Cup of Comfort
“Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea! How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea.” – Rev. Sydney Smith
If I were to tell you that there’s a beverage that can help reduce stress, restore depleted energy levels, control high blood pressure, lower cholesterol, reduce inflammation, boost antioxidants, promote overall well-being, and just make you feel pretty darn good, wouldn’t you want to try it?
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Now, before you start rolling your eyes, let me first say that there has been extensive research conducted on the health benefits of tea. (Seriously, just Google it and you’ll see). However, the findings of any study should not be a substitute for consulting with your doctor(s). While I sing the praises of tea multiple times each day (just ask my Facebook friends), the content of this article is not meant to treat, prevent, or cure any disease. I’m simply offering some comfort in a cup. So, without further ado, let’s talk about tea!
Hold on there, Harry Potter. Lower thy wand. This isn’t a spell. It’s the official name of the plant where all of the major teas – white, green, oolong, black – come from. The differences in the tea are a result of how the leaves are processed:
You might be asking yourself, “Hey – where would herbal tea be in that chart?” Well, believe it or not, herbal tea isn’t really “tea” at all because it doesn’t contain any part of Camellia sinensis. The proper name for herbal decoctions is “tisane” (pronounced TEE-ZAHN). Those of you who are avid watchers of Agatha Christie’s Poirot on PBS will recall that our beloved fastidious Belgian detective usually enjoys some sort of tisane – this could be made with any number of herbs. However, I recall a few episodes in which he has asked Captain Hastings for a chamomile tisane at bedtime. In essence, he was drinking chamomile “tea.” For the purposes of this article (and in the interest of keeping with the vernacular), I will refer to tisanes as herbal teas.
Whole Leaf or Ground?
In recent years, there has been a movement of sorts to promote the use of whole leaf tea in lieu of the humble mass-produced tea bag. The driving force behind this movement is the claim that whole leaf tea is more flavorful and retains more health benefits. However, several large tea companies have created pyramid-shaped sachets that allow full leaves to be comfortably placed inside and brewed without sacrificing the convenience of the tea bag. While I agree that brewed whole leaf tea tends to feel more pleasing on the palate, it’s not so pleasing to the wallet. For example, 2 oz. of Monkey Picked Oolong tea from Teavana sells for $24.98. If you’re lucky, you’ll get 20 cups out of it. (Incidentally, this is my favorite tea, ever. The flavor is exquisite, so you are certainly “getting what you paid for”). But, you can also visit your local grocery store and spend $2.50 on 20 bags of Twinings’ Pure Oolong tea, and still have a lovely tea experience.
Often referred to as the “least fooled around with” of Camellia sinensis, white tea has gained popularity in the U.S. over the last 20 years. After harvesting, the leaves are simply allowed to wither and dry. White tea has a very delicate flavor. You can find it in most tea catalogs as Silver Needle, Silvery Tip Pekoe, Fujian White, or China White tea. It tends to be the most expensive of all teas, especially in whole leaf form. I don’t personally drink a lot of white tea, but when I do I typically prefer a flavored white tea, such as Teavana’s Youthberry White.
Hailed as the “super tea,” green tea can be found nearly everywhere. Touted for its antioxidant properties, green tea is said to help lower cholesterol and high blood pressure, neutralize the free radicals that contribute to cancer, and help with weight loss. I can personally attest to the last claim – green tea is a dieter’s best friend. It gives me energy without the jitters of coffee, and helps curb cravings. But, here’s a newsflash – doctors and researchers are now saying that most of these same health benefits can be found in all forms of Camellia sinensis. It just so happens that, historically, green tea tends to be researched more for health benefits than other forms of tea. My favorite blend on the cheap is made by Twinings – it’s green tea with jasmine, and it’s simply divine! I’m also a fan of Twinings’ Nightly Calm decaffeinated green tea – it’s blended with chamomile, spearmint, and lemongrass. If I want to spend the big bucks, I like to drink Teavana’s Jeju Island green tea. It’s a Korean green tea that sells for $10.98 per 2 oz. I love making a full pot of Jeju Island green tea and sipping it slowly over several hours while reading a good book or binge watching Netflix.
The name of this tea may sound like a bad pick-up line: “Hey, baby…do you OOH-long?” But, rest assured, there is nothing cheap about this tea. No longer green tea, and not quite black tea, oolong is sort of that moment of perfection tea, as I like to call it. There is a short fermentation process before it’s fully dried that adds to the flavor and color. As I stated above, Teavana’s Monkey Picked Oolong is my favorite tea, ever. However, the box of 80 tea bags selling in Marshalls for $6.99 by Choice Teas also provides me with a darn good cup of oolong. Fun fact: the tea you are served in Chinese restaurants is nearly always some form of oolong tea. Those of you who have eaten with me in Chinese restaurants in the past will no doubt recall the horror you felt as I proceeded to consume an entire pot of oolong on my own. (Hey – I offered you more, but you declined. And, I never let perfectly good brewed tea go to waste. But I digress…)
This is the tea most of us think of when we hear the word “tea.” Companies like Lipton, Red Rose, and PG Tips have long ruled the market on black tea production. Ever hear of Darjeeling tea? It’s a type of black tea, and also a favorite of mine. Fortnum & Mason makes an amazing “First Flush” Darjeeling tea, which means the tea comes from the first grown buds of the harvest season, providing a light, floral flavor and an orange hue once brewed versus the typical redder hue of most black teas. Many drinkers will take their black tea with milk and sugar; however, I prefer drinking it straight up or with a squeeze of lemon.
English Breakfast Tea, Irish Breakfast Tea, and Scottish Breakfast Tea are all variations of black tea. The difference lies in which leaf variety is used and its strength. English Breakfast will resemble your standard cup of black tea (think Lipton). Both Irish and Scottish Breakfast tend to be stronger and almost malty in flavor. Of the three, I really enjoy Scottish Breakfast. Taylors of Harrogate makes a nice Scottish brew. Sometimes I can find it in TJMaxx or Marshalls. But you can also find it on Amazon! It’s a nice eye-opening tea in the morning. For more information about these blends, I found a great article from The Kitchn blog.
A popular variation of black tea is chai. Assam black tea is blended with warming spices, such as cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, black pepper, cloves, nutmeg, and star anise. This is one of those heart and soul comforting teas in the middle of winter. You can find various chai blends in the grocery store or a more expensive specialty tea shop. But, you can also blend all of the ingredients together yourself. You can also make a caffeine-free version by using either decaffeinated black tea or chicory and blend with the spices. Celestial Seasonings makes an awesome caffeine-free chai called Bengal Spice. They also throw in some vanilla for a touch of sweetness.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Earl Grey tea. Anyone who knows me well knows that I have an affinity for Earl Grey tea. It’s simply black tea flavored with oil of bergamot. The taste itself isn’t what wins me over – it’s all about the fragrance. Also, there’s this: (You’re welcome, ladies.)
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Up next, Part 2: Herbal tea, tea preparation and more!