Guide to Tea

Tea Brew How-To

Got your tea? Got your mug? Ready to relax? Let’s make it simple. To brew tea, use fresh water free of any odd tastes or odors. (It accounts for 95% of every cup of tea, you know.) Use one teaspoon of tea per serving, plus one more for the pot. Pour the water over the tea and steep according to these guidelines:

  • White and Green Tea: Use boiling water that has cooled for a couple of minutes (to about 185°F) and steep for 2 to 4 minutes.
  • Oolong Tea: Use boiling water that has cooled for 1 minute (to about 195°F) and steep 3 to 5 minutes.
  • Black Tea: Use boiling water that has cooled just enough to lose its boil and steep 3 to 5 minutes.
  • Herbal Tea: Use boiling water and steep 3 to 5 minutes.

In a typical infusion, caffeine is extracted from the leaves first, usually within the first 30 seconds, while the more complex polyphenols (antioxidants) take a bit longer. And keep in mind that tea bags infuse more quickly than loose-leaf teas due to greater surface area.

Don’t forget! Loose-leaf tea will keep for several months or longer if kept in an airtight container in a cool, dry and dark place. Avoid glass or plastic containers if possible and do not refrigerate or freeze tea. Tea that’s old or mishandled will lose its briskness and aroma and color.

Fact or Fiction: Tea Makes You Healthy

Fact! Recent studies confirm what tea drinkers in Asia have known for centuries: tea is good for you. In fact, tea is so full of antioxidants—the ones that reduce the oxidation reactions in the body associated with aging and other disease processes—that we should be gulping it down.

The benefits of tea can be realized by consuming three cups a day, which is the historical average for most Asian tea drinkers and the base line for many recent studies. Check out the benefits of drinking tea:

  • promotes healthy cholesterol levels
  • increases metabolism
  • improves mental performance
  • inhibits plaque buildup on teeth (green tea, that is)
  • helps the body deal with stress (green tea again)

Technicolor Tea

Think there’s only green and black tea? Think again. Teas come in just about every color of the rainbow.

  • White: This is the least processed of all teas and has high levels of antioxidants and low caffeine.
  • Green: Green tea undergoes slightly more processing than white tea and has a little more caffeine.
  • Oolong: Oolong tea occupies that middle territory between green tea and black tea and is characterized by highly complex fruit, spice and floral aromas.
  • Black: The most widely consumed tea in the world, black tea is so called because of the relatively lengthy oxidation period (several hours) that darkens its leaves. This color is transferred to the cup in pale sienna and red-orange tones. Black tea flavors can be differentiated by region more so than other teas.
  • Flavored and Scented Teas:. These are true teas to which flavors—everything from almond to wild cherry—and/or aromatic oils have been added for flavor and aroma. Think Earl Grey and Jasmine tea.
  • Chai: Essentially tea with spices, often ginger or cinnamon.

Tea 101

All true teas come from the leaves of the tea bush or tea tree (Camellia sinensis), which is native to Asia. Most quality teas produced today come from five countries:

  • India — known for black teas like Darjeeling and Assam
  • China — home to all tea types
  • Japan — famous for green tea
  • Sri Lanka — known for its Ceylon teas
  • Taiwan — famous for oolong teas

Most fine teas are harvested by hand; the major exception is Japan, where specially designed machines do much of the work. The production of lesser quality teas—most of which end up as standard bagged tea—are processed mechanically. Here’s more for the die-hard fans:

  • Harvesting: All tea types begin as a fresh, green leaf plucked from a tea bush. After picking, tea leaves are transported and weighed.
  • Withering: Next up, a process called withering reduces the moisture content of the tea leaves, making them pliable and more easily rolled.
  • Crushing: After being rolled, tea leaves are crushed by hand or machine to break their cell walls and release enzymes that initiate and catalyze oxidation.
  • Oxidation: This is the same process that turns an apple brown when it’s cut open. The degree of oxidation largely determines the type of tea. Green and white teas are non-oxidized, oolong teas are partially oxidized and black teas are fully oxidized.
  • Firing: Firing is the process in which tea leaves are heated in ovens, woks or baskets to destroy enzymes in order to halt oxidation.
  • Grading: Machine or hand grading sorts tea leaves by size or color.

To Caffeinate or Not to Caffeinate...

Tea can be decaffeinated in two ways. The best and natural way uses carbon dioxide under heat and pressure to remove caffeine. This method retains most of the beneficial antioxidants—one reason many people drink tea in the first place.

The second method uses a chemical solvent called ethyl acetate that strips both the caffeine and the beneficial antioxidants from the tea and leaves behind a chemical residue.

The amount of caffeine in regular tea can be reduced by pre-brewing, or "rinsing," your tea leaves (30 seconds for white or green tea and 1 minute for oolong or black tea). After rinsing, simply brew your tea as directed.

The Herbal Tea Myth

We don’t mean to break your heart, but herbal teas aren’t actually teas at all. Wait, let us explain! Herbal teas, also called tisanes, are combinations of dried herbs, not tea leaves. Don’t get us wrong; they’re still delicious! And they also provide an abundance of flavor alternatives and other healthy attributes depending on the herbs used.

Chamomile tea, for example, is used as a relaxant, and peppermint tea is considered a digestive aid. Also keep in mind that except for Yerba Mate, herbal teas are caffeine-free and usually need to be infused longer than regular tea to release their full flavor.

Tea: A Cook’s Best Secret

Here’s a fun surprise. Tea is a remarkably versatile secret ingredient in the kitchen, where it can add subtle herbaceous depth and richness to all kinds of dishes—from soups to sweets. Lapsang souchong lends mild smoky flavor to soups or stews. Some very dark black teas even have a chocolate finish that complements sweet sauces for pork or poultry.

Try these ideas:

  • Add a sprinkling of green tea leaves to a chicken stir-fry.
  • Substitute brewed tea for water when cooking rice.
  • Add broken tea leaves to flour when dredging fish or poultry.
  • For cakes and pastries, infuse the butter by adding tea leaves when melting it. Let it stand for a few minutes, then strain out the leaves and chill the butter, if needed.
  • A few tablespoons of brewed green tea perks up salad dressings.
  • Steep bags of white tea in simmering chicken broth for up to 10 minutes before using the broth in a recipe.
  • Substitute tea leaves for wood chips when using a smoker.

The Japanese Tea Ceremony

Tea is iconic in Japanese culture and society, but it only arrived at this lofty station after a centuries-long evolution from a common beverage to an enlightening one through association with Zen Buddhism.

Tea first arrived in Japan in the 8th century CE to mixed reviews. It wasn't until the 12th century that tea—as an aid to meditation—began its slow ascendancy to a place of reverence. The Japanese tea ceremony began as one of several Zen "ways" or rituals for which enlightenment is the ultimate goal. Still an important tradition in Zen temples now, the tea ceremony is also a well-established social phenomenon.

The ceremony itself, called chanoyu, uses a powdered form of green tea called matcha. Its high caffeine content necessitates it being preceded by a three course meal (cha kaiseki) highly attuned to the seasons.

Every activity associated with the tea ceremony—from the preparation and drinking of the tea to the departure of guests—is highly ritualized with an eye to aesthetic, intellectual, physical and psychological pleasures. It’s essentially a spiritual ceremony intended to transport participants to a higher plane and separate them from the crude reality of the physical world.

Tea Trivia

  • More than 60% of the tea consumed in the U.S. is in the form of iced tea, with a significant portion sold in restaurants or bottled. It’s definitely what we grab for on a hot day.
  • The tea trade is booming. According to the Tea Association of the USA, all manner of tea sales have nearly quadrupled since 1990.
  • Tea drinking originated in Asia some 5000 years ago. It wasn't until the 8th century CE that tea was introduced to Japan, where it eventually rose to iconic status in the Japanese tea ceremony.
  • After tea has been made, don’t throw away the spent leaves. They can be used to feed your compost pile and as mulch for indoor and outdoor plants. You can water plants with leftover tea, too. They love it!

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