116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Mai Johnson usually drinks herbal teas flavored with ginger, lemon or camomile, but she was willing to try four new varieties at a tea tasting at Hiawatha Public Library earlier this month. Her favorite was the green tea sampled first. She did not like the stronger black tea, as she neatly documented in a notebook.
Mai is the tea drinker in her Cedar Rapids household, but she brought her coffee-drinker mother, Wanda Johnson, to the tea tasting. Wanda Johnson said her daughter has been drinking tea since she was 3 or 4 or “for as long as I can remember.”
Now 11, Mai is about the same age Judith Leavitt was the first time she tried tea on her family’s farm near Washington, Iowa. As Leavitt tells it, after she and her siblings had been sent outdoors to get some “fresh air” on a bitter cold Sunday afternoon, her mother warmed her with hot tea. The fragrant tea leaves were brewed in a little blue teapot, then sweetened with sugar.
“It was my first taste of tea and I loved it,” Leavitt said.
Becoming a tea connoisseur
Leavitt — Judy to her friends — was the tea expert recruited by library staff to create the evening’s tea tasting. She has been named an Apprentice Tea Sommelier by tea expert James Norwood Pratt and she’s working toward becoming a Certified Tea Specialist.
She has had coffee exactly two times in her life; the last time was 1976.
Instead, she has spent a lifetime indulging in her true passion in life: tea. Over the past two years, the Coralville tea connoisseur, blogger and author has taught a variety of tea classes. She’s sampled teas with groups such as Iowa City Area Midday Luncheon Connection. She’s shared her expertise with small gatherings at cafes like Kava House in Swisher. Since 2021, she’s offered online classes via Zoom; she’s a multi-times tea tasting provider for a group at a Sheraton, Wyoming senior center.
Leavitt explains on her blog (talking-tea.com) that she “developed a serious interest in tea and all things related to tea” after reading about the startup company The Republic of Tea. She subscribed to tea magazines and attended tea conferences. She began to collect books about tea and teapots. And, of course, she drank a lot of tea.
She had long shared her love of tea in person with family, friends and social groups. But she also dreamed of turning her knowledge of tea into a business.
After 32 years at Rockwell Collins, first as corporate librarian and then as strategic intelligence manager in corporate development, Leavitt retired in 2015. That year she wrote and published “Talking Tea with the 3Gs: The First Ten Years of the Three Generations Book Club” primarily to share with friends and family.
In 2018, she held a formal tea tasting for more than 50 people at the Unitarian Universalist Society in Coralville. She was on her way.
Then the pandemic hit. Unable to host in-person tea classes, she spent about five months writing a book about tea after hiring a book coach. Her book, “Talking Tea,” was published in 2020.
Periodic Table of Tea
Inside Leavitt’s book, the copyrighted Periodic Table of Talking Tea provides the basic knowledge of the 48 most frequently mentioned teas in the books she has on the subject, so there’s no need to buy and read 350 books about tea, as Leavitt has.
Japan primarily produces green teas. China and India grow different teas in different areas. Tea production is like wine in that different regions produce different types because of the environment.
Although most teas are grown in China and India, there are also 60 tea estates listed with the U.S. League of Tea Growers. You can even buy tea (Camellia sinensis) plants and seeds at usteagrowers.com.
The Periodic Table of Talking Tea includes types of tea with the country of origin and basic brewing instructions. Categories include white, yellow, green, oolong, black and pu-erh.
Oolongs are strip-style leaves formed into tiny balls. Pu-erh tea is fermented rather than oxidized, then formed into a flat brown patty. In China, what we call black tea is referred to as red tea. And then there’s orange pekoe.
“It’s like ‘gecko.’ It’s a grade of tea, not a color,” Leavitt said.
She translated many tea names from the language of the country of origin to English. There’s a white tea from China called Show Mei or Long Life Eyebrow, a Taiwanese oolong Qing Xin or Green Heart and a Japanese Gyokuro or Precious Dew.
“It’s all the same plant. The only difference is how it’s processed after it’s plucked,” Leavitt explained.
The agony of the leaves
Steve Quelle of Cedar Rapids shared that he’d tried a green tea — a mass-produced tea in bags — and didn’t like it.
“It was so god awful I had to throw the tea away,” he said.
What you get in most tea bags is cut, tear, curl — CTC — tea, which is the dust and the next tea particle size up called fannings.
“That’s what’s leftover after they process the good stuff,” Leavitt said.
But not on Leavitt’s watch. Although there are many good reasons to like flavored teas, Leavitt wanted to introduce the group to pure tea. After the hot water hits the leaves, they unfurl slowly: this is the agony of the leaves.
At the library event, tasters experienced the following teas:
- White, Anji Bai Cha-green, Yunnan sourcing, steeped at 185 degrees for four minutes
- Oolong, Baozhong (Pouchong), Taiwan, seeped at 195 degrees for 3 minutes
- Black, Yunnan Gold Bud, China, seeped at 212 degrees for five minutes
- Flavored, White Chocolate Puer, TeaSource, seeped at 212 degrees for 3 minutes
Tea drinking is about exploration and experimentation, Leavitt said. She recommended following the instructions the first time for temperature and steeping time, then experimenting if you don’t like it.
She keeps a detailed spreadsheet of when she bought a tea, how much it cost, where she bought it and whether she’d buy the tea again. She organizes her teas by type (white, yellow, green, oolong, black, pu-erh) and shares samples with friends.
Slurping and chewing
At the tea tasting at the library, Marta Petermann, library adult programming coordinator, follows Leavitt’s instructions for heating the water to the correct temperature and setting a timer.
Good quality tea is a whole leaf tea, Leavitt explained. A rule of thumb for 8 ounces of water is one teaspoon of tea, a surprisingly slight quantity of leaves.
She passes samples of each tea around the room. To fully appreciate a tea, pour the leaves onto a light-colored plate and look at them. Then move your nose close and inhale, Leavitt instructs.
There’s one step the tasters had to skip. Leavitt says a clear glass teapot or cup is best to watch as the leaves unfurl. At the very least, choose a teacup or mug that’s white inside, she said.
“You want to be able to see the color,” Leavitt said.
For practical reasons, Petermann pours samples from a teapot into paper cups at each taster’s place. Tasters inhale the scent and then wait a few minutes to let it cool.
Finally, it’s time to taste. Slurping is perfectly acceptable at tea tastings; in fact, it’s recommended. When slurping, more oxygen is pulled into the mouth for more aroma and taste, according to Leavitt.
How we taste a beverage or food varies, so two people drinking from the same pot of brewed tea might taste opposite flavors, according to Leavitt.
The first tea sampled at the library is “a very lightly steamed green tea,” she said. The leaves stay green because they haven’t been oxidized, like a cut apple that turns brown. That lack of oxidation also means the concentration of caffeine is low.
The room is split on the green tea. Some describe the smell and taste like grass or hay. Others say it’s smooth, a little sweet.
The third tea, a black Yunnan, is the tea Mai didn’t like much. Others in the group enjoyed the hearty, full-bodied flavor.
The fourth tea is a blend, a pu-erh, fermented rather than oxidized.
“This is your dessert,” Leavitt said of the tea, which smells a little bit of chocolate and rose petals. “It smells good and tastes so good.”
After tasting all four, Quelle couldn’t decide which he liked best.
“It’s hard to say; the aromas of some were so unique,” he said.
The little blue teapot that Leavitt’s mother used is from Hall China Co. in Ohio and had been a wedding shower gift to her mother in 1945. It is now one of Leavitt’s prize possessions, a favorite among her more than 60 teapots.
But that hasn’t stopped her from collecting various types and styles of teapots from all over the world. After a recent visit with friends to the Tea Cellar in Cedar Falls, Leavitt congratulated herself for buying only one teapot.
Leavitt recommends shopping for teas online; she includes a list of her favorite online stores in her book. For convenience when traveling, she buys paper tea bags at Hy-Vee and fills them with a favorite teas from her stash.
“It’s a good day when there’s a package of tea at your door,” Leavitt said.
Store your teas in a cool, dry place — never the refrigerator or in clear glass jars on the counter. Tea should last six months to a year.
Consider purchasing an electric tea kettle with temperature controls, which heat water faster than the stove, are inexpensive, starting at $20
Just about any teapot or large mug can be used to brew tea if they are large enough to let the tea leaves unfurl and grow.
To separate the leaves from the tea liquor, you’ll need a teapot with a strainer in the spout or a separate infuser or strainer.
The quantity of tea used is important, so use a measuring spoon or, for accuracy, a food scale.
Buy whole leaf pure tea leaves online from reputable tea shops or directly from tea estates.
Judith Leavitt offers tea classes in person or via Zoom. She can be reached at judytalkingtea.com or (319) 899-3531.