Sitting beside me, and somewhat inside me, is a cup of Formosa Oolong, a tea with a name that would cause a controversy if mentioned in the wrong place at the wrong time. Here, it is welcome, which isn’t a surprise to folks that follow me on social media, particularly Twitter (@tetrimbath). There, my tea habits inspired a hashtag, #TomTea. It started as a silly idea, but sometimes silly things are more important than serious things. Regardless, I have Starbucks and frugality to thank for a beverage I enjoy every day.
Millions of people know Starbucks because of its coffees. I know it because of its teas and spices. Way back then, Starbucks had one store, it was in Pike Place Market, and I was playing tourist in the Big City (Seattle) which was near the Boeing plant where I just got a job.
It might seem strange, but I made it through college getting a degree in Aerospace and Ocean Engineering without resorting to coffee. I relied on tea. I fell asleep a lot, but it is hard to tell if that was from not enough caffeine, or the fact that studying frequently meant only three or four hours of sleep each night. Many tea bags were wrung out as I tried to balance keeping school costs down by finishing on time versus getting high enough grades to get a job afterwards.
Picture a newbie to the PNW. This was 1980, when Seattle’s reputation was for dreary, not dynamic. Tourism was happening, but Boeing was the big thing. Still, Pike Place was already known as a draw for tourists, but mostly for locals who wanted more authentic choices. The hour or so drive made it impractical for me to shop there, but it was novel and I didn’t know what else to do on the weekends. (Hiking and skiing and bicycling and sailing kicked in later, but that is an entire shelf of stories. Go to my Amazon Author Page for more.)
Wander into the Market. Roam around because the booths were varied and the people were friendly; but don’t know what to look for because shopping without branding was a culture shift and an education. But, ah, Starbucks. At least I’d heard of them.
Step in. Find a skinny shop with a counter at the back of the space, a long line of shoppers, and a wall of coffee, teas, and spices. Check the original logo. Coffee, Tea, Spices, and a more graphic depiction of the mermaid which has subsequently been sanitized and recolored. Finally get to the front of the line, ask for a cup of tea, and begin an education.
It was obvious that I wasn’t going to get just a tea bag and a cup of hot water. The person working there (I don’t think they used the title ‘barista’ much then) took the time to describe some of the teas, the benefit of loose leaf, the proper way to brew it, and the proper way to store the leaves. A cup, hot water, a tea-filled strainer shaped like a spoon, and directions to have one of the very few seats at the window counter. Spend four minutes watching the people go by, then remove the tea, maybe let the cup cool a bit, and enjoy.
This was better than yet another cup of Red Rose or Lipton or Tetley. This was a bit of a ritual, but not too much of one. It was also a welcome introduction into a West Coast culture, not the tea, but the concept of treating a customer as a person, not a transaction; and the idea that a little education can become the basis of a long term relationship.
That day may have been the turning point when it would’ve been just as easy to become a coffee drinker. Instead, it was the time when I started exploring other shops, blends, flavorings, and experiments that continue forty years later. As an investor, it was the day that planted the desire to own some of their stock, something that happened about six months after SBUX went public. (For more of that story, dive into my book on personal finance, Dream. Invest. Live.)
Now, I drink about a liter and a half per day. Sometimes it is one type in a thermos, doled out as I work. Sometimes it is strong black tea in the morning, shifting to oolongs, then greens, and maybe some herbal infusions by the end of the day. There’s much to learn, and no need to do so. That’s relaxing, too.
In addition to the flavor, I appreciate the frugality. Tea is cheaper and simpler than coffee. Dead leaves are relatively easy to keep from going stale. A tight tin kept in a cupboard suffices, nicely. Bulk loose leaf can cost as little as under $2 per ounce, and an ounce can last weeks. Good loose leaf tea, in particular, can last longer because the same leaves can be used more than once, hence one ounce lasting a long time. I don’t test this overnight, but I’ve used the same leaves five times without noticing much degradation. The caffeine was probably mostly washed out in the first steep, but some use that as a way to organically and cheaply make decaf. Toss out the first cup, make another, and then another, saving money with every extra cup. Or in the summer, make one pot with fresh leaves, then use those leaves in a sun tea jug, or the opposite.
No need for the equipment necessary for fancy coffee concoctions. Hot water, dead leaves, and a way to strain out the leaves is all that’s necessary. Get fancy, use a tea kettle to actually get water at 190F-210F. Get fancier, pour the hot water into a tea pot where the leaves can steep with room to bloom. Maybe use a French press instead, because it gets the word ‘French’ involved. Then, either wrap the pot in a cozy (not quite my style, but useful), or pour the tea into a thermos. Milk, lemon, honey – scotch – are all optional. No need for thousands of dollars spent on a cappuccino machine.
Just like coffee, all true teas come from only one species of plant. How that’s grown and processed, and where it is grown create varieties that keep it from being dull. Oolong isn’t green, and not black, and not Pu-Erh, and not white, and not – well, there’s undoubtedly something else out there. I’m not an expert, just an enthusiast. Explore there a bit, though, and find how easy it is to create blends that have never been branded, to develop mixes that are customized to one set of taste buds.
If I want a ‘breakfast’ tea, I know to buy Assam and Keemun, and mix them by pouring them into a jar. I now tend to skip flavored teas because they might use oils that stain my teeth and cup. Infusions (what many people call herbal teas) are even easier and more frugal. My current favorite is a blend of herbs from my yard (lemon balm, mint, maybe some rosemary or sage or lavender), plus some local weeds (nettles from a friend’s yard), and a bulk spice like rooibos or honey bush (great name) or licorice.
Currently, combining the collections from my kitchen cupboard and my office desk drawer I can choose from about two dozen teas. Some are getting low, so I just ordered more from Dandelion Botanical, and intend to order some more from Joyful Alchemy. I don’t need more. I just want more.
Living a frugal life is not about saying No all the time. It is about knowing when to say Yes. Good tea is an affordable indulgence. I might be in the midst of trying to deal with insurance and mortgage providers, conversations that tie into monthly thousand dollar expenses, but beside me will be a cup that is simply filled guilt-free. That’s one way to combine caffeine and calm that I can appreciate.