For a good cup of tea, you always start with the water, said Bill Todd, owner of Todd & Holland Tea Merchants, one of the newest additions to Madison Street.
“If you are doing black tea, you put boiling water; if doing green tea you boil it then reduce the temperature to 175 to 180 degrees,” Todd said.
The reason: If you put boiling water on tea, you seal the flavor in and oolong tea can be reused.
Todd & Holland started as a web site and mail list in 1994, quickly branching out into a point-of-sale location based in River Forest. They specialize in selling tea and tea accessories, and provide classes on tea drinking and seminars for tea aficionados.
For Todd a quiet, laid back man, tea making is a good time for story-telling.
Todd began his love-affair with tea as a young boy, but it wasn’t always rosy.
“My grandmother, when she made iced tea”well if the spoon didn’t stand up straight, it wasn’t good,” he recalls, chuckling, as the water begins to boil.
“I drank sweet tea and 15 to 20 years later I had my first introduction to stand alone teas,” he said.
That first taste of a tea he didn’t need to drown in sugar was the beginning of a new chapter in his tea drinking and now tea selling career.
“These fine teas needed no sugar to make them enjoyable,” writes Todd in his web site (http://www.todd-holland.com). “The teas were full-bodied. Their aromas were superb and their astringency was pleasant and refreshing, not harsh and bitter as were the teas of [my] youth.”
To him the difference in taste was like the difference between a hamburger and a filet.
As Todd talks about his tea, he keeps a watchful eye on the pot to make sure he catches when the water reaches its boiling point.
He weighs the tea leaves carefully”because it the most accurate way to do it.
As Todd does this, he explains the difference between a cup of tea and a cup of coffee.
“A cup of tea is six ounces, whereas coffee is eight ounces,” Todd said.
But the differences go beyond size, caffeine and color, he explained, as there are deep philosophical differences between most tea drinkers and coffee drinkers.
It is a matter of patience.
You can’t rush the tea, Todd said.
“You brew a green tea for two minutes and a black tea for three to five minutes,” he said, as he set the timer for two minutes.
Before pouring the water, which had been set aside to cool, Todd checked the temperature to make sure it was just right, then poured it over a pot with loose leaves in it, and started the timer.
“You can’t rush preparation, it forces us to downshift and wait for tea,” he said. “One of the things I like about tea is that ceremony. The timer helps keep us honest, it is as important as it is to use the right temperature.
“Most of us are always playing catch up,” he said. “The difference between coffee drinkers and tea drinkers is tea drinkers have discovered that sometimes the journey is as exciting as the
A coffee drinker, he said, is more likely to run into a meeting covered in perspiration, late and downing a burning cup of coffee. A tea drinker, on the other hand, will have an excellent pot of tea brewing and will walk into that same meeting 20 minutes late, having enjoyed his perfect cup of tea.
But don’t mistake patience and a laid back nature for compliance, Todd said, smiling as he watches the brewing pot.
“If you over-brew tea, you take away the flavor and bring out the astringency,” he said.
Patience, it seems is also the basis for a good business.
In 1996 Todd & Holland moved into a charming white brick building they shared with four realtors in River Forest. The arrangement worked for a while, but the tea merchants soon outgrew their quarters.
“Our space [in River Forest] was so small, so it was very crowded,” Todd said. “We were totally out of space. It was one third this size.”
The merchants, Todd, his wife Janet and friend Mary Anne Richards exhibited a patience characteristic of a tea drinker, searching for three years until they found a place they all liked.
This month, they moved to their current location at 7311 Madison St., an old dental office completely remade to their specifications. They have enjoyed a noticeable increase in foot traffic and a warm reception from the community.
The best way to make tea is to make it loose in the pot and decant it. It is a matter of capturing the true essence of the tea, which most tea bags don’t.
“You can take a good loose leaf and grind it down to dust”that is what you get in tea bags,” he said.
In a tea bag, he said, you find dust and fannings, the smallest particle one can grind tea leaves down to before they turn into dust.
The reason for tea bags, he said, is that companies want the cup of tea to look like a golden brown salon tea in 30 seconds. For this, they need to pulverize the tea leaves.
But these teas tend to have a stronger flavor that is usually smoothed out by the drinker, using milk, honey or sugar.
And there are better teas.
“You could drink a different green tea in China every day for the rest of your life and never run out,” Todd said.
In general, there are five categories of tea: black, oolong, green tea, white and yellow. But there are also flavored teas.
The difference in these teas is in the oxidation levels. Black teas are 100 percent oxidized whereas oolongs are 40 to 60 percent and green teas are 15 to 25 percent.
Yellow teas are, actually, a subset of green teas with a distinctive color and are very rare.
For all, the bottom line is that, “to be tea, it needs to come from the tea bush,” Todd said.
But a good tea leaf is nothing, without good equipment.
The floating tea balls many people use simply don’t work, he said, because they don’t let the tea leaves expand. Proof of this is that, when one opens the metal balls, the tea overflows out of them.
At Todd & Holland they use T-Sac tea filters”probably the next best thing to leaving the tea leaves floating in the water.
“It is about convection: the hot water can’t get through [the tea balls] and [with the sacs], as the tea expands it will go up the sac like a chimney, letting the water through.”
Todd & Holland offers tea-ware from England, Japan, China and Germany, just to mention a few. They also sell hand decorated sugar cubes and liners from France and Sweden and display tea related art from across the globe, including Russian and Turkish samovars.
The smell of jasmine oolong, with a tinge of rose, orange and lemon myrtle beings to fill the room as the water does its work.
And this is where the magic truly begins, because for a tea drinker, the drinking is an art in and of itself.
“The olfactory nerve is heat sensitive,” Todd said.
To appreciate a good cup of tea, one slurps it, taking the tea and throwing it against the back of one’s throat. After swallowing it, one exhales the vapor, Todd said. The result is a powerful olfactory reaction where each flavor of the tea is appreciated by both the olfactory sense and taste buds.
As for the future, Todd predicts tea will have a surge in popularity, much like wine has in the past few years.
“Tea in America today is where wine was in the 50s,” he said. Back then, wine drinking was more ethno-centric and less mainstream. Today, almost everyone has a favorite wine or a wine rack in their homes.
“It’s not going to take 40 years for tea to get where wine is, though,” he said.
Regardless of how long it takes, the result of all this tea drinking will be exactly what that morning’s session ended in: a happy tea drinker enjoying an offering Todd & Holland specializes in”a perfect cup of tea.