Hail to the Leaf
Tea may not have as large a following as coffee in this country—or as spirited a fan base as beer—but its standing in American culture is on the rise. That's due in part to research suggesting that compounds found in tea may lower cholesterol; reduce the risk of heart disease; fight complications of diabetes; alleviate stress; reduce the risk of gastrointestinal, breast, ovarian, prostate, and skin cancers; increase bone mineral density; and protect the brain against Parkinson's disease and cognitive decline.
That may seem like enough data for anyone, but Jeffrey Blumberg, PhD, FACN, director of the Antioxidants Research Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, notes that a lot of the work on tea is preliminary because it's based on observational research or studies on mice, and only shows an association between drinking tea and, say, cancer prevention. Few of the more than 300 studies on tea in the past several years, says Blumberg, have been long-term, randomized clinical trials of a large group of people—the gold standard for this type of research.
So the science, while promising, is nowhere near conclusive. What does that mean for you? According to Blumberg, tea's heart-protecting properties have been well studied, making it a great choice for most people. "The bulk of the dry weight of tea and what you drink in a cup are flavonoids," he says. Flavonoids are compounds found in fruits, vegetables, and beverages like tea and wine that have beneficial antioxidant effects on the body, protecting it from free-radical damage. Thanks to a specific class of flavonoids called catechins, tea reduces the risk of atherosclerosis (a marker for heart disease) by helping blood vessels dilate. It may even prevent someone who has had a heart attack from having another one.
Want to reap the biggest heart health benefit? Shoot for between four and five cups of any type of tea daily, and drink it strong. (But take note: Bottled and iced teas don't count. Catechins begin degrading once they've been brewed, so while they're present in hot tea, the compounds disappear as bottled tea is stored. And iced tea is usually diluted with water, which means the flavonoid content is slim.) If you're concerned about caffeine—an 8-ounce cup of tea has 47 milligrams of caffeine, compared with the 95 milligrams in an 8-ounce cup of coffee—you can drink decaf, but you'll have to drink more, or brew a stronger cup, to get the same amount of flavonoids found in caffeinated tea.
Interestingly, although green tea has gotten a good reputation for being high in the polyphenol epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), Blumberg says the health benefits of green and black teas are similar. And since there's little good research on the varying polyphenol content of the different types of tea, he suggests sipping any variety you enjoy. "Tea is a very inexpensive way to get catechins. No. 2, it has no calories. No. 3, it tastes really good," says Blumberg.
Before you rip open a bag of whatever's in the pantry, consider your options. Black, green, white, and oolong tea all come from the same bush, but the leaves' country of origin, growing region, and level of processing result in different colors and tastes. Figuring out which is your favorite is half the fun, so read on to learn about the intricacies of the leaf.
Full bodied and deep in color, black tea gets its telltale caramel shade and rich flavor from a lengthy drying process. While the typical store brand is technically a black tea, it's more like a big blend of many different types of teas. To really taste the nuances of tea, test a few single-origin varieties, such as Darjeeling, Ceylon, or Assam. Black teas vary in taste the same way wines do. And, as with wine, a tea's subtle flavor is a compilation of many variables. "It's where it's grown and how it's grown and how it's processed," says Lisa Boalt Richardson, a certified tea specialist with the Specialty Tea Institute. "I think the biggest difference is high-growing or low-growing. The real low-growing teas [like India's Assam] can be very robust and very strong. The high-growing teas [like Darjeeling, also from India] are lighter in flavor."
Tea leaves that are dried for less time become the not-quite-black tea known as oolong. Because oolongs fall between green and black tea in their level of processing, you can often find variation in their color and flavor. "A low-oxidation oolong is typically delicate, a bit grassy, quite sweet, and offers complex floral aromas and fruity tones, especially in the finish," says Cynthia Gold, a tea sommelier and instructor with the Boston Park Plaza Hotel & Towers.
The light, clean flavor of green tea is a Japanese and Chinese favorite, but thanks to some good press on the tea's health benefits, it's gaining followers here, too. Because of minimal oxidation, green tea leaves make a mild, lightly tinted brew. "Sometimes it's called earthy but more vegetal. They're still light and can be very brisk and very wonderful," says Richardson.
The original meaning of white tea—the unprocessed bud of the tea leaf harvested from China's Fujian province—has gotten a little hazy these days. While it's generally accepted that white tea includes unprocessed tea buds from countries other than China, some experts say white tea may also contain unprocessed leaves. Either way, the non-oxidized tea results in an almost-clear liquid that's the most mild type of tea. "They exhibit a beautiful finish," says Gold. "Slightly sweet, vegetal, sometimes a touch floral, and often with a touch of pepper."
Unlike black, oolong, green, and white teas, herbal teas—also called tisanes—don't come from the Camellia sinensis plant. Instead, herbal teas can be made from flowers (like chamomile), plants (like the African bush rooibos), grass (like lemongrass), bark (like cinnamon), and fruits (like peaches). Tastes run the gamut from spicy to extra sweet. Though these teas aren't the ones researchers use when studying the brew's health benefits, they're a great alternative to sugar-filled drinks like soda. Try a licorice or hibiscus brew to take the edge off your nagging sweet tooth.
Many tea purists swear by loose leaf, which they say is more fresh and flavorful than run-of-the-mill bagged tea. "Usually the tea bag is very fine tea—it's called 'tea dust,' " says Richardson. "Sometimes it's tea that comes from all over. It can be old and not fresh." Gold agrees. "You will never find the world's finest teas in a tea bag, but you can find a better tea-bag tea these days than you have ever been able to before," she says. Another option: tea sachets that hold whole-leaf teas. Other experts, however, say tea bags can brew as good a cup as loose leaves. Keep both loose and bagged tea in an airtight container away from light, odors, and moisture.
When it comes to picking a variety you'll enjoy, both Richardson and Gold echo the same motto: Have fun. The process of finding a tea that you love is "parallel in so many ways to enjoying and studying wines, but unlike wine, tea really has no downside," Gold says. "No other beverage is both relaxing and stimulating at the same time and offers us such diverse experiences."
More goes into brewing a good cup of tea than simply boiling some water and dipping a tea bag into the cup like a yo-yo. Start with a warm teacup—pour boiling water into it, swirl, and dump it out—then check below for the best way to steep your leaves (temperatures and steeping times are for loose tea only; cut down on your steeping time for tea bags, then use trial and error to find a method that works best for you).
These leaves are less processed than black leaves, so use slightly less-than-boiling water when preparing them. Since some oolongs are more similar to green tea while others are closer to black, Richardson's suggested water temperatures range from 180 to 200 degrees. Oolongs should steep for about three minutes.
"Sometimes I tend to put a little bit more [herbal] tea in a brewing pot because they can be kind of bland," says Richardson. "[With herbal teas], you don't have to be so careful with time because it's not going to go bitter like tea from the Camellia sinensis plant would." Start by steeping your herbal tea for five minutes in boiling water. If the brew is still too weak, keep the leaves in for longer.
Green and white teas
These minimally processed tea leaves are so fragile that boiling water would spoil the flavor. "A lot of people don't like green tea because they burn the leaves," says Richardson. Because of this, she suggests using water between 160 and 170 degrees when brewing a cup of tea. That's about the temperature of your kettle water before it hits the boiling point, when it begins to make a loud rumbling noise. These delicate teas should steep for about a minute and a half, though you may keep them in a bit longer if you prefer a more flavorful cup.
Heat your kettle till it screams; black tea tastes best when made with boiling water, says Richardson. Steep the leaves for between two and five minutes; then remove them promptly. If you like a stronger sip with more body, leave the tea in longer—just be sure you don't oversteep. "If you steep a true tea (not an herbal) for too long, you will bring out a higher level of tannins than is desirable, and the tea will become bitter," says Gold.
Recipes by Robyn Webb, MS, LN
Indulging in afternoon tea is a great way to decompress, catch up with old friends, and enjoy bite-size snacks. Treat your pals to the afternoon ritual by brewing up a pot of your favorite tea and whipping up these simple, petite snacks.