TEA … a Primer

Such a simple word “tea” … which provides us with such a simple beverage.  Why then, oh why, do so many people make it seem so complicated?   Do we really need to know about the origin, production and preparation of the leaf?  Can’t we just enjoy our cuppa without being told its pedigree?  It doesn’t have to be complicated.  But if you want a bit more information, let me break it down for you as simply as possible . . .

All tea comes from one plant, the Camellia Sinensis.  The Camellia Sinensis is an evergreen plant, which resembles its cousin, the azalea bush.  Yes, there are over 3,000 varieties of this plant, but it still is the leaf of this plant which, after plucking, withering, firing and sorting, gives us “tea”.

Although the plant can grow to the height of 25′, for ease of plucking, the plants are kept to a height of 3′ or 4′.  Bending over tea bushes, plucking the new growth can be a ‘back breaking’ job, so the plants are pruned to this reasonable height.   Picking or “plucking” takes place three times a year, taking only the new growth.  This growth is called a “flush” and is referred to as first flush, second flush and autumnal.

Tea is plucked mostly by women – smaller hands and feet and less apt to trample on the plants – who pass this profession on to their daughters.  Men are generally considered too ‘clumsy’ and work in the fields and factories.  Successful plantations today take care of their workers and provide everything from health care to housing, schooling and subsidized food.


So, where is tea grown? 
Like wine, tea grows best at higher altitudes with an afternoon cloud cover.  The soil should be rich with lots of moisture and the climate should be fairly consistent.  The farms where tea is grown are called “plantations” or tea “estates”.  Although tea is grown primarily in China, Japan, India, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Kenya and southern parts of Russia, you’ll find plantations now in South Carolina, Hawaii and even an experimental estate in England.

Types of Tea
Depending on who you talk to, there are between three to seven types of tea.  Those categories are:  white, green, oolong, pouchong, black and pu-erh.   Tisanes are herbal beverages which a lot of people call “tea”, but they really aren’t “tea” because they do not contain any leaves from the Camellia Sinensis plant.  But let’s keep it simple and just talk about the three basic types:  white, green, and black.

Production for each type of tea differs slightly, although the process is the same.  From plucking in the fields, the leaves are then withered to reduce moisture.  From withering, the leaves are heat-fired to stop oxidation.  They may then be crushed, or rolled before being sorted for grading.

Green tea is becoming more and more popular as people realize its health benefits.   Once produced only in China and Japan, green tea is now being produced in India and Sri Lanka as well.  After plucking, the tea is withered slightly to reduce the moisture and then carefully heat treated to stop oxidation.  In Japan, green tea is steamed to stop the oxidation process, keeping its vibrant green color.  This steaming process is why Japanese green teas are more vegetal tasting.  In China, woks are used and this process gives Chinese greens a nuttier, slightly sweeter aftertaste.

Green tea lends itself to scenting or flavoring very nicely.  You’ll find lots of flavored green teas on the market today – from florals to fruity blends, as well as some spices.  If you enjoy your cuppa sweetened, green teas are fine, but, please NO milk!

Black tea is the one that most of us are familiar with.  I’m sure we’ve all grown up with a box of Lipton or Tetley or even Yorkshire Gold tea bags in the cupboard.  Grown mostly in India and Sri Lanka (Ceylon), leaves designated for black teas are spread out to dry (withered) after plucking to remove most of the moisture.  The leaves are then heat treated, rolled and ready for sorting.

Black teas are sold as “orthodox” (large, unbroken leaves) or as “ctc” (smaller particles called “cut, torn, curled”).   Black teas can be from a specific estate or blended, as in English Breakfast, or flavored.  The most popular flavored black tea is, of course, Earl Grey.  Black teas are generally enjoyed with milk and sugar.

White tea is very delicate and generally plucked from the finest bushes.  Only the top buds of the plant are plucked – before dawn, before the buds open.   As a result, White tea can be very rare and can be very expensive.  At one time, white tea was thought to be most appreciated in its purest form and not scented or blended.  Today, however, you’ll find all sorts of scented white teas available from tea purveyors.

Chinese emperors would only allow young virginal girls with gloved hands
to pluck their teas, placing them in a solid gold bowl.
These became ‘tribute’ teas or ‘imperial’ teas and reserved
only for emperors and visiting dignitaries. 

 

Caffeine Content
First of all, did you know that caffeine is a natural substance produced by the plant to ward off parasites?  Also, the caffeine content can be manipulated somewhat by the grower.  Nigel Melican, research scientist and President of the European Tea Association, states, “Caffeine varies in the fresh green leaf depending on the fineness of the pluck.  For any tea, be it black, green or white, the caffeine is highest in the bud.  Silver needle (white tea) is 100% bud and has the highest caffeine content.”

Over 85% of Americans consume significant amounts of caffeine every day.  The Mayo Clinic claims that most adults can handle up to 400 milligrams of caffeine a day without any side effects.  But if you are prone to medical problems, or sleep issues, and would like to cut down on your caffeine intake, you might want to know just how much caffeine you’re drinking.  On average, keep in mind tea has half the caffeine that coffee has and herbal tisanes have no caffeine.

Is caffeine addictive?  Research says “no”, but caffeine does stimulate the nervous system and most of us do crave that alert feeling that comes after having it.  I believe it’s better to understand the caffeine content in a cuppa if we start with coffee …

On average an 8oz. cup of Starbucks coffee has 180 mg of caffeine.  Dunkin Donuts has a little less with 150 mg of caffeine.  Black tea, on average, has 48 mg of caffeine, while green tea has even less caffeine than black tea, with an average of 28 mg.  White tea can be deceiving with more caffeine than green, but less than black.  Again, these numbers are for 8oz.  The average person uses a 14oz. mug, so increase the numbers.

Loose Leaf vs Tea Bags?  
Some people think loose leaf tea is too expensive.  Loose leaf tea may seem to cost a bit more, but when you break down the price per cup, its actually less expensive than you think.  And, if like me, you get a second infusion (and sometimes a third) from your leaf, that cuts the cost in half.  The secret, of course, is to start with good quality tea.

Prices for bagged teas can be all over the place.  And there are some beautifully packaged ‘bagged’ teas available.  But remember, you are also paying for the packaging.  As a result, your cost per cup may be more than loose leaf tea.

Is loose leaf tea more difficult to prepare?  I don’t think so at all.  The process is exactly the same except for one thing.  With loose leaf tea, you have to put the “tea” into something to infuse it.  The bagged tea is already “in” something.  That’s the only difference.  Temperature of the water should be the same.  Steeping time should be the same.  But with loose leaf tea you are going to get a better tasting cuppa.

How to Make the Perfect Cup
Hopefully, now that you have some basic information about tea, you’ll want to start enjoying it.  No, its not complicated.  Want to know more?  Just click on the link … A Perfect Cuppa.

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Once upon a time in a land far, far away, legend says that in China 5000 years ago the then Emperor Shen Nung, who was referred to as the emperor of agriculture, was sitting in his garden boiling his drinking water.  Emperor Nung believed that boiling drinking water destroyed the bacteria that made people sick, and 5000 years ago that was quite a radical way of thinking.  Some people thought he was a bit strange, but he was, after all, an emperor, so people followed his beliefs.  As he was sitting under this large, beautiful tree boiling his water, the wind picked up and a few leaves blew into the pot.  He watched them for a few moments, contemplated it, and always eager to try new things, he tasted it.  And that was how tea was discovered!

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Want to learn even more? You might be interested in how “tea” got its name …  “What’s In a Name”

 

A Perfect Cuppa

Yes, I know, everyone knows how to make a cup of tea.  Right?  Wrong!  I am simply amazed at how many people make tea BADLY.  The water is generally not hot enough, or too hot.  If they use a teabag, it’s left in the cup or pot FOREVER!  And these are the very same people who would never think of serving a badly prepared cup of coffee.  A well made cup of tea is delicious. Please don’t offer me a tepid cup with a teabag hanging out.  If you do, of course I will accept, but don’t be offended if I don’t drink it.

It’s not complicated.  There are really just three simple steps:

HEAT THE WATER
Get a tea kettle or a saucepan, fill it with as much water as you think you will need for the pot or cup you are making. DON’T use water that’s been sitting in the kettle most of the day.  The oxygen has dissipated and now it’s flat.  Use freshly drawn water from the tap. Bottled water is not necessary.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

You don’t need any fancy appliance.  By all means, if you have an electric kettle, use it, but if not, put the kettle or a saucepan on the stove.  Please do not use a microwave.  It’s just not possible to know what the temperature of the water is when using a microwave oven.  And, if the water gets too hot, there is a chance the cup will explode. Yes, it does happen!

WATER TEMPERATURE
The temperature you heat the water to is very important.  If you use boiling water (210°) for green tea, you will stew the leaves and it will be bitter.  If you use water that’s under the boil (180°) for black tea, it will be flat and insipid.   When making black tea (English Breakfast, Earl Grey, etc.), bring the water to a rolling boil.   When making green tea (Jasmine, flavored or unflavored greens), bring the water to a soft boil and let it cool for a minute or two before pouring over the tea.  It’s not complicated.

POT OR NO POT
Yes, I use a teapot every time I make tea.  Must you use a teapot?  No.  But I truly believe it adds to the ceremony, the enjoyment and the taste.  Using a teapot doesn’t mean you need to get Grandma’s old 6-cup porcelain pot from the back of the cupboard.  Teapots come in all sizes and styles.  In the morning I use a three-cup ceramic pot, perfect for making two large mugs of tea.   Later in the day, I use my two-cup glass teapot, for an afternoon pick-me-up.

LOOSE OR TEA BAG
Do you drink instant coffee?  No.  Then why would you use a teabag, which is nothing more than instant tea?  Yes, teabag offerings have become much better recently.  This is only because the large tea companies were losing market share as consumers started buying more and more loose leaf tea.  As a result, these large tea companies had to step up their game to compete with the loose leaf tea market.  Certainly you can use a tea bag if you’d like, but given the choice, use good quality loose leaf.  Don’t you deserve it?

MEASURE THE TEA 
 Use one teaspoon of tea for each 8 oz. cup.  An 8 oz. measuring cup is not the same as a teacup. Teacups are usually 5 oz.  Mugs are usually 12 to 14 oz.  All the more reason to use a teapot for accurate measurements.  A three-cup teapot uses three teaspoons of tea.  What is the capacity of your teapot?  Just get a measuring cup and find out.

Green teas and white teas are lighter in weight than black teas.  You may want to use a bit more green or white teas than a teaspoon.  Black teas are heavier.  You might want to use just a bit less than a teaspoon.  Your taste will ultimately determine how much to use.

Then put the tea into an infuser or directly into your teapot.  Pour the boiling water if it’s black tea (cooler than boiling if it’s green tea) over the tea.  Cover and let it steep.

TIMING – HOW LONG TO STEEP
This is also a critical point.  You need to steep the tea long enough for the flavor to be extracted from the leaves.  30 seconds is plenty of time for a tea bag, but certainly not enough for loose leaf tea.  For black tea, steep for 3 to 5 minutes.  For green tea and white teas, steep for 2 to 3 minutes.  Start with these times and then adapt to your own taste.  If you like your tea steeped a little more, or less, adjust the steeping time slightly.  But, please, remember you must take the tea bag or infuser out of the cup or pot at the end of the steeping time.

POUR AND ENJOY
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAgain, please remove the infuser or the teabags from the teapot or cup.  Don’t leave them in the pot or your tea will oversteep and become bitter.  Do you take milk and sugar with your tea? Feel free.  Now relax and enjoy!

To recap, all you need to make the perfect cuppa is:
.. good quality tea
.. water at the right temperature
.. steeped for the correct amount of time

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Earl Grey ….. the man, the tea!

vintage tea photo

What is it about Earl Grey tea that makes it the most popular tea in the world?  Having been a purveyor of tea for 15 years, it has always stymied me.   There are so-o-o many tasty teas out there, but Earl Grey lovers want Earl Grey tea and nothing more.  Where did this tea come from and how did it achieve such loyalty?

For me, the history and legend of Earl Grey is far more interesting than the tea.  Born March 13, 1764, Charles Grey was the second son of General Charles Grey of Southwick, County Durham, England.   With an impressive education at Eton and Trinity College, he found himself attracted to politics and, at the age of 22, became one of the youngest members elected to Parliament.  With his youthful, idealistic beliefs and strong political stands, he soon became a prominent figure in the Whig party.  Although viewed as extreme at the time, Grey was able to lead many reforms over the next few years.  In 1806 the Whig party was disbanded, and although Grey remained very active in politics, it wasn’t until 1830, when the Whigs were returned to power, that Grey was elected as Prime Minister.

Described as a man of many contradictions (classic Aries),  headstrong, ambitious and impulsive, yet indecisive, pessimistic and at times and foolish, Charles married Mary Elizabeth Ponsonby in 1794.  On the surface, Grey appeared to be a devoted husband and father with a family numbering 15 children (six daughters and ten sons).  Prior to his marriage, and some say throughout, he was a notorious ladies’ man.  His most public affair was with the Duchess of Devonshire, Georgiana Spencer, with whom he produced a child in 1792.

220px-Charles_Grey_(1764-1845),_by_Henry_Bone

Among the many impressive pieces of legislation that Grey’s ministry was able to accomplish were:

  • the Abolition of Slavery Act
  • the Factory Act
  • the ending of the East India Company monopoly
  • ending the farm workers ‘Swing Riots’
  • a state-funded grant for the building of schools
  • allowing marriages to take place in non-Conformist chapels
  • the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act reforming child labor laws

Needless to say, this man was an impressive figure who made quite a contribution to England’s political environment and culture, but when and where did the “tea” connection come from?

Let’s start at the beginning …..
The first chests of tea arrived from China at the docks in London in 1645.  It was, at this time, a fashionable trend among the aristocratic elite to enjoy this exotic beverage.   Over the next 100 years, Great Britain and the new America became obsessed with “tea”.  It had gone from being the beverage of the upper class to the daily drink of commoners.  The East India Company, one of the largest financial monopolies in the world, was formed by Queen Elizabeth I to handle all the trade with China, primarily the ‘tea’ trade.

ancient china tea production 1

The consumption of tea by the Brits had increased from 1 million pounds per year to over 20 million pounds per year.  To pay for this tea, the East India Company offered the Chinese textiles.  The Chinese were far more advanced in manufacturing than the British and did not want such inferior goods. They wanted to be paid in silver bullion.  At the beginning, this wasn’t a problem for the British because silver was in great supply; but with the loss of the American colonies, access to South America, where the silver was mined, was becoming more and more difficult.  The British had some opium plantations in India and soon realized the answer to their “tea” problem was to increase their opium trade with the Chinese.

This was about the time when Lord Grey came into power.  But how Grey became associated with the tea, especially one named for him, is unclear.   There are many legends and discussions, none of which have been verified …..

  • The most familiar is that Lord Grey traveled to China, and during the trip, he, or one of his servants, saved the life of a son of a Chinese mandarin from drowning and was given this tea blend as a “thank you”.
  • Another similar version of this tale has the son of an Indian Raja being rescued from a tiger by one of Lord Grey’s servants.  In both tales, Lord Grey was given the tea as a way of saying “thank you”.
  • One story tells how this tea blend was created by accident when a gift of tea and bergamot fruits were shipped together from China and the tea absorbed the fruit flavor during shipping.
  • Another story says the tea was named after Charles by Jackson’s of Piccadilly, who blended the tea “to meet the wishes of the former Earl of Grey”.earl-grey-1

The legends also describe Lord Grey as having enjoyed this tea so much, he asked a London tea merchant to try to replicate the flavor.  The Prime Minister being so pleased, he allowed this custom-blended tea to be sold to select customers.  Interestingly, in 1837 (three years after Lord Grey left political life), London tea merchants, Brocksop & Company faced criminal charges for adding bergamot to lower quality tea in order to misrepresent it as a superior product (at a higher price).   Would Lord Grey really have endorsed an inferior tea?  I highly doubt it.

My theory is …. the early founders of London tea salons, Thomas Twining and Robert Jackson were both shameless self-promoters and marketeers.  With British tea shops becoming very popular and competitive, they had to do something to draw attention to their shops and the teas they sold.  What better way than to create a specialty blends in honor of a dignitary perhaps or member of the royal family?   The “Queen Victoria” blend, “Royal Wedding” blend, and possibly the “Earl Grey” blend.

Twining and Jackson both took credit for creating the now familiar blend which uses the natural oils from the peel of the bergamot fruit to flavor the Chinese blend of black leaves, but will we ever know?  What we do know is that this tea, which bears the name of the Prime Minister of England, is one of the most popular flavored teas in the world today (although I don’t know why).

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Resources:  Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. , Wikipedia, the Victorian Web, The Book of Tea by Anthony Burgess, TEA by Lydia Gautier, TEA by Roy Moxham

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