January is National Hot Tea Month, and to celebrate, we at Neatorama invite you to brew a cup of your favorite variety and curl up for some good old fashioned facts about one of the most popular beverages in the world -- second to only water. Before we begin though, let’s make one thing clear; herbal teas (including South African red teas) are not real teas because they are not made from the Camellia sinensis a.k.a. the tea plant -- sorry chamomile fans.
Legends of Tea’s Beginnings:
While there really is no consensus on exactly where the earliest tea plants were grown in Asia and how people got the idea to drink it, there are a number of myths concerning how tea originated and why people started drinking it. One story says that a Buddhist monk named Bodhidharma, the founder of Chan Buddhism, was meditating for nine years, at which point, he fell asleep. The story says he was so upset that he cut off his own eyelids, which took root and grew into the first tea plants. Other versions of the story say that Buddha himself was the one who cut his eye lids off and started the first tea plants. The story of how tea was first consumed says that Emperor Shennong was drinking a bowl of water when leaves from the plant blew into his water. He tried the concoction and was quite happy with the drink’s flavor. Another story says that Shennong was testing the medicinal properties of different herbs and when he discovered an herb was poisonous, he used tea for an antidote.
The Real History of the Brew:
While the history of the plants and how they started to be consumed as beverages are the stuff of legends, there are certainly a few well documented facts about the brew’s history. The oldest known still cultivated tea plant grows in the Yunnan Province in China, it is estimated to be over 3,200 years old. Records of China’s tea consumption go back all the way to 10th century BC. At one point, bricks of tea were actually used as currency in the realm, particularly in areas that were very rural and devoid of coin currency.
Chinese Buddhist monks introduced the drink to Japan, where it quickly became a favored drink of royalty. Within no time, seeds were imported into the country and cultivation began. Centuries later, tea ceremonies were introduced by Buddhist monks as well, where they slowly evolved into the highly formal tea ceremonies that Japan is known for today. In the sixteenth century, the tea ceremonies played a big role in feudal diplomacy.
Tea wasn’t introduced into Europe until the 17th century, when it was first brought to Amsterdam. Around this period it was introduced to France and Russia where it was quickly made popular in both countries. It’s introduction into English society was perhaps the place that it had the biggest impact though. By 1750, tea became the national drink of Britain. Unfortunately, Britain developed a need for Chinese goods, but China largely had no use for English goods. For a while, England sent out silver bullion, but it wasn’t long before they began trading opium (grown in India and still illegal in China) for tea. Thus, tea played a major role in the Opium Wars and the treaty for the war actually required the Chinese ship tea to England in exchange for the drug.
At the same time, the Brits decided that they needed to stop being dependant on the Chinese for their supply of tea, so they hired Scottish botanist Robert Fortune to steal a tea plant from China and then cultivate it in India. The plants fared well in this new environment and now India is one of the biggest producers of the plant. Image via Okinawa Soba [Flickr]
The Problems With Tea Bagging…No, Not That Kind, Sicko:
Most people prefer to make tea from tea bags, but tea purists consider the tea from the bags to be far inferior to loose-leaf tea. Part of the reason is that the small bits of leaves used are often just the waste products left behind from loose-leaf tea. Another problem is that more of the leaf’s surface is in contact with the air, allowing it to lose flavor faster. Some people also claim they can taste the flavor of the bag when they drink it this way. Others claim that tea bags are too small to allow the tea to properly diffuse in the water, which is why Lipton released their line of Pyramid Teas to counteract these problems, but many tea aficionados still don’t like them for the other reasons listed above. Image by Wikipedia user Andre Karwath.
A Rainbow of Tea Types:
As I said before, real tea is only made from the Camellia sinensis, which means that red tea and other herbal teas don’t make the cut. Even then though, there are still six different varieties of tea, each created by a different processing method. The tea plant’s leaves wilt and oxidize very quickly after it is picked, and each type of tea is made through drying the leaves at a different point of the leaf’s cycle. White tea is wilted and unoxidized. Green tea is unwilted and unoxidized. Yellow tea is unwilted and unoxidized, but allowed to yellow. Oolong tea is wilted, bruised and then partially oxidized. Black tea is wilted and fully oxidized. Post-fermented tea is created by allowing green tea to ferment, it is largely reserved for medicinal purposes and not casual drinking. There's a cool visualization of the process here.
Taste My Tasty Tea Blend:
While each type of tea naturally has its own distinct flavor, most teas you buy at the store have their own flavoring made by mixing different blends together or by adding other flavors to the mix. Some of the more popular tea flavors include:
- Earl Grey: made by mixing bergamot oils with black tea.
- Jasmine Green: made by blending jasmine oil or flowers with green tea.
- Chai: made with a variety of Indian spices, often including cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, anise, nutmeg and cloves.
- Formosa: tea made with Taiwanese oolong and green teas.
- Irish Breakfast: made with a blend of different black teas.
- Lotus: green tea wrapped in lotus flowers until it absorbs the flavor
Toasting to Your Health:
Tea contains a number of different antioxidants, one of which, catechins, actually makes up 30% of its weight. This antioxidant can help fight tumors. White and green teas contain the most antioxidants. On the other end of the spectrum, black tea has the most caffeine. Caffeine makes up about 3% of black tea’s dry weight, more than even coffee. The reason coffee gives you more of a buzz when you drink it though is that it’s less diluted than tea.
Tea also has fluorine, which prevents dental decay. Studies have shown that tea can help normalize your blood pressure, lower your stress levels, prevent heart disease, reduce depression and prevent diabetes. It also has germicidal properties that help you prevent sickness(which shows just how terrible my immune system is, given that I drink tea daily and still get sick all the time). A study released last year showed that white tea can boost your metabolism, reduce fat cells and help you lose weight. Another study that came out last year showed that drinking tea daily can reduce your chances of having a stroke by as much as 21%.
About The Tea Plant:
The tea plant grows year-round and though it prefers tropical and sub-tropical climates, it has survived as far north as England. Only the top one to two inches of a mature plant are used for tea. These parts of the plant are called flushes and the plant grows a new flush every week or so during growing season. The Chinese believe that a higher elevation makes for better tea plants because the plants grow slower, allowing the buds to become more flavorful. The evergreen plants are sort of like poinsettias, in that those that aren’t properly cultivated will naturally grow into a tree. Image by Wikipedia user Dave Oceano.