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Terrific Tea

Tibetan Tiger, Iron Goddess and Dragon Well may sound like cocktails concocted at a trendy bar, but don't look in a shot glass for these hip beverages, try your teacup. Exotic choices in a burgeoning gourmet market have Americans taking to high-quality tea the way they thirsted for mochaccinos during the recent coffee boom.

Those who once made do with tea bags from the grocer can now shop urban tea salons and Web sites for a plethora of special leaves grown in the world's best regions. Ahead-of-the-curve restaurants have lengthy tea menus proffered by servers who list their nuances just as they might with wine. Elite tea gurus, known as sommeliers, even pair tea with food and share expertise on the fine points of selection and preparation.

Manager Jeremy Adler of Tabla restaurant in New York attributes the success of its deep tea menu (11 choices) to enlightened diners. "Many have traveled to Asia or [tea-drinking] countries in Europe, and they want more options." This type of tea connoisseur considers two key factors: origin and production technique.

Just as Burgundy is a legendary wine region, China's Fujian Province and its Songlintou and Yaoyang districts are celebrated for tea, as are Assam in India, Kyoto in Japan and Nantou in Taiwan. Varying degrees of oxidation define the three most common teas in the U.S. The leaves of black tea are completely oxidized, while oxidation is stopped almost immediately for green tea. Oolongs fall somewhere in between.

The national taste for coffee notwithstanding, tea is the world's second favorite quaff (after water) with a history dating to ancient times and including the stimulation of nascent global trade and the War of Independence. These are some favorites:

Jasmine Pearl: Exposure to the Night Blooming Jasmine blossom for several nights scents this hand-rolled green tea. Exotic floral aroma mixes with a sweet note of freshly cut grass. $6 an ounce from Devi Tea, Medford, OR, 888-228-8007, www.devitea.com.

Oriental Beauty Oolong: Another complex oolong from Taiwan, it leans towards the texture and appearance of a black tea, with light spice notes and an intense honey aroma. $22 a quarter pound from In Pursuit of Tea, Brooklyn, NY, 866-878-3832, www.inpursuitoftea.com.

Earl Grey: This familiar blend of black teas is scented with Bergamot. The Tazo filter bag is a quick way to enjoy its orange blossom aroma and citrus and lavender flavors. (Most better teas come in a loose-leaf format that requires a tea strainer.) $4.95 for a box of 12 filter bags at Starbucks.

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