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All About Tea


All About The Amazing Leaf: Tea

One of the two primary healthy beverages we consume on a regular basis are tea and coffee.

There are drinks targeted at helping you hydrate, help you stay awake or focus for finals, help you fight the afternoon slump, help you recovery and so on. 

Tea is the one beverage that can help you do all of these!

This is because of the myriad of general health benefits found in a humble cup of tea.

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While tea clearly takes a backseat to coffee when it comes to popularity, beer when it comes to hanging out with friends, and wine for special occasions, tea is still the most widely consumed beverage in the world.

Humans have been drinking tea for thousands of years, and for good reason.

Before we explore why tea is good for you, let’s learn how tea drinking began.

Like many great discoveries, it was an accident.


Origins of tea

Tea drinking might bring images of an afternoon tea party with little crumpets and fine bone China cups to mind.

But what about the most popular tea consumed at nearly every restaurant in the United States?

Iced Tea... which is black tea... which is made from the same plant as green tea.

(Black tea is actually green tea that has been aged or oxidized.)

So when did tea originate, and where?

As the legend goes, it was in 2737 BC when Emperor Shen Nung discovered tea in China.

One version of the legend states that the Emperor was sitting under a camellia sinensis tree while his servants boiled water for him to drink. Some of the leaves from the tree allegedly fell into the boiling water which gave off a rather pleasant smell.

Intrigued by the resulting mixture Shen Nung, a renowned herbalist, decided to try drinking the water. And so, tea was discovered.   

This is a legend, just like the legend of coffee's discovery (which involves some jumping goats), because there is no documented evidence of what really happened.

Either way, the legend is fun, so why not keep it going?

One thing we do know is that drinking tea became a custom among the Chinese where it was closely guarded as a secret for hundreds of years. Years after its discovery, tea became the national drink during the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD).

During the late eighth century a writer named Lu Yu wrote the first book dedicated to tea called the the Ch'a Ching, or Tea Classic.

It was also around this time that tea was first introduced to Japan by Japanese Buddhist monks who travelled to China to study. Tea drinking would also become popular in Japan, eventually finding its way into ritual ceremonies.

On the other side of the world, mentions of tea drinking in Europe first surfaced in the latter half of the sixteenth century. The earliest entries describe these European tea drinkers as Portuguese who were living in the East as traders and missionaries.

While the Portuguese may have been the first Europeans to taste tea, they weren’t the first Europeans to import it to Europe. This honor goes to the Dutch who, in the last years of the sixteenth century, started taking over Portuguese trading routes in the East.

It was not long before the Dutch were able to establish a trading post on Java, where the first consignment of tea was shipped from China to Holland in 1606 after a tea plant, and 8 tea growers with the promise of fat contracts, was smuggled out of China by Scotsman named Robert Fortune.

Tea soon became popular among the Dutch and from there it spread to other countries in continental western Europe, but at the time only the wealthy could afford tea because the high price.

So how did the tea that was becoming all the rage in continental Europe cross the English Channel?

Records going back to 1600 mention Englishmen drinking tea. Perhaps these were brought back as gifts by sailors working in the East India Company, which had a monopoly on importing goods from outside Europe. However, it was still not available as a commercial commodity.

The first coffee house in London was established in 1652, however tea drinking was slow to catch on as many curious customers treating it as a mere curiosity.

In September 1658, a London newspaper, the Mercurius Politicus, advertised the availability of that “China Drink" at a coffee house in Sweeting's Rents in London. This was the first ad promoting tea.

Tea would not have become popular among the English were it not for Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess who married Charles II. She was a tea enthusiast and brought the tea to court where it quickly became fashionable. The rage spread to English high society and eventually began to trickle down among the other social classes.

The first import order for tea was placed in 1664 after that the East India Company began to regularly import tea into Britain.

The most famous tea event in early America was the Boson Tea Party.

In 1773, after the Boston Tea Party dumped barrels of tea into the Boston harbor, tea drinking was considered unpatriotic since it was seen as supporting Britain.

While this was a drawback for the popular of tea from the camellia sinensis plant (the same plant that produces green, black, white, yellow, oolong and pu-erh teas),  it was a boon for herbal tea varieties as people started to experiment with herbal teas infused with peppermint, sage, and dandelion.  

Despite this, tea continued to grow in popularity through the centuries; in fact an American would later make the innovation that would profoundly transform how tea is prepared.  

In 1908, a New York tea importer, Thomas Sullivan, sent tea samples to clients in small silk bags to cut on costs. These clients thought the bags were part of the package and added the entire bag to hot water.

Sullivan later increased the size of the silk bags to appease complaints that they were hard to steep. It was only then that he realized what his clients were doing.

And the tea bag was invented.

Sullivan decided to distribute tea in what we now call the teabag, although he would later switch to gauze because silk was too expensive for everyday disposal.

In 1946, Nestle USA introduced the first instant tea which we now know as Nestea. From there, tea became not just readily available to the public, but also without the steeping needed to make a cup of tea.

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Camellia sinensis

Camellia sinensis is of the genus Camellia, a branch of flowering plants in the family Theaceae. It is a species of evergreen shrub, but those shrubs can also grow into small trees with the proper tending.

There are two major varieties of this plant; camellia sinensis var. sinensis for Chinese teas, and Camellia sinensis var. assamica for Indian Assam teas.

It is the leaves and buds of the camellia sinensis that are harvested to make tea. The twigs and stems of the same plant are also harvested to make the special tea Kukicha (twig tea).

Camellia sinensis should not to be confused with Melaleuca alternifolia, the source of tea tree oil, or Leptospermum scoparium, the New Zealand teatree.

Camellia sinensis can be grown in most moderate zones in the United States. It can also be grown in greenhouses or in colder climate zones, given that it can be protected from severe freezes.


How tea is made

All teas undergo a similar general process for growing and processing. Beyond that, the techniques are abundant when it comes to processing, which affects the final flavor.

The process of making tea begins with the plucking process. Workers select specifically sized leaves to be processed into tea. The first few leaves on a twig are particularly prized because these are considered the prime leaves.

What follows next is withering and steaming.

After picking, the leaves are laid out to dry (or sometimes dried in ovens).

Traditional drying was done on bamboo trays, but as tea making got more sophisticated these started to be done in large indoor areas where heated air was funneled into large drying rooms. This technique is also used in places were the climate makes the natural drying process difficult.

The drying process reduces the water content in the leaves and makes them pliable enough for the next step in the process, rolling.

The rolling process (sometimes also called the forming process) is what gives tea leaves their scrunched-up look. Before modern machines, this was traditionally done manually by workers who rolled and shaped the leaves by hand. It is during this process that the leaf structure is broken down, and the juices and oils are released from the leaves.

What follows next is the oxidation process, or exposing the leaves to oxygen. Oxidation is a chemical reaction that alters the flavor of the leaves and determines the ultimate appearance and color of the processed tea. How long the tea leaves are allowed to oxidize, if at all, depends on what type of tea is being processed.

You can tell how oxidized tea leaves are; the greener the leaf, the less oxidized it is while the darker the leaves, the more oxidization. 

The final process is the drying or firing process. This is when the tea leaves are dried evenly in large ovens or drying machines to completely halt oxidation and lock in the final flavor. 

Different kinds of tea

How is one tea different from another, you might ask.

After all, the most common teas come fome from the same plant. The differences in tea lie in how the leaves are harvested and processed.  

Think of it like making wine. All wine comes from grapes, but not all wines are the same.

The process of wilting, bruising, oxidation, shaping, and drying the tea leaves are generally the same for all kinds of teas, but there are many variations within each step of the process that creates differences in the teas.

Taking into account all the different kinds of tea all over the world there are about 1,500 varieties. However, according to web developer and tea enthusiast, Kevin McGillivray, there are only 6 main types: Black tea, Green tea, White tea, Yellow tea, Oolong tea, and Dark tea (also known as pu’erh tea).

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Black Tea

Black teas typically have a robust flavor.

They tend to be a rich, dark brown color, but sometimes also take on the appearance of a dark red, which is why the Chinese sometimes refer to them as red teas.

Black teas are often named after the region where they are grown such as Assam and Darjeeling in India, and Yunnan, Yingteh, Tanyang, and Keemun in China.

Much care is taken during the withering process for black teas. Black teas are also fully oxidized during the production process. This means the tea leaves are crushed and torn before they are left to oxidize in a humid environment, making the oxidation process very rapid, usually 1 to 3 hours.

Sometimes black tea is mixed with other ingredients to make special teas like Masala Chai, an Indian black tea mixed with spices.

Sometimes different kinds of black teas are blended together to create new flavors such as English Breakfast and Earl Grey, which is black tea scented with bergamot oil.

You can take your tea “black” the way you take your coffee black. However, black tea mixed with milk and/or sugar is one of the most common ways it is consumed.

We have already mentioned Keemun above, this variety is especially notable as it takes on an almost pink hue when mixed with a small amount of milk. 


Green Tea

In general, green teas have a light, delicate flavor compared to darker teas.

Green teas undergo very little withering and are often steamed, baked, or pan-fired instead to stop the natural fermentation and growing process. This technique is called ‘kill-green’ or ‘fixing.’

Green teas are the least oxidized among the teas (this gives the tea its green color). After plucking they are put through the heating process to stop oxidation. From there they go on to the drying and rolling processes.

The real history of green tea is said to date back to the 8th century when the method of steaming the leaves to inhibit oxidation was first discovered.

Another breakthrough happened during the 12th century when a new method of fixing the leaves was introduced. Both processes resulted in the green teas that we know today, with the green tint and un-oxidized taste.  

There are many styles of green tea, including sencha, the most common green tea in Japan, Dragonwell, one of the most popular green teas in China, and Jasmine tea, a green tea scented with jasmine flowers. 

Before the Wei Jin Northern and Southern Dynasties (220-589), green tea tasted awfully bitter and people drank it out of necessity. After a simple drying process removed the bitterness from the taste, and people began drinking green tea not just for the health benefits but for the sheer pleasure of it.

The flavor and introduction of scents also made the drink more appealing to the public.

Green tea is an excellent source of catechins, another type of antioxidant. Scientists are now focusing on a subgroup of this compound known as EGCG for its potential role in preventing cancer and heart disease.


White Tea

White tea has the most delicate flavor of tea. Unlike other teas, white tea tends to be minimally processed, and is made from the young leaves, and sometimes flowers, of the tea plant.

The key to making excellent White Tea lies in the withering process. Different from other teas, the withering process in making white tea is divided into outdoor and indoor steps.

The best combination has been found to be outdoor withering of the leaves on a mild summer day, followed by further withering indoors.

The stems and the natural waxy film coating are then removed from the leaves, which are then slow-fire baked until dry.

The leaves then undergo the kill-green process using steam or hand pressing in a hot pan before going through the rolling and forming process, and the final drying process.

White tea is said to have first been brewed between 600 in China when tea drinking and tea culture was flourishing across the country. During that time it was customary for citizens to pay the emperor a yearly tribute in the form of the rarest and finest teas. As a result it became proper to offer tea made from the youngest and most delicate buds from the finest tea plants.

However, the white tea we drink today was developed in the Song Dynasty (960–1297), when growers plucked young tea buds in the spring, steamed them, stripped their outer leaf, meticulously rinsed them with spring water, air dried them, and then ground them into a silvery white powder.

A common example of white tea is Silver Needle Tea produced in the Fujian Province in China.


Yellow Tea

Yellow tea is considered the rarest of the six types of teas because they are made from buds, not the leaves. The tea gets its name from its distinctive yellow color (somewhat like the color of straw). Making yellow tea follows a somewhat similar production process to green tea.

Varieties of yellow tea include the Mo Gan Huang Ya produced in the Zhejiang Province, the Meng Ding Huang Ya produced in the Sichuan Province, and the

Jun Shan Yin Zhen produced in the Hunan Province.

The Jun Shan variety is said to have been the favorite tea of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung. The buds used to produce yellow tea are only grown on the mist-covered mountain of Jun Shan Island, a very small island that produces only 500 kilograms of yellow tea a year.

The bud is picked from the stem by twisting, not pulling. It said that it takes 60,000 of these carefully harvested buds to yield just one kilogram of Jun Shan Yin Zhen.

Because production was difficult and time-intensive, yellow tea was primarily consumed by locals. Higher demand for tea from both local and national consumers has also led growers to switch to green tea which was easier to make.

There are now few masters who know how to make yellow tea left in China. Most yellow tea never leaves China.


Oolong Tea

If you find the taste of black tea too strong and green tea too weak, you might prefer a mild oolong. Oolong tea has the a plethora of taste variations, from only mildly stronger than green tea to almost as robust as black tea.

To allow for this wide variation in taste, oolong tea also has the most variations when it comes to processing techniques.

During the withering process, the fresh picked tea leaves are first intentionally bruised by tossing or shaking them. This is an important part in the oolong tea process because it helps initiate the oxidation process that gives the leaves their ultimate flavor. The stronger flavor of oolong tea is sought, the more bruising it gets.

The oxidation process for oolong tea is equally just as important to determine the flavor. Oolong teas vary in levels of oxidation, anywhere from 8 percent to 80 percent.

The word oolong is the English adoption of the Chinese word wūlóng chá, which means "black dragon tea.” In Chinese, oolong teas are also known as qingcha or "dark green teas."

Another story tells us that one of the first people to make this kind of tea was a man literally named Wulong, and over the centuries the pronunciation of his name got corrupted to oolong.

There are many types of oolong tea, one of them being Tie Guan Yin, or Iron Goddess of Mercy.

Drinking oolong tea is good if you want to burn fat. Oolong tea activates enzymes that cut down triglycerides, a type of fat found in the blood. One study showed that women who consumed oolong tea burned slightly more fat than those who drank only water.

Aside from that, oolong tea also contains niacin which helps detoxify the body, and antioxidants that help prevent tooth decay.


Pu’erh Tea

Yellow tea may be rarer, but it’s actually pu’erh tea that is the most expensive.

Pu’erh teas are unique in that they are not only dried and oxidized but are also fermented, giving the tea a rich, earthy flavor.

Pu’erh tea starts as green tea during production, but it is the fermentation process that gives it its dark color.

Like certain wines from different regions of the world, only aged tea that comes from the Yunnan Province can be called Pu’erh tea. The production of this tea is highly regulated to ensure the highest quality and authenticity.

Pu’erh tea leaves are grown and harvested in counties along the Lancang River. Each estate produces its own special type of leaves. Some growers choose to carefully cultivate their plants in controlled conditions while other are content to let them grow wild on the hillsides. Some of these tea trees are said to be over a thousand years old.

The leaves are harvested and sent to Pu’erh City where each manufacturer blends the leaves according to their own unique recipe.

Pu’erh comes in two varieties; green (sheng), and black (shou). Both green and black varieties follow the same processing steps, but the black variety adds the additional step of cooking (also called piling or heaping),  where the leaves are heaped in a pile to let them ferment.

Ii Yunnan, natives think of pu’erh tea as an export commodity and traditionally did not consume it themselves. However, that is slowly changing.

While the process used to make pu’erh tea causes it to have lower antioxidant content than white or green tea, Chinese people credit it with many health benefits, such as aiding in weight loss, reduction of serum cholesterol, and promoting cardiovascular health.

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Other benefits of tea

Below are some benefits of drinking tea

Tea can boost exercise endurance – Scientists have found that the catechins in tea extract increase the body’s ability to use fat as fuel, and this leads improved muscle endurance.

Tea provides protection from ultraviolet rays – Going to the beach? Pack your sunglasses, hat, sunscreen…and tea. Green tea may act as a back-up sunscreen. According to a study published in NCBI, skin treated with green tea extracts reduced the number of sunburn cells and protected epidermal Langerhans cells from UV damage.

Tea can help the body recover from radiation – According to one study, tea helps protect against cellular degeneration caused by exposure to radiation, while another study found that tea can help skin bounce back from damage caused by the same.

Tea helps fight free radicals – Not everything radical is good, especially free radicals. Free radicals attack stable molecules, stealing their electrons and beginning a chain reaction that results in the disruption of living cells. Free radicals have been linked to cancer, heart disease, and neurological degeneration.

While our bodies are designed to fight free radicals on their own, they are not really 100 percent efficient in doing this. Tea is high in oxygen radical absorbance capacity and can help destroy free radicals.

Tea is hydrating to the body – Yes, some teas contain caffeine (especially black tea), which technically promotes dehydration. However, a strong cup of tea actually introduces more water to your body than it removes.

“Drinking tea is actually better for you than drinking water,” says Dr. Carrie Ruxton, a nutritionist and the lead author of a study into tea and rehydration, “water is essentially replacing fluid. Tea replaces fluids and contains antioxidants so it’s got two things going for it.”

Tea lowers the risk of Parkinson’s disease – Another study published in NCBI found that regular tea drinking is linked to a reduced risk of Parkinson’s disease in both genders when considered with other factors like smoking, physical activity, age, and body mass index.

Tea might also be effective in preventing and treating neurological diseases, especially degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. Researchers found that the polyphenols in tea help maintain the parts of the brain that regulate learning and memory.

Before you Buy Tea

Now that you know more about tea than 99% of the world, you might be tempted to rush off and grab the first bag you find in the supermarket.

But be careful as not all tea is created equally—especially teas in the store that sport shiny bags, glass containers and flashy designed cardboard boxes.

There's a reason that the big tea companies spend so much time and money on their packaging; because they have to sell to you before you try your first sip.

Beyond over-hyped packaging, there are a myriad of ingredients added to the typical blended tea you find on the shelf. Most people are surprised to hear the amount of artificial sweeteners and flavorings that are added to many teas.

Most people think of tea as nothing but a healthy beverage. But that's not always the case.

As with everything in the food business, the company you buy from is what matters. Look for organic, fair trade, direct trade and short ingredient lists (the fewer artificial sounding ingredients the better)

Just because a product is advertised as tea doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthy. Case in point is the iced tea served in restaurants and many fast food joints, and the instant drinks readily available in the supermarket.

Pick up a container of instant tea in the grocery shelf and check the label. Chances are you will find ingredients such as citric acid, maltodextrin, instant tea, corn syrup solids, aspartame, magnesium oxide, acesulfame potassium, and BHA.

In case you haven’t figured it out it’s essentially a list of artificial sweeteners, artificial dyes, and preservatives.

BHA, a very effective preservative, is of potential concern because of its toxicity and ability to not just remain in your body but also to accumulate there over many years. It has also been linked to liver, thyroid, and kidney problems in lab tests.

Researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine have found dangerously high levels of fluoride in instant tea and iced tea mixes. While the EPA sets the limit for fluoride consumption at 4 parts per million, some commercial tea mixes have been found to contain as much as of 6.5ppm.

Before you go, be sure to check out the full Wild Foods line of herbal and regular teas.