Brewing your own tea is both an art and a learning experience.
This is what I, a lifelong tea lover, learned in a breezy wooden hut on a 16-acre farm deep in rural Orange County, at The Honeysuckle Tea House.
Honeysuckle doesn't brew teas from its own plants yet, though it does use herbs grown on site in most of its blends. Instead, managers and herbalists Frances O'Halloran and Dana Simerly make their own delicious blends using tea leaves from a local grower, Christine Parks, who owns a nursery in Chapel Hill.
Honeysuckle sells the standard black, green, white and oolong teas. I tried the Honeysuckle Tea House's signature blend, "Welcome Home," a hearty mix of gunpowder green tea, pine and honeysuckle. Servers bring the hot tea with a timer, since teas require different brewing times. Once you get your cup, wait until all of the sand falls through the mini hourglass. Then your tea is brewed. Remove the teabag and enjoy.
Nourishmint is a refreshing mint tea that I had the option of taking cold. And I couldn't resist a hot blend called Love Joy, "known to warm hearts and promote mild euphoria." It lived up to its reputation.
Of the house-made blends, Honeysuckle Tea House also makes a caffeine-free chai, a calming tea called "Peaceful Pleasure," a focus-inducing tea called "Center of Attention" and "Shelter from the Storm," a "comforting blend for those who could use a boost when feeling under the weather."
Coffee, smoothies and herbal sodas are also on the menu, as well as baked goods— including gluten-free mini cookies—and vegan soup.
When you go, explore the grounds surrounding the tea house. Known by their Latin name, Camelia sinensis, the tea plants, with enough rain and partial to full sunlight, should be ready for harvest in three to five years. Although indigenous to southeast Asia, the plant grows well in North Carolina's humid, subtropical climate. In addition, the tea house features two acres of organically grown medicinal herbs. There is also a nursery, a playground and nearly eight acres of fruit and tea plants, "for the enjoyment and nourishment of the community."
This sense of community is clearly important at the Honeysuckle Tea House. Local musicians play regularly and children are welcome to run around on the grounds. I was lucky enough to attend a Saturday afternoon class, taught by Parks, where I learned about local tea-making.
In April and May, it's time to pick new, smaller leaves for green teas, and larger, older leaves for oolong and black varieties. For white teas, the buds will suffice. Let the leaves sit for a couple of days to allow them to dry, a process known as withering.
Oxidation—exposing the leaves to air—distinguishes tea. For green varieties, stop oxidation by heating the leaves, or, to impart a nutty flavor, the stems. To make oolong, roll the leaves with a cloth or in your hands, kneading them like dough to break down the leaves' cell walls. Black teas require more rolling, which also gives the leaves their distinctive appearance before brewing.
To brew, use about a teaspoon of leaves per cup. You'll need to brew at different temperatures, and steep for different lengths of time depending on the variety of tea to bring out the best flavor of the leaf and avoid a bitter, overpowering taste. Generally, the darker the tea, the longer it needs to steep.
Parks says that tea farming won't be a viable industry in the U.S. until people recognize tea as an artisan product. It's a long, complex process from start to finish and the yield of tea doesn't always justify the amount of time and effort a person can dedicate to cultivating it.
"It's just not economically feasible to grow on a large scale and pay people a living wage to pick and harvest it," Parks says. As such, artisan teas taste better than the machine-processed, commercial versions sold at the grocery.
The last grains of sand trickle through the hourglass on my wooden table. It's been a long journey from leaf to cup, but with time running out, the sweet aroma is unmistakable. My tea is finally done.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Calm down."