January is tea time

With January being National Tea Month, and since most teas are derived from a tree, I thought I’d study and share some things I did not know about the world’s most popular of beverage.

In my research I got bogged down on the definition of tea. My best shot is that tea is made by steeping plant parts in boiling water, which if you want to get fancy is called an infusion. Usually when folks speak of tea, they are referring to a tea made from the tea plant (Camellia sinensis), an evergreen tree (pruned to a hedge-like form) from which leaves and twigs are harvested and processed to make the ground up material you buy either in brewing bags or sold loose.

Lipton, Tetley, Bigelow, most of your major tea companies use a blend of several types of tea to create a certain flavor and smoothness.

The most common kinds of tea you’ll run across is black (exposed to air over time to “oxidize”), green (not allowed to oxidize) and oolong (semi-oxidized). And there are lots of herbal teas that come from other plants such as mint, chamomile, etc. These are referred to as “tisane tea,” a tea made form something other than the tea plant.

Other than water, tea is the most consumed drink on the planet. Its use spans thousands of years in China, but it didn’t make it to Europe until 1610 when the Dutch began importing it. Here in the U.S. it’s No. 2 behind coffee, but its popularity is growing due in part to some health benefits.

It’s been known for some time that black and especially green tea contains antioxidants that help stave off cancer. What I didn’t know is that research is suggesting that tea consumption may help promote weight loss by increasing the amount of energy spent by the body. This is due to the presence of catechin, one of those antioxidants. According to one study, drinking three cups of green tea per day showed a significant increase in the amount of fat being metabolized by the body for energy. Another study suggests that consuming tea can reduce the tendency to accumulate fat. Still another study showed that people drinking three cups of black tea per day produced five times the number of germ-fighting cells than non-tea drinkers, suggesting that tea drinkers can fight off viral infections better than non-drinkers.

Another thing I was hoping to learn in my research is how to make a really good cup of hot tea. So here are some of my gleanings: Heat your water quickly and use it as soon as it comes to a boil. When water is heated too slowly or over-boiled, it loses oxygen, which can cause tea to taste flat. Steeping time varies with the kind of tea you’re making. The recommendation for black tea is three to four minutes, for green one to two minutes, for oolong two to three minutes, and for herbal teas five to seven minutes. If using loose tea, the suggested amount to use is 1 teaspoon per cup of water, or 3 tablespoons per pot. I’m using loose tea more and more and like to use one of those small metal tea balls to keep things neat. One other tidbit I got from a British citizen who drinks a lot of tea is to cover the tea cup while steeping. Oh, and if you ask for tea with your meal anywhere but the south, it will likely come hot. Southerners like it cold and so sweet it hurts your teeth.

Steve Roark is a retired area forester from Tazewell, Tennessee.