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You may have started drinking tea for the health benefits, or as an alternative to coffee, or just because it tastes good. When Gary and I became interested in tea and found that most Americans drink instant tea, iced tea and hot tea with tea bags. Well, okay. However, we found that a revolution is brewing (hah, pun intended).
Although coffee is still king in the United States, a major change is brewing. (Oh, no. There we go again :))
Department of Agriculture statistics show tea drinking has increased as coffee drinking has declined. And while studies also show that coffee is associated with many health benefits, including helping protect against diabetes and Parkinson’s disease, a typical cup has much more jitter-producing caffeine than tea does.
Manelle Martino, co-owner of Capital Teas in Washington, said she has seen the explosion of interest in tea firsthand. Her sales of loose-leaf tea have risen substantially each year since she opened the business in 2007, she said. “We started the tea company with one shop. Now, there are six stores in the D.C. area,” she said. “People are becoming more health-conscious. You have baby boomers who are into preserving their youth. You see them wanting to take better care of themselves.”
So what did we learn about tea in our research about tea drinkers and tea?
MYTH #1: TEA COMES IN MANY VARIETIES
Only one plant gives us tea leaves — the Camellia sinensis. The differences in color and flavor among the three basic types — black, green and oolong — depend on how the leaves are processed. For black tea, the most popular type of tea in the U.S., the tea leaves are exposed to air, or allowed to oxidize. Green teas are less processed to preserve the green color and delicate flavor. Oolong tea is between black and green.
Okay, maybe you knew that.
MYTH #2: HERBAL TEA IS TEA
No, technically, tea must come from the Camellia sinensis plant. Even more shocking is that Rooibos isn’t tea either. Rooibos or “red tea” is not a leaf; it’s a seed from a bush that grows in South Africa. Herbal teas such as Celestial Seasonings’ popular Sleepytime product are made from other plants and called “tisanes.” Though herbal teas can have health benefits, most of the research has been done on tea, not tisanes.
You say you knew that, too? See how smart you are? Well, okay. Hang on; there’s more, tea drinkers.
MYTH #3: TEA BAGS ARE FINE – THE BRITISH LOVE THEM.
Nonetheless, Bruce Richardson sees progress. “We are enjoying a tea renaissance right now,” says the author of fourteen books on tea and the owner of a wholesale tea business in Danville, Ky. He is convinced that 20-year-olds are getting hip to leaves, coming in to sample single-plantation varieties and blends at his tea bar.
Let’s get to the heart of the matter:
First, tea bags have stale tea dust from broken leaves that have lost their oils and aroma. This is a huge compromise in quality from full leaf tea. When steeped, they release more tannins than whole leaf tea, resulting in bitter, astringent brews.
Second, the paper used is very suspect. If you have ever gotten a piece of paper wet, you know that it tends to fall apart easily. The solution that companies created was to treat the paper with something to make it stronger – usually Epichlorohydrin.
According to Dow Chemical (who is the largest producer of this substance): Epichlorohydrin has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals. In the U.S.A., it is considered to be a potential carcinogen for purposes of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) hazard communication standard, 29 CFR 1910.1200.
Third: Tea leaves need room to expand for full-bodied flavor. Standard tea bag material is often low-flow, preventing the brew from diffusing beyond the inside of the bag.
That is the reason tea balls are not ideal for brewing loose-leaf tea.
“I just don’t get it,” says Linda Neumann, co-owner with Michelle Brown of the four Teaism shops in the Washington area. “I think if more people took the time to steep and strain instead of dunk and dash, the world would be a better place.”
However, quality is at the heart of the matter. What’s in tea bags “doesn’t come close to the quality of loose-leaf tea. It’s just not of value,” Neumann says. Walk into their Alexandria restaurant and shop, for example, and you can plunk down $15 for a mere 2 ounces of Jinzhen, a Chinese black tea with golden-tipped leaves and a light chocolate aroma in its brew. That works out to about 80 cents a cup. Affordable.
“People think loose-leaf tea is too hard,” she says. “But tea is really very simple.”
Typical tea bags are produced on an industrial scale — picked, processed and processed by machines overseas. Then these low-grade leaves sit in a warehouse or on a shelf for a long time.
In contrast, most premium teas are carefully hand-selected and crafted by tea masters, packed in small batches – air-tight tea tins or resealable bulk pouches, assuring that you get fresh handcrafted tea from this year’s crop.
MYTH #4 – BREWING LOOSE LEAF TEA IS TOO MUCH TROUBLE.
Steeping tea doesn’t have to be difficult and achieving great tea can be simple if you have the right equipment.
- Boil your water
- Place the tea infuser with handles resting on the rim of the mug or teapot.
- Pour the hot water in, put the lid to keep warm.
- Let it steep.
- Take the lid off and place the tea infuser in it for later. Don’t throw the leaves away!
- Second and third brewing is even tastier. Just pour hot water through again.
Now for a quick commercial break from our regularly featured program:
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OKAY, now back to our regular program
Myth #5: THERE IS A RIGHT WAY AND A WRONG WAY TO BREW TEA.
You may have been given tips on how to brew tea from a well-meaning person who made it far more complicated than necessary. A heads up: Tea people are akin to wine connoisseurs. Some self-identified experts are more dogmatic: there is only one right way to brew this tea, and if you disagree, you do not know what you are talking about.
Conventional Western tea-brewing wisdom says black teas must be brewed with near-boiling water while delicate, prissy green and white teas need, nay, demand cooler water, usually around 160 to 175°F, lest you irreparably ruin their subtle flavors and transform their antioxidants into deadly neurotoxins.
In broad strokes, this is not wrong. Black teas and darker oolongs do benefit from very hot water to extract the full range of their flavors with just the right dose of tannins, while many green teas will taste sweeter and less bitter with cooler water. But not every green or white tea is made the same way—as a category, green tea is as vast as white wine—and some greens and whites do just as well in fully boiled water as black teas.
Here is a good rule of thumb:
The hotter you brew, the darker and more robust your tea will be. The cooler your water, the sweeter and more mild it will taste. You can brew any tea with this in mind, see what tastes best to your palate, and adjust accordingly.
A white tea or lightly oxidized oolong, for instance, will make two different brews at 175° and 205°. If it is a quality, both brews should good; which you prefer is up to you. Some people tend to start brewing a new tea with boiling water and dial it down from there if they need to.
The big exception to this freedom is Japanese greens, which really do benefit from rigidity in brewing to achieve a balance in sweet and bitter flavors. Most, like sencha and matcha, do well in the 160° to 170° range, while shade-grown gyokuro benefits from even lower temperatures, around 140°. However, no matter what you’re brewing, it’s your tea—don’t rely on a label to tell to how to brew it.
HERE’S THE THING – DON’T WORRY ABOUT IT.
Now if you WANT to get super geeky, here are some brewing guidelines.
White Tea: A rare and delicate tea variety harvested before the plant’s leaf is fully open. The least processed of all teas, smooth, subtle. Brewing requires hot water at 175 (simply add two ice cubes for every 8 oz of boiling water to achieve this temperature). Use 1.5 tsp per 8 oz of water. Steep for 4-5 minutes.
Benefits: boosts immune system, better skin and complexion, high amounts of antioxidants
Green Tea: The leaves are picked, dried, and heat-treated to stop fermentation. For most green teas use hot water at 175, (adding two ice cubes for every 8 oz of boiling water achieves approximately this temperature), use 1 tsp per 8 oz of water, and steep for one minute.
Benefits: antioxidants, boosts immune system, lowers risk of heart disease, healthy teeth & gums, and weight loss
Black Tea: Fully fermented tea, creating a full bodied taste. Usually requires hot water at 195. 1.5 tsp per 8 oz of water. Steep for 3-4 minutes.
Benefits: known for heart health, increased circulation and lowering blood pressure
Oolong Tea: Undergoes slight fermentation and oxidation and usually requires hot water at 195. 1.5 tsp per 8 oz of water. Steep for 3 minutes.
Benefits: known as the weight loss tea, helps with digestion, burning calories and fat loss
Herbal Tea:(Tisanes) Made from dried fruits, herbs, spices, or dried flowers. Usually requires hot water at 208º. 1.5 tsp tea per 8 oz of water. Steep for 4-5 minutes.
Benefits: caffeine free, antioxidants, vitamins, relaxation, pain relief, and soothing to stomach and throat
You can consider buying an electric kettle with a full digital range so you can dial in any brewing temperature that your heart desires. There are several great brands on Amazon. Just put in the search bar: variable temperature electric kettle.
AND Amazon has some cute little timers made especially for tea lovers to time the brewing process. Just put in “tea timer’s in the search bar.
There are two ways for tea to become unpleasantly bitter: steeping at too high a temperature, or steeping for too long.
Quality water is important. It is also possible that if your water is heavily chlorinated or otherwise impure that it could be making your tea taste bad. Many tea aficionados are very fussy about the quality of water they use in their tea, apparently for good reason.
MYTH #6 TEA HAS LESS CAFFEINE THAN COFFEE
The difference in caffeine content between coffee and tea is more complicated than that. Both coffee and tea contain caffeine and therefore have a stimulant-like effect on the brain, but the nature of these effects is quite different.
Theophylline and theobromine are organic compounds related to caffeine and found in small amounts in tea. They stimulate the body in several ways.
Theophylline relaxes smooth muscles in the airway, making breathing easier while also stimulating both the rate and force of contraction of the heart.
Theobromine can also stimulate the heart, but it does have a mild diuretic effect and improves blood flow around the body, leading to a net reduction in blood pressure.
Some of the caffeine we ingest in tea is metabolized with the theophylline and theobromine.
NOW IT GETS INTERESTING
Tea has a unique amino acid called L-Theanine, which has some very interesting effects on the brain. It is mainly found in the tea plant Camellia sinensis and crosses the blood-brain barrier.
In humans, L-theanine increases generation of brain waves called Alpha Waves, which are associated with alert relaxation. This is perhaps the main reason for the different, milder “buzz” that tea generates compared to coffee. That is why tea may be a suitable alternative for those who are sensitive to the high amounts of caffeine in coffee.
Available as a dietary supplement, L-theanine is used to boost focus and concentration as well as to promote relaxation. The amino acid is found in rich amounts exclusively in tea. Research suggests it may enhance brain function and help your body deal with stress. Green tea — which, unlike black tea, is made from leaves that have not been allowed to oxidize — generally has a higher concentration of L-theanine compared to black tea. Oolong tea is made with semi-oxidized tea leaves and can get as much as 9.2 percent of its dry weight from L-theanine.
The difference between green and black tea is in the processing, something that doesn’t affect caffeine content. Because they’re derived from the same plant, they contain similar amounts unless you brew your green tea for short periods.
Now we have our last Myth. We are sure there are many more, but here it is:
Myth #7 GREEN TEA IS “BETTER” FOR YOU THAN OTHER TEAS
Considering how many people start drinking tea for its purported health benefits, it’s worth looking at green tea in some detail.
The most common claims in favor of drinking green tea are its low caffeine content and high antioxidant value. We have already dealt with the first claim—some green teas have just as much caffeine as other varieties. As for antioxidants, well yes, thanks to its low oxidation, green tea possesses more antioxidants than black and oolongs. (Though lightly oxidized white teas often show even higher levels!) What those antioxidants do when you’re drinking tea is far less clear, and there’s far less scientific consensus on the practical benefits of regularly drinking green tea.
That’s not to say there are no benefits, but rather that when sensationalist headlines call out green tea as a miracle cure for everything from allergies to cancer, it’s worth taking a more skeptical perspective. It’s also doubtful that green tea is the only kind of tea to make you feel good. Green tea’s modern popularity means it dominates the scientific literature; researchers focus far less on certain dark, heavily processed teas that have been used as folk remedies for hundreds of years.
Black tea leaves are prepared by breaking the leaves or rolling them, which allows them to oxidize fully– a process that involves oxygen interacting with the leaves to produce the necessary active ingredients. The oxidation process — often mistakenly referred to as fermentation in the tea business — is the longest of all the four types of teas and produces the greatest amount of caffeine of any in the group, as well as beneficial antioxidants known as theaflavins and thearubigins. The oxidation process also turns the leaves a darker color.
In our research, we found there are as many benefits from black teas as there for green tea. For instance, increasing evidence hints that the antioxidants in black tea may reduce atherosclerosis (clogged arteries). especially in women. It may also help lower the risk of heart attack. Regularly drinking black tea may also lower your risk for diabetes, high cholesterol, kidney stones. However, there are studies that it will increase high blood pressure. If you have more information on this, our readers would love to hear from you.
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Lee and Gary Jordan