Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Would You Like a Spot of Tea?

I'm a pretty big fan of a good cup of tea.  I never really got into coffee and I figure why bother getting myself attached to that much caffeine this late in life, but tea--there's just something great about a well-made cup of tea.  I even went through a "tea snob" phase for awhile where I delved into loose-leafs and learned all the terms and whatnot, but honestly, a good black blend in a tea bag is just fine by me these days.

I thought I'd take a moment to do a little tea primer and present some neat tea facts that I'll bet you didn't know.

What *is* Tea?
With the exception of herbal and fruit teas, all tea comes from the same plant called Camellia Sinensis.  The leaves are picked off the very tips of the plant branches by hand and are processed in one of three ways to make the three major kinds of tea:

Black Tea - The most common, also known as "regular tea" here in America (we're so elegant, aren't we?).  To make black tea, the leaves are fermented (actually, oxidized) to turn them a darker color and develop flavor.  They're then dried.

Green Tea - Green tea starts with the same leaves, except they're steamed instead of being fermented/oxidized, then quickly dried.   The result is a tea that retains a very grassy flavor and light green color that is popular in Asian cultures.

Oolong Tea - Oolong is more or less a hybrid of Green and Black, both in taste and production process.  The tea leaves, from specific varietals of the plant,  are partially fermented, steamed, twisted, and dried.  The result is similar to green tea but milder in taste.

Other Fun Tea Facts
  • Terms like "Orange Pekoe" (pronounced "peck-oh," not "peek-oh") refer to the size of the leaves (the "grade"), not the flavor as most folks think.  Most commercial tea bags (Lipton, etc.) are actually made with a pretty low grade of tea that comprises of the smaller particles and dust remaining after the larger leaves have been sifted out.  It makes for inexpensive and quick brewing, so that's not necessarily a bad thing for a tea bag.
  • Tea is often sold and marketed by where it is grown and like fine wine, the taste of the tea has a lot to do with its origin.  Tea grown in Ceylon (current day Sri Lanka), for example is a mild-tasting tea with an orange color while Darjeeling tea tastes quite different and is darker in color.
  • There are commonly accepted names for blends of tea that you'll often see on the market.  For example, a robust blend of black teas is often sold as "English Breakfast" or "Breakfast Blend."  A black blend flavored with the essence of bergamot, an orange-flavored citrus plant, is marketed as "Earl Grey" and its lighter cousin made with oranges is called "Lady Grey." Jasmine tea is green tea with the flowers of the jasmine plant added.  Lapsang Souchong tea is smoked to give it an earthy, woodsy flavor.
  • A cup of coffee has between 180 and 200 milligrams of caffeine while a cup of tea has around 90 and the kind of caffeine in tea has a "slower burn," so you don't feel the effects quite the same way as you do with coffee.  Green tea has even far less at about 60mg per cup.
  • Tea in general is very high in antioxidants, which are thought to help prevent cancer.  Green tea contains more antioxidants than most foods.
  • Caffeine is extremely water soluble to the point that you can make your own "decaf" tea.  Simply brew a cup of tea and discard it.  Use the same tea bag or leaves to brew a second cup.  While you won't get as strong a brew, most of the caffeine will have been tossed away with the first cup of water.  The same works with coffee but it's harder to get a satisfying cup of coffee from second-hand grounds than it is with tea leaves.
  • Herbal Teas are any tea made exclusively from herbs, flowers, berries, fruits, and other items not derived from the camellia sinensis plant (the tea plant).  All herbal teas are inherently caffeine free unless they've been blended with real tea.
  • Even if you buy the most expensive tea leaves you can find, tea is still cheaper by volume (brewed) than just about any other beverage in the world, including soda.
  • The British are credited with the practice of adding milk and sugar to black teas.  Asians would consider adding sugar or dairy to green tea uncouth, though a little honey is acceptable, if you must.
  • "Red Tea" is actually an herbal tea made from the rooibus plant.  It's similar in health benefits to green tea, including the antioxidants but is completely caffeine free.
  • "White Tea" is a fourth type of tea made from the camellia sinensis plant.  It's grown in a very specific region of China and is processed in a very specific, minimal way to preserve flavor.  It comprises some of the most expensive tea in the world.
  • If you're going to invest in good loose-leaf tea leaves, be sure to invest in a cup-style tea infuser rather than a tea ball.  This ensures that the tea leaves have plenty of room to unfurl and really move around.

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