I was always partial to tea and have talked to many friends about it, and even been interviewed once by a local television station, so why not write about it? But, so as to not raise expectations that I fail to fulfill, let me confess that I am no expert but an absolute commoner who had the good fortune to meet a few aficionados who stirred this interest. Also, this has nothing to do with the other allusions to tea as for instance in “Boston Tea Party,” and is restricted to the beverage made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant.

History :

Legend has it that tea was discovered in China in 2737 B.C. and was cultivated as a medicinal beverage on a large scale in China from around 400 A.D. Today, India (25.63%) and China (25%) account for half the global production of tea, followed by Kenya (10.25%) and Sri Lanka (9.65%).

Categories of tea:

Most people are familiar with tea as a beverage in one form or the other. The problem is that the beverage has many diverse forms. It is therefore likely that we may have dismissed tea after being exposed to one of its forms.  Or if we are a tea lover we may not have explored the full potential of tea. It is possible to get an idea about the diversity of tea by taking a look at the broad categories and grades of tea.

There are four broad categories of tea:

  1. Green Tea. After tealeaves are plucked and start withering and dying, they go through a process called “oxidization” that destroys the beneficial polyphenols, catechins and flavonoids. If the plucked leaves are quickly dehydrated through roasting, then the enzymes that causes the fermentation are destroyed and the beneficial ingredients are retained. This is how green tea is prepared. It has a light color and flavor and has many health benefits.
  2. White tea is prepared from leaf buds that are not fully open and are covered with fuzzy silver colored hairs that give it the whitish appearance. It is quickly dried to produce some of the most exclusive and rare teas. It is said that white tea has three times more antioxidants than green tea and black tea. It has a fruity flavor and can be enjoyed by anybody.
  3. Oolong or Wu-long tea is prepared by allowing partial fermentation to take place. This tea is somewhere in between black tea and green tea. It has number of benefits including weight reduction and decreasing wrinkles.
  4. Black tea is what most tea drinkers are familiar with. Here the fermentation is allowed to proceed until it is completed. Black tea is produced mainly in India and Sri Lanka.

Grading of tea

There is an elaborate system of grading for all the categories of tea.

Black Tea can be manufactured by the orthodox method or it can be CTC (Crush, Tear, Curl method). Depending on the manufacturing process.  the black tea will be of various leaf sizes ranging from whole leaf to broken leaf to fannings and finally dust. The grades are developed based on a description of the tealeaves for which there are terms like “finest,” “special finest” “Pekoe”, “Orange Pekoe” and so on. Thus you can have a grade like FTGFOP1 (Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe First Grade), which is the finest grade of Darjeeling Tea. Or you can have BOP1 (Broken Orange Pekoe First Grade), which is used for a mixture of broken and whole leaf Ceylon tea.

The point is that tea grades may seem intimidating but it is actually pretty simple if you realize that whole leaf is the finest kind of tea while dust is at the other end. Similarly the topmost buds and leaves go to make the finest tea.

Whole leaf tea gives a light bodied tea whereas CTC is suitable for use in tea bags. 

Health benefits

Tea started as a medicinal beverage and therefore the numerous health benefits of tea are a part of Chinese folklore and medicine. Some of these claims have been validated by Japanese research on green tea. 

It is now clear that the tannins or polyphenols in tea, mainly catechols and flavonoids have excellent antioxidant properties. Antioxidants neutralize free radical buildup in the body, which is a big benefit, as free radicals cause the cell damage that leads on to major diseases like cancer and heart disease.

One of the catechols found in tea, epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) is the subject of research for it’s excellent cholesterol lowering, fat burning and anti-inflammatory properties. It is also being studied for its possible role in inhibiting urokinase, which is responsible for cancerous growth.

It is also said that the catechins in tea have an anti-microbial activity, which can help in controlling infections of the gastro-intestinal tract and also prevent tooth decay. 

Tea also contains small quantities of Theobromine which has a diuretic effect. It stimulates renal circulation and also the urinary system.

The health benefits are getting established through research on green tea. While oolong tea or black tea has not been similarly studied, the benefits may extend to all types of tea albeit in varying degrees.

Beverage Preparation

There are many ways in which tea is prepared. Without going into the elaborate tea ceremonies, we can take a quick look at the common method of preparation.

Green tea, white tea and oolong tea are best prepared with natural spring water or filtered water (avoid chlorinated water). The water is heated and just as it starts to boil, it is poured into a teapot containing tealeaves.  The pot should not be closed. After brewing for two to three minutes the brew can be strained and served straight away in cups. Its best not to add anything, but if a beginner needs time to adapt to the taste, a few drops of honey can be added.

Black whole leaf tea is usually prepared by pouring boiling water into a teapot containing tealeaves. (You put one teaspoon of tealeaves for each cup and one for the pot).  Brew for 3 minutes and pour out the brew into cups and add sugar to taste before serving.

It can be served as milk tea by adding a few drops of milk.  This is the regular Pot tea that is made at home.  Those who prefer a light flavor use Darjeeling tea leaves while those who want their tea strong, with body and color, prefer Assam black tea.

Teacups and TeapotCredit: © Actionwatcher | Dreamstime.comLemon TeaCredit: © Victor Burnside | Dreamstime.comIce TeaCredit: © Rob Blissett | Dreamstime.com

Alternatively for those who do not like milk, black tea can be served as lemon tea by adding a few drops of fresh lemon juice. It changes the taste and color and is very refreshing.

Yet another alternative is Ice Tea. Prepare the tea as usual and store the brew away in a refrigerator.  Whenever required, take out the brew add some sugar and cold water, and plenty of ice. If you add a dash of fresh lime juice and a few crushed mint leaves, it will be a fantastic coolant for the summer months.

Black CTC tea or dust tea is usually prepared by boiling the water, milk and tealeaves together for about 3 to 5 minutes. Strain and serve after adding sugar to taste.

There are variants like the Indian Masala tea or ginger tea which are all basically Black CTC tea prepared the usual way but with spices added to it – ginger in the case of the ginger tea and a combination of cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, clove and black pepper for masala tea.

With all this variety in the world of tea, it is worthwhile experimenting and discovering the enchanting aromas and flavors of tea while it does some good to your health.

Credits (Photographs) :

© Actionwatcher | Dreamstime.com

© Victor Burnside | Dreamstime.com

© Rob Blissett | Dreamstime.com