After making the connection between wine and tea several years ago, I began to notice the numerous similarities between the grape and the tea leaf. The films Bottle Shock and Mondovino artfully elucidated these similarities. Here in the Pacific Northwest, home of some of the world’s best vineyards, I have befriended with a few wine experts. After hearing similarity after similarity between the grapes/bottled wine and tea/the tea leaf, I have finally stopped being surprised upon hearing yet another commonality between these two wonderful beverages.
What are the differences? First and foremost, regions such as the Willamette Valley and the Dundee Hills, support a vibrant wine culture. Sadly, tea culture is very limited in these regions. I am doing my best to build a tea culture, along with a few other local connoisseurs. At present, there are a few leaders and a number of fanatics. All are welcome.
I recently made a discovery regarding the complex relationship between beverages and food. Some wines pair beautifully with food—this results in a wonderful sensory experience. Other wines stand up well on their own or overpower food, and are best enjoyed without food. Tea, though sometimes marketed as complementary to certain foods, on the whole should not be consumed with food. In my most idealistic vision of tea, it is like a wine that stands on its own. Food scents or flavors only detract from the overall tea experience.
Yet, exceptions exist—particularly in the case of morning black teas. In Taiwan, I was served a 20-year-old Lapsong Su Chong with a handmade sweet rice porridge, and I still long for this wonderful combination. In this case, food and tea are consumed intermittently. However, for digestive reasons, it is not advisable to alternately eat a bite of food and take a swig of tea. Generally, food and beverages should be taken separately to prevent dilution of the digestive juices. It’s likely that the quantity of the beverage imbibed whilst eating the food also plays a role. Perhaps tiny sips are agreeable, as in the case of wine. In addition, many teas should not be consumed on an empty stomach. The best practice is to wait about thirty minutes after eating to start brewing tea. If tea is consumed too soon after eating, it prevents the body from absorbing all of the nutrients via the digestive organs.
What about the concept of brewing bits of food with tea? In Lei Cha, seeds, nuts and or spices are ground up with tea before hot water is added. Tibetan yak butter tea combines puer tea with yak milk or butter. Though I have not yet tried these tea drinks, they seem to function as a meal and tea all in one. Incidentally, I do love tea and cookies. However, in general, tea is for the sake of tea and tea alone. Nothing needs to be added, but sometimes a bit of cookie makes a tea twice as nice. In conclusion, I have once again proven to myself that it is difficult to make blanket statements about tea.