Friday, January 22, 2010

Taking Tea

I've been interested in tea very seriously for years. Ever since I started this blog, I've been meaning to do an informational tea post, but I've kept putting it off or for forgetting about it. Carolyn of F* Yeah Lolita's recent post about exquisite teas got my blood pumping again, and, doki-doki-ing away, I didn't have any choice but to write up my own article!

So, why drink tea? Of course it is ~so lolita~, but why? Well, if you consider its fabled health benefits, it may not be a surprise; while being incredibly beneficial to one's heart and immune system, it is also said to be good for the nails and hair, while boosting the metabolism and fighting diabetes (both important when nomming away on cakes at a tea party!). Green tea especially also employs a unique combination of chemicals: EGCG, L-theanine, and caffeine. These chemicals combine in an interesting way- the caffeine affects your body in a similar way as it does in coffee or soda, but the L-theanine and EGCG put your brain into alpha, relaxed brain waves instead of beta brain waves (which is considered the unhealthy "fight-or-flight" reaction) as is usual with caffeine consumption. What this means is that your metabolism is boosted and you feel more alert, but the uncomfortable anxiousness and nervousness are assuaged. There is also much less caffeine in tea (around 15 - 60 mg) than in other caffeinated substances, with soda at 80 -140 mg and coffee at 60 - 200 mg. This is why people trying to wean off the substance are recommended to switch a few cups of coffee to a few cups of tea a day.

So, what different types of tea are there? Technically, the three main types are black, white, and green. These all come from the same plant (Camellia Sinensis) and use the leaves; however, the difference in them is the fermentation, which affects each type profoundly. Black tea, the most common, is fermented longest; it's considered "fully-fermented," though technically the term "fermentation" is a bit of a misnomer in and of itself, because the process we give this name to is actually just allowing the tea to oxidize during the drying process- black tea is allowed to dry longest, and thus loses a lot of properties that less-fermented green and white teas keep in tact. The next level of fermentation is green tea, which, as stated above, keeps chemicals such as EGCG that black tea looses. White tea is considered the most healthful and luxurious, as it undergoes much more careful handling and a shorter drying period, keeping the most chemicals and health benefits. White tea drying methods are also used in Silver Tips tea, which is usually the most expensive type: this tea uses only first-flush young leaves (the newest, youngest, most tender leaves from the first harvest of the season) - if you can get your hands on this I really recommend it! Beyond those, anything else is considered an "herbal" tea, or tisane (pronounced "tee-zahn") - the only "true" teas are those using leaves of the Camellia Sinensis plant.
Now you know what type of tea you want to go for. Your next question is, loose leaf or bag tea? There are pros and cons for each choice. For example, bag teas are cheaper and more convenient, but you have to be more careful - a lot of tea bags are mostly filings, which are very low-quality "fillers." You have a much better chance of quality control if you go with loose leaf, as well as superior taste and more blending capabilities - obviously, I recommend loose leaf, but it's a bit pricier (look to pay $3 - 15 per ounce, with 3 - 4 servings per ounce) and harder to get a hold of. Try your local health food store, or online - my personal favorite sites are Rishi Tea and DiviniTea. They're also both Fair Trade, organic, and kosher, all of which are important to me personally. What that means is that the teas were produced by workers in fair, safe conditions without the use of harmful chemicals, using only the best ingredients - I recommend checking packages and looking for certification for all three when buying teas. For a loose leaf tea, you'll need an infuser of some sort - this can be an individual teacup, a whole teapot, or even a french press (my favorite is this one from Rishi Tea). You can even steep the leaves in a normal teapot, then strain it when you pour it into the individual cup. If you want more tips on the best way to brew Western tea, check out Victoria Suzanne's post here.

I have a deep personal love of tea. I spent six month working in an organic hippie tearoom, and it was by far the best six months of my life. I learned so much more about tea than I ever thought was possible, and from this I learned more than I could have ever expected about myself, inner peace, and balance. There so are many reasons people drink tea- love of the taste, its possible health benefits, or for the pure aesthetic value of taking tea with friends. What's your reason?

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