By Chef Larry Canepa

You may be wondering why we have an article on tea in the Wine & Spirits section of our website. Well, while it may not be as inebriating as other beverages; it is intoxicating in its own way, it has seduced the world, and it is as addictive a substance as any other. So with this definition as a justification, we will place it here to facilitate further debate.

In the book, The Empire of Tea, the authors describe the impact of tea on the world as no less than miraculous. Described as a conqueror, an addiction, and a cure all; tea has led many of the great waves of history. It provided impetus for discovery of the east by the west and vice-versa. It helped enable the industrial revolution by providing a safer alternative to contaminated water than wine or beer (fewer people mucking up the works by falling into the machinery), it served as a MacGuffin for the American Revolution, and it is even thought to have caused a number of religious movements because of its meditative qualities.

The book quotes Isaac D’Israeli on the subject:

The progress of this famous plant has been something like the progress of truth; suspected at first, though very palatable to those who had the courage to taste it; resisted as it encroached; abused as its popularity spread; and establishing its triumph at last,  in cheering the whole land from the palace to the cottage, only by slow and resistless effort of time and its own virtues.

But to many, tea is still an enigma. It comes from exotic places that most of us may never visit and the difference between high quality and mediocre tea is difficult for the uninitiated to discern since it provides no lingering headaches. So, let’s take a moment to try to understand tea a bit better.

First of all, let’s define “tea.” All true tea comes from the leaves of one plant, Camellia Sinensis. It is a hearty plant that developed on the eastern slope of the Himalayas. Basically, if it doesn’t come from this plant, it ain’t tea. Other types of infusion drinks including Tisanes, or herbal teas, come from a variety of plants, botanicals, and fruits and are quite nice in their own right but are not considered tea.

Similar to wine, tea is affected greatly by the environment in which it grows. Differences in soil and weather conditions create a rich mosaic of tea’s many varieties and flavors. Altitude also plays an important role. Tea plants grow slower at higher altitudes producing leaves with more concentrated flavor.

Gourmet tea varieties are almost exclusively made from these high-grown leaves while the low-growth varieties are more common and more likely to be found at the supermarket. What makes a gourmet tea? Gourmet teas are made exclusively from the plant’s most tender young leaves. Tea pickers, usually working by hand, select the plant’s two youngest leaves and a yet-to-open bud. These tender new leaves produce a tea that is more gentle and flavorful than the older varieties and are reserved for the highest quality production.

As the popularity of tea grew over time, it spread to different regions of the world. The most widely recognized teas come from China, Japan and India but quality teas can come from areas ranging from South East Asia (see Sabah Tea Plantation in Borneo video) to Britain.

There are many classifications for tea, and how the leaves are processed will determine a key distinction as white, green, oolong, or black teas. The main difference between the many tea varieties is how much oxygen the leaves are allowed to absorb during processing. When tea leaves are harvested, a natural oxidation begins to occur. This oxidation is environmental and is halted by heating the tea leaves. This heating is done by firing or steaming the leaves. Unprocessed leaves are white tea. A bit of oxidation results in green tea, and abundant oxygen produces dark-colored black teas.

Oolong teas are allowed to oxidize for various lengths of time and the extended oxidation produces a wide range of character and caffeine content; the darker, or more oxidized, the higher the caffeine content. While this is a simplification of a somewhat complicated process, it outlines the basic characteristic differences in the various tea types.

Tea is often lauded for its medicinal purposes. In the beginning, its primary benefit came from the fact that one needed to heat and boil water to make it. This, clearly, made the water safe to drink. In addition, to this fundamental medicinal quality, all “tea” has healthful benefits. It soothes and relaxes and provides us with many important antioxidants. One just needs to taste and explore to find the one that most appeals to you. Since there are over 3,000 different teas in the world you are sure to find one that is perfect for you.

After you have decided which varieties will be permanent fixtures in your pantry, you’ll want to know how to properly brew them for optimum enjoyment (no–throwing a tea bag in a mug of water and then giving it a whirl in the microwave will NOT suffice). We got these tips from the tea experts at Ceylon Tea:

First, the experts suggest investing in a tea kettle. They are relatively inexpensive, and truly provide the best environment for steeping tea.

  • Black tea – Black is the most robust of the tea varieties and can be brewed in truly boiling water, usually steeped for 4-6 minutes.
  • Green and white tea – Be gentle with all green teas. The water temperature should be around 150-160ºF and only steeped for 2-4 minutes.
  • Most herbal teas – With so many different herbs that can be used for herbal tea blends, there is no way to give any temperature or steeping guidelines with any accuracy. Most herbs can be brewed in boiling water and steeped for about 5 minutes. You might need a bit of trial and error to get the perfect cup.

If you don’t have a thermometer handy, you can tell the water temperature by watching the bubbles. Small bubbles will float to the surface of the water 160-170ºF, and you’ll see strings of bubbles from the bottom of the kettle at 180-190ºF. After that, you will have a full rolling boil.

You also can use an infuser to steep your teas for easy cleaning. Refrain from filling the infusers to the top. Make sure that there is room for the leaves to unfurl during the steeping process. The best infusers are made from one or more of the following materials:

  • Finely woven non-reactive metal (such as gold-plated metal wire)
  • Micro-perforated non-reactive metal (such as food grade  stainless steel)
  • Non-leeching/BPA-free food grade plastic
  • Closely woven wood that doesn’t impact the tea’s flavor, such as those made of bamboo.

Finally, always use a strainer to pour the tea into your cup. You want to drink tea. not chew it.

So, go ahead and get addicted. Feel free to be seduced. Raise a cup and drink to your health!

There are many tea purveyors out there, but our favorite is made by our partners at Ceylon Tea.

Click on the logo to learn more about Ceylon Tea, and select from an array of delicious, high quality teas.

Members can read more on Tea Classifcations and Varieties of Tea by signing in and clicking here.

About Larry

Chef Larry Canepa brings  30 years of Food and Wine experience to today’s adult culinary learners. He has worked in the Food & Wine business as Chef, caterer, sommelier and Food and Wine educator. He has taught culinary and restaurant operation classes at the International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Phoenix and Le Cordon Bleu, Scottsdale. His experiences include management and operation of free-standing restaurants, hotels and resorts. Chef Larry Canepa owned and operated the full service catering business, Dinner at Eight for 10 years in the Valley, specializing in intimate private dining and wine seminars. Larry Canepa has conducted seminars and lectures on coffee, tea, wine, etiquette, cooking and service for students, adults, continuing education classes and charitable organizations.