tea. We are learning to appreciate the immense flavor difference between fresh brewed whole leaf loose tea versus tea bags filled with small tea dust or finely chopped tea leaves which have lost much of their original flavor.
Recently companies have introduced new configurations of tea bags and begun improving the quality of the tea inside. While these pyramid shaped bags do allow larger tea and herbal ingredients to be used in the bag, they are still restricted by packaging and store shelving requirements. Boxes of tea bags also tend to sit around longer and usually cannot match the freshness and premium flavor of loose tea. Like with most foods, when preparation and convenience take a food further away from its' original state, the quality of the food usually suffers.
QUESTION: Why has Zen Tara Tea chosen to offer such a large selection of organically and sustainably grown and processed teas?
ANSWER: It was a difficult decision, especially for our small company, but we felt it was important to make the commitment to do the right thing despite the challenges. While some teas undergo a steaming or heating step in their processing, in many cases tea leaves are plucked, withered, oxidized and dried, then packaged for delivery to the customer - the first time the tea leaves touch water and is when they are infused in your cup. Organically grown and processed teas avoid the possibility of significant residual chemicals and pesticides.
In addition to the safeguards built into the organic certification process (which isn't problem-free), we also try and either visit the tea growers ourselves to see how the estate operates or work with established importers who regularly visit their grower partners.
Ultimately, we made a choice to focus on quality teas in smaller quantities from reputable organic importers and sustainable tea estates where we are able to maintain the flavor integrity of our teas. This approach allows us to use our business dollars to support tea farmers, cooperatives and importers who are operating their businesses to sustain their workers, the land and a high level of quality in the tea they produce. We also monitor seasonal changes in the tea harvests depending on local conditions and to respond quickly to customer preferences and special requests.
QUESTION: What are the real health benefits of tea? Especially, green teas and oolong teas we hear so much about in the news?
ANSWER: Bear with us as we answer this question from a historical perspective. There are multiple legends or folktales about how it was first discovered the the tea leaf could be infused and drunk as tea. Regardless of which story, tea was originally thought of as a healthy drink, a tonic one drank for its' restorative effects.
This perception was helped along by the fact the water for tea was being boiled in times when water quality could range from pristine to unhealthy. The restorative effects were largely from the caffeine in the tea leaf, although not known as such at the time. Tea necessarily created boiled, safe drinking water with a bit of caffeine - understandably, a healthy brew.
Over time, the processing of the harvested tea leaf and preparation were better understood and a bitter tonic became a wonderful tasting beverage one drank for the flavor of the tea as much as any perceived health benefits. Still, the first teas brought to England and other European countries were sold in apothecaries (drug stores), not tea shops.
Fast forward to today and the circle once again has come around for tea. Not so much in the area of safe drinking water but by the fact that the vast majority of quality teas, properly prepared require no added sugar or sweetening. Contrast this with ready-to-drink bottles of sodas, fruit drinks and even iced teas that can have as much as 7-15 teaspoons of sugar per bottle and brewed tea is quite naturally healthy by comparison: no sugar, no calories, mild caffeine lift and antioxidants.
"Antioxidants" and other tea leaf components are the newest perceived health benefits of tea. They are also a complicated debate that includes FDA oversight over what health claims are accurate and how they can be mentioned when selling tea to insure tea is a "food" and not perceived of as tea a "drug".
Ultimately, there is a lot of research information out there about health benefits. Take it with a grain of salt. Realize that, as with any food, much of the research is sponsored by large multinational food companies looking for positive results to use in marketing their products and increasing sales.
Know this - tea has been a restorative drink for thousands of years, the water and tea are safe, the caffeine level is moderate and it inherently has less sugar and calories than just about any other drink besides water. And it has an amazingly complex range of wonderful flavors. Will those antioxidants help? If they do, what a wonderful bonus.
QUESTION: Why the name Zen Tara Tea?
ANSWER: Not really a "tea" question but we get asked a lot; fair enough. Like much of what we do, we took the long view with our name, "long view" being defined as: "To think about the effects that something will have in the future."
We loved the fact that tea is a healthy product, one with a long history, culture and a capacity that seemed to bridge east and west, past and present, and stood as a bit of a contradiction to the pace of modern life all around us. Tea seems to encourage us to pause, slow down, be of the present. This would be the "Zen" part of our name.
Although it can be much more nuanced and complicated than we are stating it here, think of Zen as a state of mind that incorporates a togetherness of body and mind. A way of being, an impartial point of view or state of mind. Zen simplifies and helps us drop illusions and see things without any distortion created by our own thoughts.
For the Zen part of Zen Tara Tea that's as far as the meaning goes. We're pretty secular about it, there is no formal process, program or initiative relative to Zen Buddhism. That brings us to Tara - which could touch on Buddhism, Hinduism, the Druids, Polynesian mythology and is the name of a female professional wrestler in the U.S.
Happy coincidences all, but actually we used Tara because it is the Thai word for "water", the second most important ingredient for making a great cup of tea (one of the co-founders of Zen Tara Tea is Thai; had to throw him a bone). Not that we're adverse to protective goddesses, bodhisattvas, wives of monkey kings, sea goddesses and earth mother's but water was all we were going for with Tara.
That's it. Zen Tara Tea sounded good, conveyed our focus, acknowledged the tea and water connection and seemed unique enough that it was easy to remember. Unfortunately, it is also a "Z" name which puts our tea company name at the bottom of tea directories. Keep that in mind in the future, when you are looking for great tea start with the "Z" companies and work backwards from there.
QUESTION: How can I brew loose tea for iced tea? Is it OK to brew it using the "Sun Tea" method?
ANSWER: Zen Tara loose tea make a more flavorful and fuller tasting iced tea than using tea bags or instant tea mixes. The loose teas retain a lot more complexity of flavor, the only drawback, in these impatient times, is because it is not chopped up into fine particles to "flash" brew quickly, the tea leaves do need an extra couple of minutes of infusing time.
A simple ratio is one tablespoon of loose tea per 8-10 oz. of water, adjusted for your personal preference. To make a gallon (128 oz.) of ice tea we would use around 14 table spoons to a gallon of hot water. Brew using the correct temperature of water as you would for a hot tea (black tea, water off the boil, green tea around 180 degrees, cooled a couple of minutes after boiling). Let the tea brew 1-2 minutes longer than you would normally brew a cup of hot tea, approximately 7-9 minutes for black tea, 5-6 minutes for green tea). The balance is to brew the tea a little stronger to hold up to the ice, but not brew too strong that any astringency or bitterness overwhelms the tea.
One of the best qualities of the fresh brewed loose leaf iced tea is that you retain the maximum healthy components of tea while controlling the sugar (many restaurants prefer to serve "sweet" tea because the heavier sweetening of the tea masks the poor taste of the lower quality tea grounds).
We don't recommend brewing "sun tea". Some health institutes have found that the moderate warm temperature can encourage a bacteria bloom within the tea. Better to start off with hot water or some teas can be successfully cold-brewed overnight in the refrigerator. Add the loose tea to cool water and place in the refrigerator overnight, strain out the tea leaves and enjoy! This method brews a very smooth iced tea that easily can be drunk plain without sweeteners. A couple of our favorites: Tropical Black, Mango Green, Ginger Lime Rooibos (caffeine-free)