Is that really tea you’re drinking?

closeup of dry contents of chamomile herbal tea blendI’m sure many of you have heard of herbal “teas” and probably even drank them thinking you’d get the benefits of tea without the caffeine.  Well, I hope I’m not bursting your bubble when I tell you that herbal teas are technically not really teas.  In fact, they’re known as tisanes, which are herbal or plant infusions.  So while they may taste good and (generally) won’t keep you up at night, don’t count on them to help promote a healthy heart, prevent cancer, or aid in weight loss the way green, black, oolong, white, or pu-erh tea might.

Basically, actual tea comes from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant whereas herbal teas are made from just about anything else – leaves, flowers, fruits, nuts, seeds, grains, or roots of non-Camellia sinensis plants.  This is distinctive from flavored teas, which are any of the aforementioned items blended with at least one type of tea, whether it be green, black, oolong, white, or pu-erh.  Examples of popular flavored teas include Earl Grey (black tea with bergamot oil) and jasmine tea (usually green or white tea with jasmine flowers).

Most herbal teas are caffeine-free because the plants that they’re made with are naturally caffeine-less.  Sometimes these are marketed as “decaffeinated” teas, but technically that’s inaccurate since there wasn’t any caffeine content to begin with.  How do you remove what’s already not there?  Exactly.  :-P  What these teas are particularly good for is providing a great variety of tastes sans caffeine, for those trying to get to sleep soon or particularly sensitive to the substance.

Some popular herbal teas include rooibos (made from the African herb), hibiscus (made from the flower), chamomile (made from the flower), and Yerba Mate (made from the holly-like plant).  Rooibos, hibiscus, and chamomile teas have no caffeine content, while Yerba Mate does.  One of the more unique types that I learned of recently is Tulsi tea, otherwise known as the “Holy Basil” of India.  This type of tea is also free of caffeine like a typical herbal tea.  Of course, you can really put any edible plant in hot water, let it steep, and make your own type of tea.  If you do decide to do that and come across something delicious, we’d love to know!

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Drinking hot tea to cool you down

set of tea pot and four cups on table outdoorsHere’s an interesting thought: when it’s hot outside, skip the iced tea and sip on some hot tea instead!  This may sound absolutely insane to the typical American, but you may be surprised to find it is common in many parts of Asia, including China and India.  And if billions of people in the Eastern hemisphere are doing it, it’s at least worth exploring, isn’t it?

NPR covered this topic last month, as heat waves hit state after state.  Now when it’s a sweltering 100+ outside and the humidity makes you feel like you’re choking on the air you’re breathing, a steaming cup of hot tea is probably the last thing you’d want to drink.  However, it might just be a good idea since certain receptors in your tongue respond to heat and tell your brain that you need to cool down.  This kick starts the sweating response to help cool you off, pronto.

The idea is that while drinking the hot tea will slightly raise your body temperature, the cooling response that it elicits exceeds the initial heating so that the overall effect is a cooling down.  I’d like to also posit the theory that when you warm up your core temperature, the air temperature feels cooler in comparison, so there could be a psychological effect of feeling “cooler” due to the contrast.  Of course, I’m no scientist, but I think there is wisdom in these ancient cultures so why not try drinking hot tea to cool off like they do?

While nobody knows for sure whether this tactic works or if billions of Asians are just crazy, there seem to be a lot of believers out there.  In fact, TeaVivre offers another reason why hot tea might be a good idea on a hot day: the caffeine in the tea “helps to transform fat in the body into energy, causing you to sweat, yet not feel hot.”  The caffeine in tea has been purported to aid in speeding up the metabolism, so perhaps there’s something to this claim.  Additionally, TeaVivre cites a study done in Britain that showed skin temperature dropped the most when subjects drank hot tea rather than warm/cold tea or even cold drinks in general.

Are you skeptical or convinced?  Give it a try and let us know what you think!  Or, if you’re like me and come from a culture that actively does this, did you do it out of habit or because you believe it to be true?

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Tea Sightings Around the World

From China to Hawaii to Virginia, tea & its accessories come in many forms!

blue and white tea cup with chinese designs

A Chinese tea cup in the qing hua style.

bag of darjeeling tea, harney & sons brand

A very fancy pouch of tea!

closeup of harney & sons logo on tea bag tab

Drinking some delicious tea in Hawaii.

pitcher of iced tea with fake ice cubes

Reusable ice cubes keep a pitcher of iced tea cool in the hot, hot East Coast.

Growing tea

flower from the tea plant or camellia sinensis shrubHave you ever wondered how tea is grown?  While it’s probably not the first thing you think to ask about tea, as we become more environmentally-conscious, it is an issue that is getting more attention.  But even more simple than that lies the question: what is this mysterious camellia sinensis plant and how does it become tea?

Let’s start with the basics.  Camellia sinensis (which we will colloquially refer to as tea) can be grown in two conditions – in the sun and in the shade.  They are actually shrubs and can reach 1-2 meters in height.  Commercially, tea plants are grown in rows and pruned so that they regularly produce shoots that can be plucked.  If you don’t prune them they can grow even taller than 2 meters.

Traditionally, leaves are usually harvested three times a year, first in late April/early May, then in June/July, and finally in late July/early August.  Sometimes there will be a fourth harvest further into the fall season.  The first harvest is considered the best quality and produces the best leaves, therefore you will find they are sold at a premium.  Each subsequent harvest produces less quality leaves.  By the time fall is in full force, the tea shrub will flower with lovely white blossoms.

Tea grows best in climates similar to the ones found in the mid-west and southern United States.  However, you certainly don’t need to live in those areas to be able to enjoy this plant!  They can easily be grown in a greenhouse, planter, or pot.  When you plant them, aim for soil that is well-drained, sandy, and on the acidic side.  Also, it is recommended to add sphagnum moss to the potting mix.  Luckily, tea shrubs are pretty hardy and aren’t very picky about growing conditions.  They’re even drought-tolerant and can survive dry summers better than the average vegetable.

As for what to do with the tea leaves once your plant as grown, we’ll save that for another day.  Until then, why not pick up a camellia sinensis plant and prepare to enjoy your home-grown tea?  See you at the nursery!

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Tea fireworks

Happy (belated) Independence Day!  If you’re like most Americans, you probably saw a fireworks show last night, whether it was at the nation’s capital, in your backyard, or in your TV set.  By now you’ve probably heard of the crazy show in San Diego, where the all the fireworks went off in just 15 seconds.  Ah, the hilarity of mistakes and malfunctions.

So what could we possibly do to celebrate a holiday like this with tea?  We’re in the midst of a heat wave that has pummeled the country, so a steaming cup of tea isn’t exactly the most appealing right now.  Perhaps the answer is iced tea!  Why not cool down with a chilled version of the beverage and still get the health benefits?  However, we Tea Nerds are particularly partial to images, so I figured out a great visual analogy that’s the tea version of a fireworks explosion!

unfurled blossoming tea in glass teapotThey call it “blossoming tea” and in some ways it is the opposite of a firework – quiet, slow-paced, and totally zen.  Yet, at the same time, they share many key characteristics:

  • the opening effect – a small round object expands into a large beautiful display
  • the irresistible effect – a pretty thing that just makes you want to take pictures and/or video
  • the special effect – a product generally reserved for special occasions such as national holidays!

What do you think?  Is comparing blossoming tea to fireworks a bit of a stretch or an appropriate parallel?  How would you use tea to celebrate the holiday?

What is Oolong Tea?

bowl of tieguanyin oolong tea next to cup of teaFirst, let’s address this name: oolong.  It comes from the Chinese words 乌龙 (wu long), which rough translates to “black dragon.”  This is likely because this type of tea is curled or twisted in production, resulting in a dark curly shape that is reminiscent of a dragon.  Oolong tea is made by withering plucked leaves in the sun, oxidizing them, and curling or twisting them.  This results in a tea that is generally between the realm of green and black tea, both in taste and in caffeine content.

There is a ton of variety in the degree of fermentation, type of taste, and shape of oolong teas.  Fermentation ranges anywhere from 8-85% and the taste can be sweet, woody, or fresh.  Over the years, two main styles of leaf shapes took hold: the long rolled leaves and the round wrapped leaves with a tail.  Overall, oolong teas are known for their full-bodied flavor and enhancement of flavor with brewing.  While most teas’ flavor deteriorates when brewed over and over again, oolong teas are known to get improved flavor.

As you probably know by now, all tea types have many purported health benefits and oolong is no exception.  In fact, it is widely considered the “weight loss tea” since it can help aid your metabolism and digestion if incorporated as part of a weight loss plan.  Other potential benefits of drinking oolong tea range from promoting healthy skin and teeth to helping lower bad cholesterol levels and preventing heart disease.

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What is White Tea?

bai hao yinzhen silver needle white tea leavesWhite tea can be considered the baby of the tea types, both because the tea itself is made from young Camellia sinensis leaves and also because it is a relatively new tea to come to market outside of China.  It is made from young buds and immature leaves that are minimally processed.  After the buds and leaves are gathered, they are withered and dried naturally in sunlight, with no rolling or shaking.  While this reduces the labor required to produce the tea, the initial selection of leaves to dry is extremely stringent and makes white tea a more rare form of tea.

The term “white tea” refers to the small hairs on the unopened buds of the Camellia sinensis plant, which give the leaves a whitish appearance when they catch the light.  White teas will usually brew a lighter color than green teas, so it is commonly thought that the light yellow brew is what indicates a white tea, but that is not always the case.

White tea is often considered the healthiest of teas because of its high antioxidant content.  Since the leaves are the least processed of the tea types, more antioxidants are retained in the dried leaves.  Additionally, white tea has the lowest caffeine content compared to green, black, or oolong teas.  Not only is it a great refreshing drink, but it won’t keep you up at night like other teas might.  Of course, it is also purported to have many of the health benefits of green tea as well, including helping to prevent cancer, heart disease, and osteoporosis.  A study at Pace University found white tea to be useful in fighting off viruses and bacteria, including dental plaque.

In terms of flavor, you can expect a lighter, more delicate flavor without the grassy aftertaste some green teas are known to have.  Over a thousand years ago, the Chinese discovered that brewing younger leaves produced this milder flavored tea.  At that time, white tea became a delicacy only available to the emperor and other royalty.  Even when white tea became available to the populous, it was a rare and expensive product.  Nowadays, you will probably encounter Silver Needle white tea most often; it is probably the best-known and most popular type of white tea.

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Tea Sightings in Hawaii

ceramic easter-themed bunny rabbit teapot

A random find at Hamilton Boutique on the main shopping strip of Waikiki.

green and brown glazed tea cup at japanese restaurant

These simple, yet elegant tea cups were just right for drinking tea at a Japanese restaurant.

can of hawaiian sun brand green tea with ginseng

A delicious brand of green tea, lightly sweetened and wonderfully refreshing.

image of bear face on the bottom of tea cup, with reminder to drink 8 times a day

This tea cup reminds you to make good use of it and drink 8 cups a day!

miniature-sized bottles of hawaiian rainbow bees honey in bear shape

Fancy some honey in your tea? Hawaiian Rainbow Bees offers these adorable mini bottles & larger ones with cool flavors like macadamia.

 

What is Black Tea?

Of the tea types, black tea is generally more popular in Western cultures, especially British society.  It has a stronger flavor than green tea and it has a longer shelf life.  In fact, black tea is similar to red wine in that it gets better with age.  Why is this?  Well, because to make black tea, the leaves of the Camellia sinesis plant are withered and oxidized.  When the leaves are completely oxidized, they are dried and packaged.  The longer the leaves are stored, the longer they have to develop a stronger flavor.  It is probably because of this property that black tea is the preferred tea of the West.  Since the flavor does not degrade after a year like green or white tea, it was much easier to use in trade.

Black tea contains about 2-4% caffeine, which is typically a higher concentration of caffeine than green tea.  Due to the higher caffeine content, it is recommended that adults do not consume more than five cups of black tea per day.  Much like green tea, it has been purported to help prevent cancer, reduce the risk of heart disease, and even prevent tooth decay.  Other potential health benefits include preventing kidney stones, easing stomach problems, reducing the risk of a stroke, protecting the lungs from the effects of smoking, and warding off Parkinson’s.  The caffeine content in black tea can be useful towards improving alertness, learning, memory, and information processing skills.  Sounds like a great study aid, doesn’t it?

Over the years, black tea has most often been mixed with other plants to create special blends, such as Earl Grey, English Breakfast, English Afternoon, Irish Breakfast, and masala chai teas.  Some of these are blends of various black tea types while others include ingredients such as bergamot oil or spices.  It is graded on a quality scale where whole leaves are the highest quality, followed by broken leaves, then fannings, and finally dusts.  Fannings and dusts are what you will find in cheap bagged teas.  They are very good for a fast brew and stronger flavor due to the greater surface area exposed to water.

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