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Navigating the World of Tea

May 17, 2016 by Dana Yates.

Time for TeaTea Time!

We love a good cup of tea, and with the thousands of articles talking about its health benefits, what’s not to love? But with more than 3000 varieties of tea, how do you choose what’s right for you?

A brief history lesson

According to legend, the story of tea began in China in 2737 BC. The Chinese herb Master Shen Nong (“Divine Farmer”) was sitting beneath a tree boiling water for drinking when some leaves from the tree blew into the water. Shen Nong decided to try the accidentally created infusion, and a grand tradition was born. The tree was Camellia sinensis, from which we gather our tea leaves for the tea we drink today.

Containers for tea have been found in tombs dating back to the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), but it was during the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD) that tea became known as the national drink of China.  The Chinese developed different ways of oxidizing, rolling, and drying tea, resulting in different flavors and qualities.  They also began to include fragrant flowers such as jasmine, roses, and chrysanthemums in tea to further elevate its appeal. The wave of tea spread to other parts of Asia when Japanese Buddhist monks visited China and brought it back to Japan where tea has become a highly celebrated and integral part of Japanese culture. Modern Chinese tea culture is still very sophisticated, where Yixing Clay teaware and certain vintages of tea can fetch tens of thousands of dollars at auction.

The wave of tea continued to spread to India, Europe and across the Western world, where along the way, other exotic flavors were added, and combinations were created. Maybe most significantly, western culture promoted the use of milk, cream, and sugar in tea. Today’s tea can be easily brewed in a tea bag, but many tea connoisseurs still prefer loose teas so that custom tea blends can be created and the strength and freshness of the tea can be more easily controlled.

How do you choose?

With thousands of varieties available, most teas fall into a handful of categories. Looking at teas created from the Camellia sinensis plant specifically, the main difference between these teas is the oxidation which begins after the leaf has been plucked from the plant and through the process of it being dried, withered, rolled, and heat treated. The more oxidized the tea is, the more caffeine it will contain.

  • Black tea: The most popular tea in the western world, black tea packs a mean punch of caffeine. Black tea is fully oxidized and will be a dark brown color when brewed. The leaves are plucked, allowed to wither, then are rolled and crushed to activate the oxidation process until they turn black. They are then fired in ovens to stop the oxidation process. Common western tea flavors like Earl Gray and English Breakfast are usually based on black tea. Black Chinese teas are actually called “Red tea” in Chinese because of the color of the steeped tea liquid. The most common type of black Chinese tea consumed is the earthy-tasting Pu Erh, drunk for its purported ability to aid in digestion (especially of greasy foods) and to settle the stomach. Its very stimulating effect also makes it a great tea to drink in the morning.
  • Oolong tea: Between green and black, Oolong tea is semi-oxidized. This tea is complex in flavor, and still maintains some freshness similar to green tea. Oolong tea is a very popular variety throughout China and Taiwan, probably due to its more mild taste and modest digestion aiding qualities. It only contains a moderate level of caffeine, which allows it to be drunk throughout the day without being over stimulating.
  • Green tea: The leaves of Green tea bypass oxidation allowing them to retain their green color, tannins, vitamin C, and other minerals. The leaves are heated immediately after plucking which prevents them from becoming oxidized. Green tea has a very low caffeine level and is traditionally served in China and Japan for its fresh, delicate flavor. Its green-tasting, cooling qualities makes it an ideal tea to drink during hot summer months.
  • White tea: The least processed of all teas, White tea has only trace amounts of caffeine. Almost all white tea comes from the Fujian Province of China. White tea is plucked when young tea leaf buds are still enclosed in new leaves. The new leaves retain their silky quality which gives the tea a subtle, soft flavor. The leaves are not rolled or crushed during processing, thus protecting the delicate flavor and aroma.

Cuppa ♥ love

Whether you choose White or Black or in between, know that you’re sipping tea not just for the flavor, but for your health.  Countless studies promote the benefits of tea to heart health, mental health, and healthy weight management. Choose warming Black teas (and drink them hot) when feeling under the weather, Oolong with meals to aid digestion and if you don’t want too much stimulation (or you are planning on drinking more than one cup), or Green or White teas to cool down in hot weather or if you want to relax. All teas are full of antioxidants to help keep you healthy and young, so enjoy a cuppa today!

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