The World in a Cuppa (Tea)
Andrew McCarthy journeyed all the way to India in search of the perfect Darjeeling, and wrote about the experience for Traveler magazine, but you don’t have to go around the globe to sip on some of the world’s best brews.
Here’s a list of teas that are steeped in local tradition—and how you can try them at home:
> Earl Grey | England
Popular lore says this tea was recommended to a young Queen Victoria by the United Kingdom’s then Prime Minister (and the tea’s namesake) Charles Grey (1764-1845), but Oxford English Dictionary researchers called the story into question when they issued an appeal challenging the origin of the term in 2012.
In the 1830s, tea companies began adding bergamot oil to low-quality tea leaves in order to enhance the taste. And while it’s unlikely the citrus-flavored drink was ever praised by Earl Grey himself, or even sampled by him, the Chinese black tea that bears his name remains a much beloved blend.
> Mint Tea | Morocco
A symbol of Moroccan hospitality, this invigorating brew is quite simple, made by steeping gunpowder green tea with fresh spearmint leaves and adding a dash of sugar. The distinctive tea, known as atai, occupies an important role in Maghrebi (North African) culture and is often considered an art form.
During a traditional serving ceremony, the tea is poured from the pot a foot or more above the cup in order to create a foam. In Morocco, tea is generally offered to guests by the head of the family and is considered impolite to refuse.
> Assam | India
Darjeeling may be India’s most well-known variety of tea, but the state of Assam, a few hundred miles to the east, is the largest tea-growing region in the world. Unlike Darjeeling, Assam plants are grown at sea level, contributing to the characteristically strong flavor and color of the tea that’s later made from them.
Fun fact: Instead of following India Standard Time (IST), Assam observes “tea garden time,” or Bagantime, which is set an hour ahead of IST in order to take advantage of the relatively early sunrise in the region.
- Try: Assam Tea Company
> Rooibos | South Africa
Often called “bush tea”—or “red tea,” due to its distinctive color—this nutty brew was first cultivated hundreds of years ago by the local inhabitants of South Africa’s Cederberg region. When the Dutch came to the area, many settlers took up drinking rooibos tea as a cheaper alternative to expensive black teas imported from England.
Rooibos has seen a surge in sales in recent years (becoming somewhat of a novel tea—pun intended) after making an appearance in Alexander McCall Smith’s best-selling No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Bush tea is also increasingly popular among the health-conscious, due to its high level of antioxidants, lack of caffeine, and purported healing properties.
- Try: There are many flavored blends of rooibos tea, but Numi Tea and The Republic of Tea make my favorite pure varieties.
> Oolong | China
There are many theories about how oolong came to be—but this tea most certainly originated in China. Like green and black tea, oolong, or wulong (Chinese for “black dragon”), is derived from the Camellia sinensis plant. But after the leaves are picked, they are withered and intentionally bruised, resulting in a semi-fermented tea.
Have expensive taste? A kilogram of Da Hong Pao Oolong tea can allegedly fetch upwards of $30,000.
- Try: Teavana’s Monkey Picked Oolong (According to legend, the celebrated blend was named after Buddhist monks who trained monkeys to pick the youngest leaves from the tops of wild tea trees.)
> Sweet Tea | United States
Sweet tea has long been a beloved staple in the American South, but those hoping to home in on the origin of this sugary concoction (traditional sweet tea can contain twice as much sugar as Coke) will be happy to know that Summerville, South Carolina, was recently recognized as the Birthplace of Sweet Tea.
- Try: Luzianne is often cited as the best base for traditional sweet tea.
> Butter Tea | Tibet
Fancy a dollop of yak butter with your tea? That’s how Tibetans and other Himalaya communities take their cuppa. High-altitude farmers and nomads drink the rich brew, called po cha—which consists of black tea, salt, and yak butter—for its caloric value, as well as to prevent chapped lips.
In Bhutan, locals drink butter tea with zow, toasted red rice with sugar. It’s an acquired taste, but a cultural treat not to be missed.
- Try: If you can find yak butter, try making your own.
Jeannette Kimmel is the editorial business manager for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Connect with her on Twitter @jeannettekimmel.
There are too many other teas to list here—Taiwan’s bubble tea, Thai tea, masala chai, and more. What are your favorite teas, and where’s the best place to sample them?