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Two for Tea

Country MoonTea has been the go-to drink for many cultures for many years. Those of English descent are famous for their afternoon tea, which has wrapped a social tradition around a beverage. Tea is also known as a calming, comforting drink. Most problems, when paired with a cup of tea, seem easier to tackle. In summer, what is better than a cold glass of iced tea?

I have been a tea drinker for most of my life. As a senior in high school, I went on a self-proclaimed “tea diet.” I did lose my 20 pounds and thought that it was my sheer willpower. However, now I know that the tea was a major factor, as it has since been proven that green tea can be a great partner in weight loss.

Even growing up a farm girl, I had no idea how tea was grown or processed or even how the different varieties were derived. There were some interesting results when I finally looked.

The formal definition of tea is “an aromatic beverage which is prepared by pouring boiling water over leaves.” After water, tea is the most consumed beverage in the world. Although green, black, oolong, white, and Pu-erh are the five main varieties, they all come from the same warm-weather shrub native to Asia. It has been a cultivar in China for at least 1500 years, and, although a typical bush produces around 3000 leaves, the top few leaves and the bud are the only ones used.

Tea is tea, with all varieties originating from one plant. What differentiates those different varieties is the type of processing. Even with modern technology, all tea is still harvested by hand so as to not harm the tender leaves. The same plants are harvested over and over, as many times per year as the plant vegetates, or produces more leaves. In areas where the climate is virtually summer all year long, tea is harvested all year.

Processing starts within the hour of harvest. First, the leaves are withered by being lain on wire mesh, where they stay for hours. After they've dried for the appropriate amount of time, they are ready for curling, which is done with a special roller. This process presses and turns over the leaves with the purpose of leaf cell deformation to release the enzymes that enrich the future tea with unique aromas,

Next, the oxidizing — which is sometimes referred to as fermenting — stage takes place. During this phase, the leaves are left in climate-controlled rooms where the transformation of tannins starts under the influence of oxygen and enzymes. This is one of the most important steps, because this is where tea gets its liqueur color.

Skilled artisans gauge only by past experience when the oxidizing is complete. The leaves are then put in a dry chamber with very hot air where they are rapidly cooled and prepared for long-term storage.

Besides merely tasting good, tea is good for the body with a host of health benefits. The basic processing of tea is “tweaked” to make the different varieties. Thus, the different tea varieties have different health benefits.

Green tea is one of the least oxidized and minimally withered, thus the leaves retain much of their green color and grassy, vegetal taste, which is similar to green vegetables. Freshly picked leaves are “fixed” through the application of heat, done through steaming or pan firing. High in antioxidants, green tea may interfere with the growth of bladder, breast, lung, stomach, pancreatic, and colorectal cancers. In addition, it helps prevent clogging of the arteries and counteracts oxidative stress on the brain which helps reduce the risk of neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and strokes. It is also touted to aid in weight loss and is an ingredient in many weight-loss products.

Black tea is made through a longer withering process, allowing water to evaporate out of the leaves while, in turn, the leaf absorbs more oxygen from the air. The results are the characteristic dark brown and black leaves which give more robust and pronounced flavors. Black tea has the highest caffeine content and forms the basis for flavored teas, like chai, and some instant teas. It may protect the lungs from damage caused by exposure to cigarette smoke and may reduce risk of stroke.

The characteristics of oolong tea land somewhere between green and black teas due to partial oxidation. The flavor is not as robust as black or as subtle as green. Oolong is extremely fragrant and is often compared to the taste and aroma of fresh flowers and fruits. Animals who are given oolong tea were found to have lower cholesterol levels.

Pu-erh tea, considered a type of black tea, it is made from fermented and aged leaves which are made into cakes. Hailing from China, it is the most mysterious of all teas. Until 1995, it was illegal to import, and the process of production is a closely guarded state secret in China. It is very strong with an incredibly deep and rich flavor and no bitterness. Prized for its medicinal properties, two of its most profound attributes are promoting less weight gain and lowering cholesterol.

White tea is uncured and unfermented, giving it the most potent anti-cancer properties. The most delicate of all varieties, it is appreciated for its subtlety, complexity, and natural sweetness. It is hand-processed using the youngest shoots of the tea plant and no oxidation.

Dark tea comes from the Hunan and Secheian provinces of China and is a flavorful, aged probiotic tea that steeps up smooth and has a natural sweet flavor. Herbal teas, for the most part, aren’t really teas at all. They are made from herbs, fruits, seeds, and roots instead.

Tea in itself is healthy. The only time it slides to the unhealthy side is when other ingredients have been added. This point would bring us to the decaffeination process. The jury is still out as to whether caffeine is good or bad for a person. Either way, some folks just can’t tolerate it. The caffeine levels in tea depend on the mode and degree of processing. By law, tea that is labeled as decaffeinated must have less than 2.5 percent of its original caffeine level. Tea and coffee are decaffeinated using solvents, carbon dioxide, or the Swiss water method. The solvent methylene chloride is put on tea leaves while they are still green. The other methods would hurt the tender leaves. Although most of the solvent is removed by heating the leaves to 40 degrees C, a tiny residue of 2 parts per million remain, which is well below the standard of 5 parts per million. Consumers have to weigh the risks of tea with a slight solvent residue or the side effects of caffeine.

Eastern culture has known the health and happiness benefit of tea for years, and it has caught the eye of western researchers. Packed full of antioxidants, flavonoids, and good taste, it is hard to find a downside to tea, so bottoms up!

Tea set
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