The Skinny On Tea
photo by gifrancis
I’ve been thinking a lot about tea. Maybe it’s the freezing temps. Maybe it’s the holidays. Maybe it’s this nagging scratchy throat. In any case, I’ve been chugging a lot of tea lately so I thought it would be appropriate to write a post about my most favorite drink ever: tea.
Aside from warming chilled insides, chasing away colds, and making you feel British, tea has some pretty darn good health benefits, too. Just the other day, for instance, a new study was published that showed that drinking tea (and coffee) can prevent type 2 diabetes. On top of that, flavonoids in tea have antioxidant effects in the body and protect it from free-radical damage. A specific class of flavanoids found in tea, called catechins, reduces the risk of atherosclerosis (a risk factor for heart disease) by dilating blood vessels. And according to Jeffrey Blumberg, PhD, FACN, of the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tuffs University, catechins in tea may help prevent people who have had a heart attack from having another.
I’m not partial to any type of tea; hot, cold, lukewarm—I’ll drink it anyway. I love a tall glass of iced tea with my meal but the truth is that tea’s health benefits are found in a steamy cup only. (That’s because catechins start breaking down once they’ve been brewed, so they disappear as bottled tea is stored. And since iced tea is usually mixed with water, the flavanoid content is slight.)
There are four major types of tea that come from the camellia sinensis plant. (Herbals, on the other hand, come from sources like flowers, fruit, plants, and grass and don’t reap the same health benefits.) Here’s a look at the particulars of each type:
CHOOSE A TYPE
This tea’s deep color and full-bodied flavor come from a long drying process. You can buy generic black tea (think Lipton) at the grocery store for beans, but you’ll be drinking a blend of different types of tea. I prefer single-origin varieties like Assam and Darjeeling. If you’re really into tea, consider the leaves’ origin. Like wine, different growing styles and regions add subtle nuances to tea. For instance, high-growing teas (like Darjeeling, from India) are lighter in flavor than low-growing teas (like Assam, also from India).
How to brew: Use boiling water and steep loose leaves for between two and five minutes (shorter for tea bags). If you like a stronger tea, leave the leaves in longer. Just be careful not to oversteep; steeping black tea for too long can bring out too many tannins and add a bitter flavor.
These tea leaves are dried for less time than black tea leaves, making ooling an almost-black, almost-green tea. There’s a lot of variation in oolong tea’s flavor and color, thanks to its level of processing. Compared to black tea, oolong leaves impart a somewhat grassy, somewhat sweet taste with floral and fruity aromas to each cup.
How to brew: Use slightly less than boiling water (between 180 to 200 degrees). Steep loose leaves for three minutes. Tea bags should steep for less time.
Because green tea leaves undergo minimal oxidation (the result of drying), they make a mild brew with a light, clean flavor. Some varieties have an earthy flavor while others are crisp. The flavors vary among brands, so play around to find a favorite. I tested a cheapo green tea that tasted like watery dirt. Ick. Other types are light and refreshing.
How to brew: Green and white teas are minimally processed so too-hot water can burn the fragile leaves. Use water that’s just about to boil—listen for the rumbling sound in your kettle’s belly—which is about 160 to 170 degrees. Steep the tea for about a minute and a half, though if you dunk them for longer you’ll add more flavor.
For years, tea aficionados considered white tea the unprocessed bud of a tea leaf from China’s Fujian province. The definition’s a bit foggy nowadays and generally refers to any unprocessed tea buds or even unprocessed tea leaves. The lack of processing gives these leaves a mild, vegetal flavor and close-to-clear tint.
How to brew: See above
BAGGED VS. LOOSE
Tea purists swear by loose leaf tea because it’s usually fresher, and therefore more flavorful, than tea bags. Those bags, tea experts say, are often full of tea “dust,” which may be a mix of a number of teas and can be older than fresh leaf tea.
If seeping loose leaves isn’t realistic for your daily life—hello desk-side tea party—bags are much more convenient. Another option: sachets that hold whole leaves of tea.
If you want your tea to taste good a few months from now, keep your leaves (or bags) in an airtight container and away from light, odors, and moisture.
TRY SOMETHING NEW
I used to be the kind of tea lover that thought, “Meh, Lipton is cheap. I’ll drink it.” Then I went to England and had a proper tea (I said that in a British accent, in case you were wondering). Now, I like trying new single-origin teas like Assam, Ceylon, and Darjeeling. There’s no right or wrong tea, so find what you like and sip on. But I’d urge you to get adventurous and taste test a bunch of types. You may be surprised what you like.
I pretty much love all tea. (Well, minus Lipton, which smells like chemicals. It does! Brew a cup and see for yourself!) That said, here are some ideas to get you going:
What are your favorite types of tea? I’m always up for trying new brews, so please share!