The Truth About Tea

So much more than just a tea bag, tea leaves have cancer-fighting antioxidants, healthy doses of caffeine and are an excellent way to stay hydrated during the day. No longer just for the Brits - brush up on your tea facts.

Some facts are fundamentally universal: when it is cold and damp outside, the human body craves something warm. Now, whether that warmness be in the form of steaming soup, hot tea or fresh-brewed coffee is up to the chilly consumer. But while the United States has become a seemingly Starbucks-infested coffee culture, a growing number of Americans are choosing tea for more reasons than simply warmth.

In 2005, the tea industry had its fourteenth consecutive year of sales increases, while retail supermarket sales alone surpassed $1.9 billion. This number is expected to continue to grow over the next five years. No longer just for the British, tea is fighting back as the beverage that is hard to ignore. In fact, 1.42 million pounds of tea is consumed every day in the U.S. and 519 million pounds are imported into the country each year.

But similar to choosing the perfect coffee bean or a complimentary bottle of wine, picking out the tea for your taste can be a dizzying task. Amazingly, all tea comes from the same plant called the Camellia sinensis, which is an evergreen native to China. It can grow up to 90 feet tall and in the past, some cultures taught monkeys to pick the tea leaves that they couldn't reach. However, modern times and technology have allowed farmers to grow the trees to just three feet for easier cultivation. The plant's leaves range from smooth and shiny to fuzzy and white-haired – each making up a specific type of tea. In total, the plant yields up to 3,000 varieties of tea, which can easily be broken up into three main categories: green, black, and oolong teas. Flavored and herbal teas also deserve to be mentioned, though they are not officially "tea."

Green Tea

What it is: Making up about 10 percent of the world's tea consumption, green tea has gotten a lot of recent media coverage for its health benefits.

Where it grows: Far East: China and Japan

What is tastes like: Green tea is greenish-yellow in color with a delicate taste that is slightly astringent and grassy.

What you should know: It is high in antioxidants and may protect against certain types of cancer (lung, ovarian, breast, prostate and stomach) as well as the precancerous condition of stomach cancer, gastritis.

White tea

What it is: The rarest of all teas, the leaves are the same as green tea leaves, but they are plucked from the plant when they are still very young, giving them their extremely light color.

Where it grows: a Fujian province on China's east coast

What is tastes like: As one would expect, the tea is nearly colorless and is delicate in flavor with a slighty sweet and nutty quality.

What you should know: You may recognize white tea from recent Snapple commercials launching their new line of "Good For You" white and green tea bottled drinks.

Black tea

What it is: This is the most common type of tea, which accounts for about 87 percent of America's tea consumption.

Where it grows: Africa, India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia

What is tastes like: Black tea can come in a range of flavors, but is usually found to have a heartier taste than green or oolong teas.

What you should know: The main difference between black tea and green tea is the oxidation process. Black tea leaves are fully oxidized whereas green tea leaves are lightly steamed before they are dried. This process contributes to the tea's taste as well as caffeine content. Like green tea, black tea has also been shown to have health benefits. Research has suggested that the antioxidants found in black tea may play a preventive role in conditions like heart disease, stroke and some cancers.

 

Pu-erh tea

What it is: Also speller Puer, this tea technically falls in the black tea family, but is fermented twice (instead of once), which elevates it to its own category. The double oxidation process followed by a period of maturation allows the leaves to develop a thin layer of mold.

Where it grows: Southwest China, Burma, Vietnam and Laos

What is tastes like: Due to the layer of mold, pu-erh tea takes on a soil-like flavor with a strong, earthy quality.

What you should know: Although the tea is distinctly dirt-tasting, pu-erh is often used for medicinal purposes as a digestive aid.

Oolong tea

What it is: Considered to be among the finest (and most expensive) teas in the world, oolong

Tea is semi-fermented, which means that it goes through a short oxidation period that turns the leaves from green to a red-brown color.

Where it grows: Taiwan

What it tastes like: Pale yellow in color, the tea has a floral, fruity flavor reminiscent of peaches with a hint of smoke.

What you should know: Tea connoisseurs consider the oolong flavor to be the most delicate and frown on drinking it with milk, sugar or lemon as to preserve the natural taste.

Flavored tea, Blends, Herbal Infusions and Tisanes

Because tea naturally absorbs other flavors quite easily, cultures have been adding herbs, spices, oils and flowers to their tea for centuries. In China, adding flowers such as jasmine, orchard, rose and magnolia to teas is quite popular.  In many Arabic nations, they add fresh mint leaves and heaping spoonfuls of sugar to their tea. And in India, they make spicy masala tea by adding spices like cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and peppers.

If black and green teas are considered "purebreds," then blended teas are considered "mutts." Tea producers use different strains of tea to create flavors like English Breakfast and Earl Grey.

Unlike flavored tea and other blends, herbal infusions and tisanes are not technically tea as they are not made with leaves from the Camellia sinensis plant. Instead, tisane (tee-ZAHN) is an herbal tea made from herbs, spices and flowers and added to boiling water. Herbal drinks are typically recognized for their caffeine-free quality and also for soothing and rejuvenating effects. Commonly found herbal teas include chamomile, peppermint, fennel, rose hip and lemon verbena.

Caffeine Conundrum

People find all sorts of reasons not to drink tea, but two of the most common center around the avoidance or obsession with caffeine. Consider these facts about tea and caffeine from the UK tea council:

-    4 cups of tea per day offer good health benefits without the contraindications of other caffeinated drinks.

-    Four cups of tea contain only moderate amounts of caffeine, which has been shown to increase concentration, thereby improving performance.

-   When drinking a normal cup of tea, you consume significantly less caffeine than a cup of instant coffee or one you would buy at a coffee shop.

-    Tea contains at least half the level of caffeine than coffee.

Tea Traditions

Though not nearly as common in America as in other parts of the world like Ireland and Britain, the custom of tea still penetrates many households in this country. Afternoon tea is said to have originated in the early 1800s by Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford who wanted some sort of mid-afternoon snack to ward off hunger pains until dinner. The tradition continues today, and while every British family does not sit down for a formal tea each day, many of the most elegant hotels in London (and in America) still serve a lavish spread for tea each afternoon. International chains like the Ritz-Carlton and the Four Seasons often offer a tea time treat, but check with your local hotels for times and pricing.

Plan Your Own

Nothing is more elegant and lady-like than a tea party. A creative idea for a shower, birthday party or just a girl's luncheon, here's everything you'll need make tea fit for the queen.

- Tea: buy your favorite black or herbal tea at the store or make your own:

Spicy Green Tea

Relaxing Tea Blend

Chamomile Herb Tea

Lemongrass and Mint Tea

Spicy Ginger Tea

- Tea Accessories: milk (provide 2 percent and skim), sugar (may be cubed or loose, brown or white), lemon

- Sandwiches

Cucumber Tea Sandwiches Shrimp Butter Tea Sandwiches

Finger Sandwiches

Mini Ham and Cheese Rolls 

- Scones

White Chocolate and Dried Cherry Scones

Apricot Scones

Orange Poppy Seed Scones

Orange Pecan Scones

Strawberry Scones

Maple Scones 

- Breads and Cakes

Mini Lemon Tea Bread

Buttermilk Scones with Raisins Thyme-Rosemary Tea Bread

Chocolate Tea Bread

Lemon Verbena Tea Bread

Lemon Blueberry Tea Muffins

Mrs. Perry's Crockpot Pumpkin Tea Bread

Cherry Almond Tea Ring

References:

United Kingdom Tea Council - An expansive database of information on tea. Everything from health benefits to types of tea – even a printable form to help you remember how your colleagues take their tea.

Tea Association of the USA, Inc. - Facts and figures about tea in the US.

StarChefs - An easy reference guide for all things tea-related.

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