Tea is by far one of the most amazing and misunderstood drinks on the planet. It shocks me every time I meet someone with an incredible palate and passion for food, but whose perception of tea is confined to a bag you find inside a paper wrapper. The nuances of tea can challenge any food this world has to offer, and the health benefits are unmatched.
What is tea? Good place to start. Tea is simply the beverage that results from infusing the leaves of the tea plant (Camellia sinensis and camellia assamica) in water. The way in which the leaves are prepared after harvesting determines the variety of tea. In order of least to most processed (heated; i.e. steamed, pan fired), tea is classified as: white, green, oolong, black, and pu-erh. Herbal tea are separate since they are not derived from the tea plant, but rather herbs, spices and berries.
Varieties of tea:
White tea: The least processed type of tea. Generally the buds are lightly dried in natural sunlight and lightly heated (processed), if at all. One defining characteristic of white tea are the white downy hairs that are found on fresh leaves. The taste profile is generally described as vegetal and slightly nutty. Since it is the least processed variety of tea, it is often known as having the highest level of antioxidants.
Green Tea: Slightly more processed than white tea, green tea is traditionally steamed or pan fired and is characterized by a fresh, grassy, and vegetal taste. The highest quality green tea typically comes from Japan, where the tea has been used for centuries to keep monks awake and alert during long periods of meditation. Also unique to high-quality Japanese green teas is the presence of L-theanine. This amino acid produces an alert yet relaxed sensation, and is actually released naturally by the brain after a yoga or meditation session.
Oolong Tea: A great middle ground in between green and black teas, oolong is often considered one of the most complex varieties. It’s flavor spectrum can vary wildly- from light, buttery and sweet, to deep, malty and smoky. This tea contains only a modest amount of caffeine, but it can add up, as this tea holds up extremely well to multiple infusions (sometimes as many as 20). This is quite possibly my favorite type of tea because of the way the leaves “open up”-both figuratively and literally: Oolong leaves are often rolled into tight balls, which unravel into full sized, colorful leaves after several infusions. The flavor also changes dramatically from cup to cup, just like wine when exposed to air.
Black Tea: By far the most consumed type of tea in the US. Yes Lipton and Nestea count, although they are mass produced and far from fresh. A good black tea can be described as brisk, malty, and tannic (think fuzzy tongue, red wine feel). This variety is also the most caffeinated.
Pu-erh: Finally, there is pu-erh- the most obscure but also one of the most interesting forms of tea. Pu-erh is fermented black tea which has been packed tightly into cakes and balls and then aged for a number of years. Just like wine (notice the similarities?), pu-erh is defined by the year in which it was harvested. Some pu-erhs in existence today can date back as far as the 1920’s!! It’s taste is quite bold, with an intense earthy quality. Due to the aging process it is quite low in caffeine. It has long been used in many Asian cultures as a post meal digestif. Even Dr. Oz is a fan!
Thinking about giving tea a shot? Let’s talk buying and brewing:
The high quality, hand crafted teas mentioned above are not available at many groceries stores, or even many specialty food stores. Instead, you will have to find them through a specialty tea retailer. I have personal experience with Teavana, Red Blossom Tea Company, and Samovar Tea Lounge (my favorite). Samovar offers high quality tea along with extremely helpful descriptions, tea ware and instructional videos, so I highly recommend you start here.
Brewing tea is pretty simple, despite the large amount of tea ware available. All you need is hot water (high quality filtered or bottled), loose leaf tea, an infuser basket, and a mug. Put the basket in the mug, add a heaping tablespoon of tea, add boiling water, and steep for 15-30 seconds. Repeat anywhere from 5 to 20 times, increasing brew time and adjusting water temperature to taste. Experiment: although there are general rules of thumb, brewing tea is ultimately personal preference.
Surely buying such a unique, hand-crafted product is ridiculously expensive? Far from it. You can buy 4oz of organic pu-erh tea from Samovar for $25. This will probably be good for about 20 generous tablespoons of tea. Assuming 5 infusions per tablespoon, we’re looking at 100 cups of tea for $25, or 25 cents per cup. Replace your daily Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts run with this and it will add up.
Here are three great teas I enjoy: