There's a month for just about everything, and January seems especially fitting for this one: National Hot Tea Month. I prefer beer or wine or coffee to tea—yet I counted 11 varieties of tea in my own kitchen. Thinking more on this, I realized this is because tea is more a staple of an offering; a universal beverage most everyone has on hand.

Considering tea is just about the most widely consumed beverage in the world (second to water, that is), it being a staple makes sense. The US is the third-largest importer of tea in the world (after Russia and Pakistan), which means, on any given day, 159 million Americans are enjoying a cuppa.

Tea has a long history and in modern times, its popularity has continued to soar thanks to the continual pouring forth of studies touting its myriad health benefits. These include everything from boosting heart health and cognition to aiding in weight loss and lowering stress levels. According to the Tea Association of the USA Inc., millennials (those born around 1980-ish) have also been pushing the popularity of tea, with 87 percent claiming to drink it.

"True" teas are black, green, white, dark and oolong. These are "true" because they all originate from the same plant, the Camellia sinensis. Herbal teas aren't considered true teas because they don't share this plant of origin. Camellia sinensis is an evergreen shrub that grows mainly in forests and has two varieties, one native to China and the other to India.

The differences among the five types of true teas are due to degrees of processing and levels of oxidation—natural chemical reactions caused by rolling, withering and other techniques—which result in the taste and color changes that distinguish the teas. Black tea is fully oxidized, green and white teas are not. Oolong is midway between black and green tea in strength and color. Dark teas are fermented after manufacture.

So, with these basics covered, if you're thinking it might be fun to move past Trader Joe's mint melange and into something more exotic, you're in luck—tea is as easily procured as a margarita in Santa Fe, so I checked in with some local experts to find out more.

Named one of the "top 10 tea joints in the US" by Sunset magazine, The Teahouse (821 Canyon Road, 992-0972) offers more than 150 varieties, making it one of the best places in New Mexico to explore the wide-ranging tastes of tea. Its owners procure teas from the best sources around the world, offering everything from oolong and Earl Grey to ritualistic quality matcha and the Petrus of teas, Himalayan Snowflake.

"People come in a lot to buy bulk teas," notes Teahouse manager Neal Polonsky. "If you're interested in trying new things, these are great because you can work your way through different flavors."

Another way to explore is via one of the tea drinks popular at the Teahouse. Among the most requested are the London Fog, a latte with Earl Grey and vanilla, and the matcha latte with lavender honey.

"People are starting to rediscover tea, thanks to the coffee culture," adds Polonsky. "It's different from coffee but has the same shared social culture. Before, a latte was with coffee. But now you can have it with tea."

For those looking for a more guided journey down the river of tea, Opuntia (922 Shoofly St., 780-5796) features a more curated selection, with a few options each of the true teas, as well as herbals and creative tea drinks. The food menu is also based on tea culture, with dishes being specifically designed to compliment many of the teas.

"Drinking tea is an analog experience, a tactile experience," says Todd Spitzer, who co-owns Opuntia with partner Jeanna Gienke. "In American culture, everything is overly marketed and processed—whereas with tea, it's about the experience. It's a relaxing, centering thing that can get you in tune with your body and mind."

Popular choices at Opuntia include an oolong called the Iron Goddess of Mercy, which has been made by the same family for over 1,500 years, and Moon Bud, a white tea with blossoms that look like little moons.

"There is nothing industrial about loose leaf tea," Spitzer points out. "It is all by hand: hand-harvested, hand-processed and hand-manufactured."

If a hand-held introduction to tea sounds interesting, starting this week on Jan. 25, Opuntia offers tea tastings at 3 pm on the third Friday of every month.

Opuntia's Todd Spitzer points out that most Americans brew tea incorrectly. Below, are some basic instructions to maximize your tea experience:

Brewing white, green and oolong teas:

(assuming a standard 10 oz. coffee cup)

  • Put 1 tablespoon loose tea in a tea infuser and rinse it
  • Add 2 oz cold water to cup then fill remainder with hot water (175 degrees is ideal). Boiling water can burn these teas, which Spitzer warns can take away nuances in the flavor
  • Drop in the infuser with the tea

Brewing black and pu-erh teas:

Follow the same steps as above, but you can use boiling water

Tips:

  • To maximize flavor, be careful not to over-steep your tea. Ideally, you should be aiming for two to two and a half minutes for white and green tea, and three minutes for oolong, black tea or pu-erhs.
  • Don’t toss the tea! The second, third and fourth steepings are the best because each brings out different flavor profiles.

Tea Tasting 3 pm Friday Jan. 25. Free. Opuntia, 922 Shoofly St., 780-5796