Friday, March 13, 2020

Interview: Tea in NC with Erin Coyle

I always enjoy meeting interesting people who are interested in tea.  Erin Coyle is one of these people. I discovered Erin through a Google search which included the keyword “tea” (and I don’t know what else).  Google sent me to a web page for the North Carolina Humanities Council where I learned that Erin gives talks about tea through the Road Scholars Program. I thought to myself: A tea lover and public speaker who also calls North Carolina home?  That’s someone I need to meet.  So, I sent Erin a note. We have not yet had the chance to meet in person.  But our email correspondence on the topic of tea has been great fun.

I was curious to know more about Erin’s journey with tea, so I have interviewed her for this blog.  Enjoy our conversation!
I understand that you were introduced to tea by your Irish grandmother who served it hot, sweet, and with plenty of milk.  Tell us a bit about your personal tea journey which led from these early years with your grandmother to your current public speaking engagements about tea.
Everyone drank tea when I was growing up. Tea was a panacea. No matter what was troubling you, tea was there for you. I have memories of my father making a cup of tea and pouring some of its milky sweetness into a saucer for me to drink. I remember that when I was sick, my mom would make me a cup of tea and a slice of toast with butter, cinnamon and sugar on it. At my Irish grandmother’s house, tea was the first thing she offered when you stepped over her threshold. She phrased it as a question, “Will you have a cup of tea?” But as I joke about in my talk for the North Carolina Humanities Council, to the Irish it’s never really a question – because you WILL have a cup of tea. And it was no different in her little house by the Jersey shore.

Being the youngest of seven children and the youngest of 42 first cousins, I was often on the periphery of conversations, listening to the adults talk about what adults talk about. The one thing that seemed to bring everyone together, the unifying agent, the glue in the family fabric, the soother of tension, was tea. Whatever the event, wedding or funeral, Christmas, Easter, heartbreak, or celebration there was always a cup of tea to set things right or at the very least to provide warm comfort.

My parents and I moved from New Jersey to North Carolina when I was 15. A terrible age to move! I experienced a total culture shock. I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying to me--the accents and phrasing of things was so different. When someone asked me if I could carry them to the store, I thought they were crazy. First, they were bigger than me and there was no way I could get them on my back. Eventually, I came to understand that “carry” in the South meant “to take”. This person just wanted a ride to the store! It’s amazing that cultures could be so different when they are only 500 miles apart. But it really was a completely different culture in the South as compared to what I was accustomed to in the North. The one thing that made me feel like I was still connected to my roots – the Irish ones and the northern ones – was tea (served hot). I became very interested in the world of tea when I was a teenager. Actually, tea was one of the catalysts that inspired my interest in plants, herbs, healing, cultural anthropology and history. The question that came to me one summer afternoon as I was drinking iced tea was that everywhere in the world people drink their tea hot, how did people in America end up drinking it iced and (in the south anyway) sweet? That was the question that propelled my research on the history of iced tea. I became a North Carolina Humanities Council Road Scholar five years ago and have been giving a talk on the subject ever since.

Imagine that we are in your home. The water is on and you are preparing your favorite tea.  What are you about to drink?
So many favorites! Well, I can tell you what I’m drinking right now. It’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the time I find most appropriate for either a nap or a cup of the amber ambrosia known as Darjeeling. I’m drinking a Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (FTGFOP) Second flush from India’s Balasun Estate. You might also find me drinking a lovely, bright Japanese green tea known as Tamaryokucha, which reminds me of the taste of spring. But with snow in the forecast a Darjeeling seemed most appropriate this afternoon.

Do you have daily tea habits or rituals?
I drink different teas throughout the day. I generally start the day with a stronger black tea. Though I know many tea connoisseurs consider CTC (crush, tear and curl) teas to be lower quality, I like them. They hold up well to the addition of little milk. This is my “mother tea,” the one I grew up with. It is the tea that provides the most visceral comfort for me. I have a wonderful, little tetsubin teapot that I’ve used for years to brew my black teas. I also travel with it. Because you can’t break a tetsubin teapot. If someone offers to carry my bags they may think they are packed with rocks! But it’s actually just a cast-iron teapot. I don’t usually tell them that though. I think the coffee drinkers of the world think we tea people are a little eccentric. Which is fine with me.

You are a woman of many talents. I know that in addition to being a tea lover, you are an herbalist, artist, musician, storyteller, and writer. How does tea intertwine with these other interests in your life? 
If I were to define “artist” as someone who sees the interconnectedness and beauty of the world and has a desire to share that with others through creative and expressive mediums, then I would define myself, first, as an artist. Among my mediums are plants, stories, music, culture, and teaching. I am a practicing wellness coach and consultant. My clientele are people looking to improve themselves through self-knowledge, building healthy habits, and dietary and lifestyle changes. Often times people come to me because they feel overwhelmed, tired, have challenging health issues, or are just looking for ways to relax, slow down and take better care of themselves.

There are those of us who thrive in the fast-paced “coffee culture” and there are those of us looking to slow down, appreciate the sensory world, and build a centered and grounded life. I see tea culture as more the latter. Tea is unique in that it contains both a stimulant (caffeine) and a relaxant (theanine). After all it is said that tea was discovered by the founder of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma, in 520 BC. He was trying to meditate, but he kept falling asleep-- a common problem for many of us new to meditation! He became so frustrated that he took his eyelids off and they turned into the first tea leaves. It is thought that tea assists in meditation because it keeps us alert and relaxed. If I were to describe my idea state of being it would be just that—alert and relaxed. Things like walking in the nature, playing music with friends, and sharing information through the medium of writing and storytelling are all things that keep me “whole”.

What tea-related projects can we look forward to seeing you take on in the future?
I am currently in the process of writing a book on the history of iced tea. Though the history is so fascinating it might take me a lifetime to write it! The history of this beloved beverage covers a lot of territory, from the oldest of glaciers, to ancient Egypt. It’s a story full of pirates and theft, drug wars, secret rituals, wealth, slavery, ecstasy, and vast plains and mountaintops. Not to mention a stop or two at Bojangles and barbecue joints across the south. It is a story both bitter and sweet. People have no idea about the history of the innocuous beverage they are drinking. And I think it’s a history more people should know about.

Thank you so much, Erin, for taking the time to tell us about your love of tea. 

To learn more about Erin and the work she does, visit her website at

To learn about the tea talk she gives through the North Carolina Humanities Council Road Scholars program, visit HERE.

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Maira Gall