Sip on This: Three Teachings on Tea
If you’re on the road to health but have yet to say no to your daily cup of Joe, let it go! You’ll be doing your bod an enormous favor because excess caffeine prevents our insides from absorbing all those vital nutrients from our organic green juices and salads! A cup of white or green tea in the morning (sans milk and sugar) may help you ease off your caffeine addiction because tea contains bio-caffeine, which is non-addictive. Furthermore, tea is packed with bioflavanoids, polyphenols, vitamins and minerals that help stave off disease.
Maybe you’ve already tried to make the switch but don’t find tea palatable — don’t give up! Over time, coffee dulls your taste buds, so, as you wean yourself off it, give tea another brew before giving it the old boo. As your taste buds regenerate, you’ll begin to identify the subtleties in flavors of this healthy beverage.
When choosing your teas, remember that not all teas are created equal. Consider these teachings from ancient Chinese tea masters:
Not all tea is “real” tea
Traditional tea is derived from the Camellia plant, of which there are many varieties. Over time, the definition of “tea” has broadened to mean anything steeped in hot water. Chamomile, rooibos and peppermint, no matter how wonderful, are not actually tea- — they’re tisanes or herbal infusions.
What do you think of when you think tea? A bag on a string? These lifeless sacs are filled with stale tea dust, replete with chemical processing agents that will give you a quick, stimulating but toxic jolt. These are the junk foods of tea! Toss the tea bags out with the potato chips, and fill your cabinets with seasonal, pesticide-free, loose-leaf teas.
When browsing at your local tea shop, ask for the freshest tea in stock. General rule: white and green in the summer and spring, oolongs and reds in the fall and winter.
There’s a tea for every season
From the lightest in flavor and highest in antioxidant properties to the richest in flavor but lowest in antioxidant properties, white, green, oolong, red and black are the five main categories of tea, of which there are thousands of varieties.
White teas are the supertonics of tea, composed of tea buds and young tea leaves, containing the most antioxidants and least caffeine per cup.
Green teas are considered the super foods of tea, antioxidant-rich elixirs made up of mature leaves that are pan-fired with slightly more caffeine.
Oolong teas, large-leafed Camellia varietals, are partially oxidized and pan-fired to yield complex, flavored infusions. The more oxidized the leaf, the fuller the flavor and the more caffeine per cup. Monkey-picked Tikuanyin is a favorite in our family, if not for its full bodied flavor then for its funny name. (No. Trained monkeys do not pick this tea from cliffs anymore — but they used to.)
What we call black tea in the U.S. is actually referred to as red tea in China, named so for the color of the tea liqueur it yields. These leaves are fully oxidized and contain the most caffeine. By the way, you can greatly decaffeinate red tea by steeping the leaves for 30 seconds and pouring out the first infusion.
Black tea, also known as Pu-erh, is considered the healthiest tea in China, despite having no antioxidants, because the leaves, having been fermented anywhere from one to 60 years or more, have a cleansing and probiotic effect. Teas fermented beyond five years have no caffeine. The older the tea, the healthier and more expensive it is, and its flavor more refined.
Adding milk and sugar to tea is a dirty habit that the English started to mask the bitter flavor. But tea should never taste bitter! If it does, you’ve brewed it too long or with scalding water. Brewing your tea correctly will prevent you from drinking a bitter cup.
Never use boiling hot water, and for the love of tea, please don’t heat your water in the microwave! The temperature of water you use will depend on the type of tea you choose. This is not to scare you away, but if you’re not mindful of water temperature, you might scald your precious leaves, which will ruin the delicate flavor. You can get really precise by investing in a water thermometer and following specific temperature guidelines, or you can just learn the bubble-size method. As a general rule, the lighter the tea, the cooler the water and smaller the bubbles should be.
White and green teas should be brewed in hot water just when tiny bubbles, the size of fish eyes, begin to surface. Steep whites for one to one and a half minutes. Greens, with their delicate leaves, need only 45 seconds to a minute. Don’t throw those leaves out after the first steep. They are delicious for three infusions!
Oolong, red and black teas need water at a rolling boil. Wake up those leaves with a quick rinse, sniff the aroma of the buds, and let the leaves stand in water for one to one and a half minutes. Decant into your favorite cup, and sip slowly. You can get five infusions out of this, which is why a pot is best shared with a friend. For Oolong teas, the second and third infusions are considered the tastiest, so don’t give your tea leaves to the worms just yet! If you’re nursing a Pu-erh tea, keep your pot covered and away from the sink, lest that black gold go to the compost bin too soon. Six to ten infusions give you your money’s worth!
Now that you’re more familiar with the tea basics, get out there and explore! And when you’ve found your tea and a quiet place to enjoy it in solitude or with a friend, follow these wise words from Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh: “Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if this activity is the axis on which the whole earth revolves. Live the moment. Only this actual moment is life.”
Maren and Kathryn Robinson are nutrition nuts, avid tea- and green juice-drinkers, and most importantly, sisters. Kathryn has a degree in gender studies and is a yoga instructor, self-taught nutrition enthusiast and media producer. Maren is a certified holistic nutritionist with advanced degrees in anthropology and public health.
Photo credit: Elizabeth K Dunbar, MPH