Tea 101

Contents

  1. What is Tea?
  2. Tea Processing
  3. Benefits of drinking tea
  4. Is tea a magical diet drink?
  5. What are tisanes? (Herbal and other teas)
  6. Tea preparation - hot tea
  7. Tea preparation - iced tea
  8. Storing tea

 


1. What is Tea?

Camellia sinensis, otherwise known as the tea plant, originated in China and North Eastern areas of India and has been used as a drink for thousands of years. The long history of tea is itself an interesting story. Rather than relate that long history here we will concentrate more on matters in our own time. (For a great history of tea we recommend James Norwood Pratt's New Tea Lover's Treasury)

The tea plant is an evergreen bush that goes dormant during the cooler winter months and starts new growth in the spring. The newest leaf growth (known as the flush) at the top of the plant is harvested to be processed into various types of tea. A typical tea plant can be harvested multiple times in a season depending on geography and local growing conditions.  When picked by hand the harvest generally consists of the newest two leaves and the bud of the newest leaf.

The first harvest of a season is called the “first flush” and this tea is generally considered to be of higher quality and smoother flavor. You might see a reference to first or second flush in some of our product descriptions and this is why it is noteworthy. Some types of tea are better during second flush.

2. Tea Processing

How is tea processed to create Green, White, Oolong, and Black teas?

Once the tea leaves are harvested they are brought to a central area for processing. The tea leaves are already withering at this point. During this withering process the tea leaves will lose about 25% of their water weight.

Next the leaves are put through a process known as “bruising” where the leaves are crushed or pounded or cut up to open the cells in the leaves and expose those juices to begin the oxidation process. The time tea leaves are allowed to oxidize is the key to creating different types of tea. Green tea spends the least amount of time oxidizing while black teas are oxidized the most. (Oolong teas are somewhere in between to various degrees.)

To stop the oxidation process the leaves are heated in woks or by baking (the most common method). Once oxidation has been arrested the tea is further dried and “shaped” into various shapes prior to packaging. For instance, green tea for many years was rolled into balls for maximizing shipping space for tea going to foreign markets. Clipper ships, originally designed to get tea from China to markets in the West, were packed with green tea in these tight balls that resembled large grains of gun powder. “Gun Powder tea” as it was known then is still created and processed today.

White tea is basically not processed at all.  The tea leaves are withered and dried in the sun until the moisture level drops enough to package. This is a specialty tea developed in a particular province in China. The plants develop slowly and contain more chlorophyll and are harvested when the leaves are very young. It has less caffeine then Green tea and some studies suggest there are additional benefits to drinking this unprocessed tea.  It is considered a particular delicacy.

For more details we suggest the Wikipedia article on tea processing.

3. Benefits of drinking tea

Tea has a number of compounds including two important ones identified as being beneficial for good health, antioxidants and L-theanine.

Antioxidants assist in counteracting “oxidants” which are naturally produced in the human body over time. “Free radicals”, a class of oxidants, damage genetic material in cells. Some research has pointed to accumulating free radicals as a factor in the aging process. Different types of tea contain different types of antioxidants. Antioxidants called Catechins are found in White and Green teas. Black teas have antioxidants called Theaflavins and Thearubigins.

L-theanine is a substance often found in dietary supplements but tea is the only natural source of this compound. This is an amino acid that boosts alpha-wave activity in the brain. It improves alertness and focus without making you jittery. There are some studies that suggest it has other benefits as well including lower blood pressure and enhanced immune system.

Caffeine in tea has always been a concern for some people. In general, tea has about half as much caffeine per cup as coffee. Green and White teas, because they are brewed in cooler water for shorter times, have even less caffeine per cup. This is important to understand, caffeine in tea is a function of water temperature and steeping time. The hotter the water and the longer the steeping time the more caffeine is extracted from the leaves.

Besides de-caffeinated teas and herbal teas, we like to suggest Rooibush. Rooibush is a plant native to South Africa that has been brewed as a tea for centuries. Rooibush has no caffeine and makes an excellent drink for those who are caffiene sensitive. See our sections on de-caffeinated teas and Rooibush teas for some great examples.

4. Is tea a magical diet drink?

This seems to have become the hot button Internet issue of the year. Many retailers are selling “special” green teas that are supposed to have weight loss properties. The reality is any tea is better for you to drink than soda or most other beverages containing massive amounts of sugar. By simply replacing soda in your diet with tea you could see a significant change. Any diet for weight loss should be conducted under a doctor’s care and instructions! Simply paying more attention to what you eat and how much can have positive results in most people.

We feel the following articles speak to this issue very well:

Tea and Weight Loss (Part One): Studies Show...

Tea and Weight Loss (Part Two): A Hot Market Making Big Claims

5. What are tisanes? (Herbal and other teas)

Tisanes are a term used in the tea industry to describe any plant brewed as “tea” that is not actually the tea plant. This includes herbal teas, rooibush, and other plants brewed as tea around the world.

6. Tea preparation - hot tea

Like many things, preparing tea is a matter of individual taste. Our instructions can be considered guidelines and only by experimenting can you find the best way of making tea for yourself.

The first major ingredient of any tea is water. The best quality water will make the best quality tea. If you have a problem with very hard water or water with lots of impurities a good quality water filter would be a recommended investment for making quality tea.

Black teas are the most familiar to tea drinkers and the easiest to brew. Boil water and pour over loose tea in a filter basket over a cup or tea pot or loose in the tea pot. (We have found a number of our customers brew their tea loose in the pot and we agree it is the best way to bring out the flavors of the tea.) How long to steep the tea varies by type of tea and the desired strength. We make sure to include recommended brewing instructions for all of the teas we sell including steeping time. You can adjust this time according to your own tastes. In general for Black teas the water should be boiling or 100 degrees C or 212 degrees F.

White, Green, and Oolong teas that are less oxidized need a lower water temperature to brew in. Bring your water to a boil first then let cool down to a lower temperature before pouring over the tea leaves. A temperature of between 60 C and 85 C, (140-185 F) works best for these teas. Short of using a thermometer you can just let the water cool for a few minutes to bring it down to the right temperature.

7. Tea preparation - iced tea

Just about any type of tea can be made into ice tea or iced tea. The most popular are black teas and flavored black teas. Brewing iced tea is fairly easy. Just brew up a double strength (double the amount of tea) for a normal large pot and pour it over a picture of ice or into ice water. Southern “sweet tea” is best made by adding sugar to a pot of brewed tea before you add it to the ice. (Sugar dissolves better in hot water.) Since we moved to the “South” a few years ago we have learned that Southern Sweet Tea is not what we thought it was in the North. Iced Tea has become a Southern Tradition in just a few generations and they can be very particular about how it is made. Adding sweetener after it is poured into a glass is just not done. (Although many iced tea drinkers like to substitute artificial sweeteners rather than use sugar.)

A variation includes making “sun tea”. Sun tea is made by adding tea to a large covered jar or pitcher of water and leaving it in the sun for a while to brew slowly. You must be careful not to leave it out too long as the tea will be strong and bitter.

8. Storing tea

Tea will stay fresh when stored in a cool, dry air-tight container away from direct sunlight. Different types of tea will last longer than others. Black teas last the longest, between one and two years while green tea can turn stale in a few months. Pu-erh tea actually improves with age. Gunpowder tea rolled into tight balls will keep longer than open leaf teas. A good quality vacuum sealed container will extend the storage time of any tea.

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