Every party guest knows it’s considered rude to show up empty handed. And what do most partygoers reach for when searching for a quick and easy hostess gift? Wine, of course. But, according to many experts, tea may be just as good a choice—if not a better one.
Sometimes, tea makes practical sense such as when the host or hostess doesn’t drink alcohol or if the event is a religious one for which alcohol would be inappropriate. Tea also is a cost-effective option, points out Brandon Ford, founder of Vintage TeaWorks, a line of wine-inspired teas, as “you can generally find beautifully packaged teas at or even below costs of gift-giving wines, and instead of a few glasses of wine, the hostess has tea they can enjoy for months to come.” Plus, he adds, it may be cost-prohibitive for a guest to bring wine to share with the entire party as a gift; on the other hand, serving tea to 10 or more guests is often affordable.
But, on a visceral level, says Kelly Zajac, owner of Tudor House Tea & Spice, a Kalamazoo, Michigan-based retail store, “a lot of people think of tea as a way to show care and comfort,” which is something a bottle of wine just doesn’t accomplish. “Tea is attentive,” agrees Meeta Sharma, tea taster at Teabox, an online luxury Indian tea shop. “It puts a pause to the day and punctuates special moments, too. It nourishes mind, body, and soul, and those things are very hard to associate with any other consumable, if you think about it. When you gift someone tea, you are suggesting all of these— a token that nourishes, revives, and marks moments.”
Indeed, part of the reason tea makes a great hostess gift is because it falls in line with western trends of elevating the everyday. And this, too, translates to teaware. According to Peter Goggi, president of the Tea Council of the USA and a 30-year industry veteran, there was a time when tea kettles and dishware were simple kitchen workhorses.
“However, in the U.S., this is becoming more of a specialized gift,” he says. “It’s unique and shows a degree of care and time being taken to honor the host or hostess. Tea is varied, comes from over 30 different countries, and has countless shapes, sizes, flavors, and aromas. As tea can be so different, it is suitable for almost all occasions.”
From loose leaf teas to serve ware, there’s something for every hostess. But with so many teas and accessories to choose from, it can be a bit overwhelming. That’s why many experts recommend looking to the season for inspiration.
“Summer is great for peach iced tea and other teas that make sense iced,” says Tim Smith, owner of The Tea Smith, a two-store retailer in Omaha, Nebraska. Round out the hostess gift with an iced tea pitcher (look for one with a center core for fruit infusions to inspire creativity) or colorful Moroccan glass tea cups, suggests Zajac, which appeal to a range of personal styles.
The Republic of Tea recently launched its Sonoma line of iced teas, named for and inspired by California’s wine region. The teas use dried Sonoma wine grape skins as a base, resulting in iced tea varieties like Chardonnay, Rose, Cabernet, and Mulled Zin. According to the company’s Minister of Commerce, Kristina Richens, each tea lends itself well to a specific season: Sonoma Chardonnay Iced Tea, for example, with pineapple and peach notes, makes sense for a brunch or summer celebration; Mulled Zin makes sense for the holiday season.
Seasonally spicy teas make great fall- or winter-weather hostess gifts, especially ones boasting cinnamon, almond, or chai flavors, says Zajac. Paired with a mug, infuser, and a gift card to a local independent bookstore, these varieties make a thoughtful gift because “you think of getting cozy in the cooler months,” she says, “settling down with a book and a cup of tea.”
Most guests want to present something personal, but if you aren’t sure whether your hostess likes bright or bold flavors, play it safe with herbals, says Zajac. Or, search out a popular classic (like Earl Grey) enhanced with something universally liked, like vanilla. “They recognize Earl Grey, but the vanilla makes it a little special,” she says.
One final tip: “Teabag has become a four letter word—it is now taboo,” says Frankee Muller, ITMA Certified Tea Sommelier and innkeeper and owner of Montana-based The Voss Inn. “The new movement in tea is all about its health benefits, and how to maximize those as well as how to bring out the best flavor and aroma inherent in the tea itself. The only way to accomplish this is to use the freshest whole leaf tea you can get your hands on.”
Pairings: Not Just for Wine
Another way to select a thoughtful hostess gift is to pair teas with the expected meal, as you would a wine. The good news is that tea and wine share a number of attributes that make pairing relatively congruous.
Crudites and lighter foods do well paired with a “bright and citrusy spring flush black tea like oolong or muscatel black tea,” explains Sharma. “Ideal would be chinary teas, such as those from Okayti and Giddapahar, or muscatels from Castleton, Goomtee or Seeyok estates of Darjeeling.” Pre-meal indulgences like nuts, crackers, and cheese work well with light- to medium-bodied black teas, like second flush Darjeeling, says Muller.
Heavier foods, Sharma explains, might be complemented by strong, astringent teas like “a tippy Assam black tea or summer flush Darjeeling,” whereas Mediterranean grill menus pair wonderfully with teas blended with herbs like mint and rosemary.
Seafood? Choose green, she says, especially Genmaicha or those flavored with herbs and spices. “The light, delicate character of a green tea will complement the mild, delicate flavor of the fish rather than overpower it,” Muller agrees.
Dessert dishes, like fruit and cheese plates or even creme brulee, would do well paired with options like Vintage TeaWorks’ White Tea, which is inspired by Riesling, says Ford. Black teas also work well with desserts, says Sharma—she suggests oolong for lighter desserts and strong black teas like Earl Grey for creamier desserts (think pies and custards). First flush Darjeelings are the tea of choice for Muller when it comes to sweets. “With a hint of muscat grapes, wildflowers, and citrus, it pairs beautifully with cream desserts and chocolate,” she says, because it can temper the sweetness with its light astringency.
Not sure what’s being served? “A Wuyi oolong will pair well with just about any food,” advises Muller. “Another good choice if you are unsure of what will be served would be a white tea. With its clear liquor and refreshing taste, white tea is a fabulous palate cleanser between courses.”