TeaIn most western-style homes, the modern tea ritual begins as the whistling of the tea kettle calls to order our morning, afternoon, or evening. While throughout the world the tea-making process can vary in complexity and cultural significance, at Formaggio Kitchen we contend that a cup of tea is rarely brewed without a sigh of relief and at least a glimmer of reflection.
This idea is a cornerstone of the ancient Japanese and Chinese tea ceremonies; these extensive rituals allow an escape from the coarse physical world into the spiritual world of tea where every cup is different because every moment is different. Similarly, all are equal in tea because all human encounters are unique and thus special.
But there is certainly no need to worry for those who prefer to take their tea with a dash of absent-mindedness! Regardless of any ceremony, tea is an exciting product that everyone can enjoy for its variety and newly-discovered health benefits. In appreciating today’s tea it is also important to recognize the extent to which tea, and in particular the tea trade, played a fundamental role in shaping our world’s history and cultures.
The history of tea is intertwined with the history, philosophy, medicine, economics, religion and literature of many Asian countries. The stories that trace its origin are a mixture of myth and history that makes the exact beginnings difficult to ascertain. While there is evidence that tea cultivation began in the first century B.C., it was around the 5th century A.D. that tea cultivation became much more widespread.
According to Japanese myth, the origin of the tea plant itself is credited to the Chinese Buddhist saint Bodhidharma. While meditating one day Bodhidharma fell asleep and was so distraught by this shortcoming that he tore off his eyelids and threw them on the ground. The eyelids took root and sprouted the world’s first tea plant. This myth explains both the tea leaf’s shape and its invigorating effects.
The discovery of tea’s comestible qualities is credited to Chinese Emperor Shen Nong in 2737 B.C. Shen Nong, known as the father of Chinese agriculture, invented the plow and was actively interested in researching various plants and herbs for use as both food and medicine – many of which were toxic and purportedly brought him close to death several times. On one such occasion, the emperor was suffering under the shadow of a tea tree. Out of desperation, he plucked a leaf from the tree and ate it. The leaf not only cured his ailment but he found that it also had an intriguing flavor. In a less dramatic tale, Shen Nong’s servants boil water for the emperor’s meal and some dried leaves from overhanging tree make their way into the pot of hot water. Curious, Shen Nong tasted the now amber liquid and was astonished by the fine flavor.
Following its discovery, tea was quickly incorporated into Chinese medicine and its gustatory qualities were further revealed. Apart from its medicinal uses, tea was often consumed as a vegetable. Sometime in the 3rd or 4th century A.D., tea leaves steeped in hot water became a part of the Buddhist religious practices. It was at this time that tea became appreciated for its ability to stimulate the mind while also enhancing a state of contemplative calm very well suited to the practice of meditation.
Tea drinking continued to gain popularity in the 6th and 7th centuries, especially as a popular drink in everyday life. Yet even casual tea drinking retained a spiritual association; families and friends shared in what was becoming a private ceremonial act. In 800 A.D. the Chinese poet Lu Yu wrote the Ch'a Ching, a very detailed account of the cultivation, preparation and enjoyment of tea. This book, commissioned by tea merchants, further established tea drinking as an opportunity for introspection , a chance for deeper understanding of others and the achievement of harmony with both nature and society.
Tea made made its way to Japan in 1193 A.D. when a Japanese monk named Eisai, after studying Zen Buddhism in China returned to his country with a tea plant stashed in his napsack. He later wrote the first Japanese book on tea, "Treatise on Drinking Tea for Health", marking the start of tea cultivation and tea culture in Japan.
It wasn’t until the 16th century that tea made its way to Europe. Portugese traders most likely had the first contact with tea, and the magical leaves came to England from Venice in the early 1500s. Large-scale transport of tea from China by the Dutch didn’t occur until the early 17th century.
Today, tea still comes primarily from China (including Taiwan), India, Sri Lanka and Japan. Cultivation, harvest, preparation and production varies from the largest bulk tea producers to the most exquisite artisan teas from the rarest plantations handled only by hand from plucking to preparation. The world of tea has moved away from the classic black tea blends of Western Europe to single varieties of black, oolong, green and even white tea. While the majority of tea consumed in the United States is by way of the tea bag, more and more people are discovering the special qualities found only in whole leaf loose tea. The discovery of tea and its diversity of colors, aromas and flavors continues to play out not only in individual tea “ceremonies” but also in the scientific community as recent studies of tea’s health effects have shown a correlation between the consumption of green tea and positive effects on the cardiovascular system.
Types of Tea
There are two distinct tea plants from which most tea is harvested. Camellia sinensis var. sinensis comes originally from China and is the plant from which the Chinese made the first tea nearly 5,000 years ago. This variety produces small leaves and thrives in cool climates at high altitudes, and the resulting teas tend to be more refined with a floral character. Camellia sinensis var sinensis produces most green teas and many black teas. The other species cultivated for commercial tea is the plant Camellia sinensis var. assamica, primarily grown in India and Sri Lanka. With its larger leaves and higher yield, the Assam tea plant produces a drink that is generally less complex but shows earthier, more robust and malty flavors. Teas produced from the assamica plant include Assam and some Ceylon.
Regardless of type of tea plant, the highest quality teas generally come from the leaf buds and young leaves of the plant, although some styles of tea require the more mature leaves for their specific flavor profile. Once harvested, the leaves must be dried and/or oxidized before they can be brewed. The different styles of harvesting and processing have lead to the development of the dozens of types of tea that we see as consumers. For more information on different styles of tea, visit our blog.
White Tea - This tea comes from leaves that are picked while the buds are still in their infant stage, unopened and covered with fine white hairs. The leaves are dried very slowly to maintain the delicate flavor structure of the plant, and the resulting tea is very light with some sense of grassiness, fruit, and a touch of sweetness.
Green Tea - The leaves are first steamed for less than a minute in large vats in order to kill any enzymes that might cause oxidation, a chemical change that would cause the green polyphenols to break down and turn the leaves a darker color. The leaves are then kneaded by hand, stacked in small piles, and dried for approximately ten hours. Finally, the tea is rolled according to the desired grade and sorted. Thus we can find many different styles of green tea according to the age and size of the leaves, and the style of rolling. In fact, there are about 12,500 different types of green tea.
Oolong (Wu-Long) Tea - After the tea leaves are picked; they are wilted in direct sunlight and then shaken in bamboo baskets in order to bruise the edges. The leaves are then rolled to allow for a slow oxidation, which will in turn lead to the development of a darker color and deeper complexity. Because the leaves are not immediately dried, they have a chance to undergo the beginning stages of oxidation. This semi-oxidation is the characteristic that most distinguishes an Oolong tea from a Green tea (no oxidation) or a Black tea (complete oxidation).
Black Tea - These tea leaves are first wilted and then rolled to promote oxidation by agitating the leaves’ chemical compounds. The rolled leaves are spread out to oxidize, which causes the color to change from green to a deep red. Once fully oxidized, the leaves are fired to arrest oxidation and the leaves now have their hallmark black color and smoky fragrance.
Water – The water with which one prepares fine tea is very, very important: tea is essentially water with a bit of color and often subtle flavors from the tea leaves. While it contains vitamins, minerals, tannin compounds and other ingredients helpful to the human diet, it is still primarily water. If you have water that is chlorinated or high in calcium or mineral content these characteristics can interfere with the true flavors of the tea. Fine teas should be made with high-quality filtered water – certainly water that is free of extraneous odors or flavors. Neutral bottled water is ideal. If you have a simple water filter at home, it should work fine. Another important factor concerning the water you use is that it should not be over-boiled. Over boiling water will reduce the amount of available oxygen which is essential for proper extraction of the aromatic and flavor elements in the leaves.
Temperature - Infusion times vary from tea to tea and depend greatly on personal preference. However, water temperature is another important factor to consider. White or green teas brew best with water well below boiling (170-185 F). Oxidized teas (many Oolongs and black teas) require water that is just off a boil 210 F. Understanding that most folks aren’t about to take the water temperature before brewing, for white and green teas, let your water boil fully for 10 seconds and take it off the heat and cool it down for five minutes. For Oxidized and black teas, bring the water to a 10 second boil, and let it cool for a brief minute before pouring over the leaves.
Leaves – Loose leaf tea is always preferable to bagged tea. It is difficult to be certain of the quality of a tea when it is enclosed in a small bag, but in most cases it is likely to contain broken bits as a matter of course from the manufacturer or as a result of poor handling in transport. Loose teas offer themselves to be inspected and appreciated for (in some cases) the quality of the leaves and the artistry that went into their production. Each type of tea will have a distinctly different look depending upon the parts of the leaf used, oxidization and twisting. It is worth it to sit back and watch the loose leaves unfurl in your pot to release all of their available aromas and flavors. Despite our strong preference for loose tea, it is still worth noting that there is little arguing with the convenience of a tea bag and we remain big fans when it is from a reputable producer and when loose tea is not practical.
Brewing – Each tea will have a recommended steeping time but this will also vary depending upon the water temperature and quality and perhaps more importantly, personal preference. Steeping tea is a balance between getting enough extraction of flavor and aroma without bringing the natural astringency of the leaves to the forefront and masking the tea’s more subtle flavors. Generally, white tea will need to steep the longest (7 minutes or so). Green tea will take slightly less: around 5 minutes. Oolong and black teas will take anywhere from 2 minutes to a full 5 minutes depending upon amount of oxidation. We suggest steeping your tea for the suggested length of time and experimenting on your own until you find the time that gives you your desired flavor.
Buying and Storage - As with any perishable or semi-perishable product, buy your tea from a place that has a good turnover so that you can be sure that the tea you are buying is relatively fresh.
White teas and green teas are the most fragile and should be consumed when still reasonably fresh: within 2-4 months of purchase. The more oxidized the tea, the better it will keep. Oolongs can vary in this quality so they can keep generally between 4 and 8 months from purchase. Black teas are fully oxidized and will keep the longest – up to 12 months. In all cases, keep tea in a dry environment away from heat and light in an airtight container.
Equipment - Unless you are planning on conducting your own Gong fu Cha (China) or Chaji (Japan) tea ceremony, there are a few simple pieces of equipment that will make your regular tea drinking more rewarding.
Tea pots play an important role in the history of tea as well offering a variety of decorative and practical features that complement your particular style of tea drinking. Perhaps the most ancient type of pot is the Chinese tea pots from the province of Yixing. These clay pots are semi-porous and develop a beautiful patina over time. They also absorb flavors readily and should only be used for a particular family of teas so that the flavors do not become muddled when brewing a different type of tea.
For general household use, we find that a simple tea pot made of porcelain is great for most teas. We also enjoy using a clear glass tea pot that allows us to watch some of the more dramatic tea leaves unfold. With any pot, make sure to give the leaves plenty of room to expand in the water. For this reason we don’t use a tea ball or similarly cramped infuser- we find that steeping the tea directly in the pot and using a fine strainer as we pour works best.
Finally, we prefer true tea cups rather than the more ubiquitous coffee mug. We like to use a porcelain tea cup with a white interior so that we can easily appreciate the color of the liquor. Beyond this, we’ll leave it up to you if you’d like to get the tea scale, thermometer and tea cozy…
Health and Tea
Tea is full of polyphenols and flavanoids, compounds with high levels of antioxidant activity that fight off free radicals , a source of manyhealth problems. Epidemiological studies support this thinking as research suggests that drinking a cup or more of black tea daily can reduce risk of heart attack by up to 44 percent as compared to non-tea drinkers (Dr. Howard Sesso et al. - American Journal of Epidemiology in January 2000).
Other epidemiological and laboratory studies suggest a relationship between tea consumption and reduced risk of several types of cancer, including oral, digestive, lung and colorectal, as well as reducing risk of severe aortic atherosclerosis.
In addition to these and other studies, tea has developed a reputation (a mythos?) over the centuries as having many healthful qualities including:
• Increasing blood flow
• Stimulating mental alertness
• Increasing the body's resistance to a wide range of diseases
• Accelerating the metabolism
• Preventing tooth decay
• Invigorating the skin
• Aiding digestion
• Easing discomfort in the limbs and joints
• Raising spirits and inducing a feeling of well-being
• Prolonging life (we’ll get back to you on this one)