TEST YOUR TEA SAVVY
Kevin Kreiger, Tea Buyer
The Tea Garden Herbal Emporium
Why does it seem like so often, we’re trying to speed ourselves up just to keep pace with life? Between our jobs, families, relationships, exercise, and time to decompress and have a little fun, there's that creeping feeling that we can never quite catch up. As a result, so many of us lean on stimulants to get through our days. In Western countries especially, coffee rules. Unless you're among the ranks of java connoisseurs, it's relatively inexpensive, and easy to make or purchase.
Unfortunately, it's a slippery slope from that one cup with breakfast to another pick-me-up around 10:30... an iced coffee or caffeinated soft drink at lunch... then another to stave off the inevitable mid-afternoon crash. And it all adds up.
Newsflash: contrary to what most folks assume, stimulants don't actually add energy to the human body. They force it into a kind of overdrive that, with time, runs down the all-important adrenal system. It may help to think of this as maxing out credit cards for immediate desires, when in fact we're overborrowing against our future well-being. The danger, of course, is burnout: escalating fatigue coupled, ironically, to trouble sleeping, deeper irritability, and ultimately a dangerous temptation to rely still more on coffee.
For those of you who may be recognizing yourselves in this description, take heart. There are alternatives which don't involve completely giving up your caffeine, but which take much less of a toll. Maté is one, though less well-known here. The most obvious is tea, an ancient drink that gently stimulates the nervous system, focuses the mind, and offers tremendous secondary benefits.
Contrary to what many believe, there is caffeine in tea (as distinguished from stimulant-free herbal tisanes like chamomile, rooibos, and mint). But it occurs in smaller quantities and somewhat different chemical structures which soften its negative impact. While the average cup of coffee ranges from 100-150 mg. of caffeine, black tea typically runs 50-75 mg., and green tea 25-30 mg.
While this may sound lightweight when you're hitting that 3:00 wall, there are some advantages worth considering. Research has revealed tea's polyphenols and catechins, powerful antioxidants that protect DNA and dramatically inhibit proliferation of cancer cells. The oils aid in digestion and help break down fatty food (green tea does this more efficiently than black, so try it with your lunch instead of a Diet Coke, which—sorry—actually inhibits the digestive process). Tea also offers a broad array of valuable nutrients, such as vitamins A, B, and C, high levels of zinc, and other antioxidants that help keep the body's natural energy production systems primed.
There's more. Extensive studies show tea’s phytochemicals are among the most potent substances known for inhibiting oxidation of LDL cholesterol, a chief cause of clogged arteries. Tea also contains more heart-healthy catechins than red wine (and you can drive home afterwards). Research in Japan found that women over 40 who drank 4-5 cups a of green tea a day had half the rate of strokes. Another study indicated that tea drinkers overall had half the premature death rate from all causes as compared to non-drinkers. And finally, just in case all this isn’t enough, tea also helps prevent tooth decay by fighting the bacteria which lead to cavities and gum disease.
A SHORT HISTORY
Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Chinese emperor Shen Nung was overthrown. He spent years wandering in poverty, often with nothing more than hot water to drink. One morning, a leaf from a wild tea bush tumbled into his bowl. Of the resulting infusion he said, “Tea gives vigor to the body, contentment to the mind, and determination of purpose.” He began to drink it everyday, and referred to it as tai, or “peace.”
The drink spread rapidly throughout Asia, becoming an object of deep cultural reverence. It wasn’t introduced to the West, however, until 17th-century Portuguese merchants formed trading routes to the mouth of the Mekong River. At first tea was only available to royalty, who sent ships with the express purpose of bringing back the unique drink.
By the late 17th century tea was gaining popularity in the West. It was first served in exclusive coffee houses, then more broadly. Now tea is grown in at least fifty countries around the world, with thousands of varieties available.
All the different kinds of tea come from the same plant, camellia sinensis. As with wine, the growing conditions (altitude, soil, cloud cover, rainfall) create huge variations. The differences between the three major styles — green, oolong, and black — are the result of variations in processing after harvest.
Think of tea's cultural niche in Asian cultures as equivalent to wine's in the West. The vast majority of annual output goes into commercial-grade products. The small remnant, however, is rare, expensive, and utterly glorious.
Green Tea is grown mainly in China, Japan, and India. Greens are prized for their refreshing aroma and delicate taste. The rich green hue is retained after picking because the leaves are steamed, rolled, and dried immediately in large pans to prevent them from turning brown. Well-known examples include Sencha, Matcha, Gunpowder, and the extremely delicate White teas (renowned for having the highest antioxidant levels of all).
Oolong Tea is a slightly oxidized leaf produced in Mainland China and Taiwan, and exists somewhere between green and black. The leaves are characteristically bulky and whole, and combine the smoothness of black tea with the subtlety of green tea. Oolongs range from China's darker Wuyi-style brews to Taiwan's famously fragrant gaoshancha, or High Mountain Green Oolong.
Black Tea was created by chance in the hold of an East India Company ship transporting green tea from Asia. The leaves accidentally fermented during the voyage. At first dismayed, the merchants got curious and brewed up a batch to see if there was any way to cut their losses. They were so impressed by the novel aroma and flavor that black tea became a hit in Europe, and the Chinese began to actively manufacture this new elixir.
SO WHERE DO YOU START?
Most Westerners are familiar with the teabag, which for ages was the only readily available option. Fortunately, tea has undergone a renaissance in the U.S., with a broad range of products now on the shelf in your local supermarket. Higher grades can be found in better grocery stores, cafés, and online. Go try Jasmine Pearls, or a Chinese Dragonwell. Take a leap and ask for an Oolong in your favorite coffeehouse.
As a long-term tea purveyor, let me offer a few quick tips to get you on your way.
1) Loose leaf tea is always better. Companies typically save the lowest quality powdery remnants, known as "shake", to put in bags. Yes, brewing loose takes a bit more time, effort, and attention. You'll need a teapot, or you can purchase convenient make-your-own empty teabags. But the results are infinitely more subtle and flavorful.
2) Avoid using straight tap water. Use filtered, or better still real spring water. The difference, both health and flavor-wise, is huge. As an indication of how seriously tea is taken, consider this: in ancient times, the Chinese had special tasters who could tell if the water was drawn from a well or a river, and even which part of the river.
3) Pay attention to brewtimes. The most common complaint heard in the biz: "Green tea is bitter!" No: overbrewed green tea is bitter. You wouldn't want to seriously overcook that gorgeous T-Bone tonight, would you? Same here. Although the stated guidelines may be higher, it's generally better to underbrew. Some maximums:
GREENS: 1 minute
OOLONGS: 2 minutes
BLACKS: 3 minutes
Once you're more familiar, you can begin to experiment with different times, according to your personal tastes.
It all comes down to pleasure: not simply dumping milk and sugar into a Venti and gulping it down in the car, but actually pausing for a few minutes to savor. It may not seem like much, but those little moments of slowing down during the day can have a very real effect on our well-being.