TEA- Random Thoughts

When I say (or write) tea I mean the tea plant, Camellia sinesis, in all of its incarnations and glory. I never could get into the herbals. I don't care either for many of the flavored teas, such as Constant Comment, Earl Grey, or Lapsang Souchong. Jasmine-scented tea is fine and I've recently had some chocolate teas (chocolate raspberry, chocolate hazelnut) which make enjoyable desserts when milk and sugar are added. I also like fruit flavors in iced tea.

Although coffee and tea are both caffeine-containing beverages, they do have different reputations... coffee offers an image of power and action; a "coffee break" gives the impression of breaking one activity with another active-ity. Tea, on the other hand, infers serenity, relaxation, and quiet reflection. A "coffee hour" conjures up people standing around, socializing, networking, and working the room with efficiency. "A tea", on the other hand, should be done sitting down and taking the time to discuss delicate issues. A bit more formal, though, than a kaffeklatch.

Rec.food.drink.tea is a good source of information about tea- types of tea, vintages, accessories, and kvetching about how miserably tea drinkers are treated in restaurants (esp. in the U.S.). Some who hang out here are rather stuffy and use "Ah well" a lot. Tolerate them.

A pound of tea contains more caffeine by weight than coffee, but you don't use as much tea to make a cup as you do for coffee. Black tea has around 48 mg/cup and coffee has about 96 mg/cup. Black tea has about 3 times the caffeine as green tea and 50% more than oolong. (From: Tea Lover's Treasury).

After reading for the past several years about the alleged health benefits of green tea, black tea drinkers are finally getting a bit of satisfaction. Recent studies suggest that bioflavenoids present in teas, especially black tea, have health benefits particularly in protecting against strokes. Of course one could dredge up old studies suggesting that the tannins in black tea are associated with increased incidence of esophageal cancer, but not when consumed with milk. It might just be better to enjoy your cup and not worry about any of this!

All tea comes from the same plant, Camellia sinesis, but there are three basic treatments. For green tea the leaves are harvested, steamed to inactivate enzymes, and dried. For black tea the leaves are not steamed and dried until fermentation has occurred. Oolong tea is partially fermented, and pouchong (the component of jasmine tea) is barely fermented. As with any other natural product, the qualities of the plant will be affected by the region in which it's grown, due to weather, soil, etc. Certain areas are better for particular teas- eg. Ceylon (Sri Lanka) is noted for a type of black tea, Darjeeling (in India) for another, Japan for green, Taiwan (Formosa) for oolong.

Black teas often have grade designations on the package; these refer only to the size of the leaf not the quality of the tea, although the brews may differ in strength with the smaller ones being stronger. The terminology is confusing- orange pekoe refers to the largest size leaf for Ceylong tea, but the equivalent for Indian tea is flowery orange pekoe. Pekoe is a smaller leaf, and souchong smaller still. Broken orange pekoe is the creme de la creme (see the Teacraft book) and due to its strength is only used in blends. The significance of "orange" has been lost.

Most tea connoisseurs rail against commercial bagged teas. As much as I appreciate the flavor and smoothness of good Darjeeling and Oolong (my favorites) my mainstay is strong Salada tea with milk. I have it in large mugs, 5-6 times a day. If you brew it properly (no more than 3 minutes though I confess to letting it go much longer) it will have a beautiful color and won't have the astringency associated with supermarket blacks. Another good quality tea is Red Rose, although it has a secondary flavor that I don't care for. I had some Lipton a while ago and it was better than I remembered.

I came to appreciate the role of water in making a good cup a few years ago when I lived for 3 months in an apartment in Maryland. My Salada, which brews up nicely here in New York and also did so in Michigan, came out a murky black that summer. Fortunately I didn't live there long enough to have to solve that problem but I can see how someone living there would have a bad impression of tea if they didn't know any better.

Despite our national reputation as coffee drinkers, America takes its tea seriously. The Tea Act of 1897 established the U.S. Board of Tea Experts whose 7 members are appointed by the FDA Commissioner. They inspect and test shipments of tea imported into the US to prevent importation of unsound or substandard tea. The program is funded by the tea industry which requested the law in the first place to enable them to reject unsuitable teas. I recently heard that President Clinton signed a bill eliminating the board. Hard to imagine why he would do that, since it's not funded by the government.

Updated: April 7, 1996
Comments or questions? Write to me at suemaster@interport.net.... (NOTE: remove "master" from the address)
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