Did you know that tea is not just the name of a drink, but also the plant that it comes from? Tea plants are a genus of flowering evergreen shrub native to East and South Asia; the fresh leaves are bright green and taste quite bitter. Tea leaves were first cultivated in China thousands of years ago. It was originally a medicinal beverage before people began drinking it for stimulation, and eventually relaxation. In the time since humans began processing leaves for tea, the drink has undoubtedly influenced history. Between the cultural exchanges that brought tea leaves from Asia to Europe, and the trade route disputes that later devolved into the Opium Wars, it has been an immensely important commodity which is still heavily traded today. China, India, and Kenya are currently the top three tea-producing countries; Turkey, Morocco, and Ireland are the top three tea-consuming countries.
Types of Tea
Actual tea comes from one plant, but depending on how the leaves are processed, that plant can result in a beverage with drastically different appearance and flavor. The primary processing tea leaves undergo is called oxidization; for simplicity’s sake, we may refer to it as “curing” through drying. White tea and green tea are produced from minimally oxidized leaves, while oolong and black teas are fully oxidized, as well as being bruised or crushed. Sometimes dried herbs or fruits will be added to traditional tea blends for flavor. All tea brewed from the tea plant contains decent levels of caffeine, thus traditional tea is a good alternative to coffee.
However, tisanes– or herbal teas– do not contain caffeine, nor indeed any trace of the tea plant. Chamomile, mint, and other blends featuring dried herbs, spices, or fruit are examples of tisanes. More commonly, these are intended for relaxation purposes. Nowadays we tend to associate them with medicinal or nutritional benefits.
How To Brew Hot Tea
Now that you know a bit about the history and production of tea, let’s tackle a more controversial topic: how to brew a cup of hot tea. Listen, iced tea is a great drink, especially during the hot summer months. Though it may pain iced tea aficionados to hear me say it, you can make a perfectly passable pitcher by scaling up the following method, and letting it cool in the fridge before adding sugar and ice cubes.
Tea is often bought in pre-portioned tea bags, or sometimes as loose leaves to be brewed using an infuser. There is a pretty stark difference between low and high-quality tea in either form. Often, low quality tea bags contain a fine powder, which is really just the dust of dried tea leaves or herbs. Low-quality loose leaf tea can taste bland, or like nothing at all. Investing in high-quality loose and bagged tea will pay off in the form of a far better flavor.
When you’re buying loose leaf tea, there will usually be instructions on how much to add to your infuser. For black teas, a mug requires 1-2 teaspoons. For white and herbal teas, on the other end of the spectrum, instructions usually indicate at least a tablespoon is necessary.
Teapots and teacups are great collectors’ items, but for every day occasions, any old mug will do. Some teapots and mugs sold in specialty shops have built in ceramic infusers to hold loose leaf tea, which is extremely convenient. Depending on if you like to add honey, or sugar or milk, a saucer is always good to have on hand as well.
No matter how you take it or what type of tea you’re brewing, an underlying fact remains: You never want to add water at a rolling boil. The dried tea and/or herbs are like sleeping flowers; you want them to slowly unfurl and release their flavor, as opposed to snapping open and releasing an overwhelming bitterness. When you add water that is too hot, you’re altering the flavor for the worse. After bringing water to a boil (or after your electric kettle snaps off) remove it from heat and let it sit for about one minute. Then pour the water into your mug and let the tea steep.
Steeping tea for any length of time really is up to preference. The longer you steep it, the more intense the flavor. I’ve drank whole mugs with the bag still hanging out in there, but often I’ll read recommendations, especially for loose leaf tea, to only let it steep for 3-4 minutes. When it’s done steeping (or when you’re done waiting) you have an excellent cup of stimulation or relaxation at your fingertips. Don’t forget to savor it!
Here are a few of my favorite tisanes and teas:
- Yogi’s Relaxed Mind tea blend (with chamomile)
- Tazo’s Zen tea (with mint and lemongrass)
- Most Earl Grey teas (which are black teas flavored with bergamot)
- Teavana’s Youthberry White Tea
- Adagio Spiced Apple Chai Tea
- Nettle Leaf Tea
What’s your favorite type, and when is your favorite time to drink tea?