Many years ago we traveled by ferry from Anacortes, Washington to Victoria, British Columbia and enjoyed high tea at the Empress Hotel. It was one of the old grand hotels, now a Fairmont Hotel, that overlooked the waterfront with elegant décor and impeccable service. It was the first time I sampled a scone with strawberry jam and clotted cream as well as a crumpet (similar to an English muffin) drizzled with honey. Delicious! Afternoon tea is still a custom in the United Kingdom where, it is considered one of Britain’s cultural beverages.
Tea is an aromatic beverage commonly prepared by pouring hot or boiling water over cured leaves of the Camellia sinensis, an evergreen shrub that is native to Asia. Other than water, tea is the most widely consumed drink in the world
Drinking tea originated in China in 2737 BC and was initially used for medicinal purposes. Tea drinking spread to Korea, Japan and Vietnam during the Tang Dynasty (618–906 CE).The first recorded shipment of tea by a European nation was in 1607 when the Dutch East India Company transported a cargo of tea from Macao to Java, then two years later, the Dutch bought tea which was from Japan and shipped it to Europe. Tea was first sold in a coffee house in London in 1657, and Catherine of Braganza started the tea-drinking habit to the British court when she married King Charles II of England in 1662. Tea, however, was not widely consumed in Britain until the 18th century, and remained expensive until the latter part of that period. British drinkers preferred to add sugar and milk to black tea, and black tea overtook green tea in popularity in the 1720s. The popularity of tea in Britain also led a number of historical events. The tax on tea caused the Boston Tea Party that was one of the causes of the American Revolution. The British trade deficit caused by the demand for Chinese tea eventually resulted in the Opium Wars.
Tea plants are propagated from seed and cuttings. They thrive in a warmer climate, require acidic soil and need at least 50 inches of rainfall each year. Many high-quality tea plants are cultivated at elevations of up to 4,900 ft above sea level where the plants grow more slowly and develop better flavor. If left undisturbed, a tea plant will grow into a tree about 50 feet tall, but they are usually pruned to waist height to make it easier to pick the tea leaves. Also, the short plants bear more new shoots which provide new and tender leaves and increase the quality of the tea. Only the top 1–2 in of the mature plant are picked.
The largest producers of tea are the People’s Republic of China, India, Kenya, Sri Lanka and Turkey. In 2014, the U.S. imported 285 million pounds of tea, with an estimated retail value of approximately USD $10.8 billion. Over the last five years, total hot tea sales have increased more than 17% and are expected to double over the next five years. Today, India is the country that consumes the most tea.
Types of Tea
Tea is generally divided into categories based on how it is processed. At least six different types are produced:
White – Wilted and unoxidized.
Yellow – Unwilted and unoxidized, but allowed to yellow.
Green – Unwilted and unoxidized.
Oolong – Wilted, bruised, and partially oxidized.
Black – Wilted, sometimes crushed, and fully oxidized (called ‘red tea’ in China); black tea has the highest level of caffeine.
Post-fermented – Green tea that has been allowed to ferment/compost (‘black tea’ for the Chinese.)
The most common teas consumed are white, green, oolong, and black. Although herbal teas are also referred to as tea, most of them do not contain leaves from the tea plant, but are made by steeping herbs, fruits, seeds, or roots in hot water.
Tea is sold loose or prepackaged in paper tea “bags.” The loose tea must be individually measured for use. Strainers, tea balls, tea presses, filtered teapots, and infusion bags prevent loose leaves from floating in the tea and over-brewing. In 1953 Tetley invented the tea bag and introduced it to Britain where it was a huge success. Instant tea was developed in the 1930s, with Nestle introducing the first commercial product in 1946.
Many of the active substances in black tea do not develop at temperatures lower than 194 °F. As a result, black tea in the West is usually steeped in water near its boiling point. In the western hemisphere, black teas are usually brewed for about four minutes and are usually not allowed to steep for less than 30 seconds or more than about five minutes (a process known as brewing or mashing in Britain). In many regions of the world, however, actively boiling water is used and the tea is often stewed. In India, black tea is often boiled for fifteen minutes or longer to make masala chai.
Many flavorings are added to varieties of tea during processing. Among the best known are Chinese jasmine tea, with jasmine oil or flowers, the spices in Indian masala chai, and Earl Grey tea, which contains the lemony flavor of oil of bergamot. In eastern India, people also drink masala lemon tea contains hot tea with roasted cumin seed powder, lemon juice, black salt and sugar, which gives it a tangy, spicy taste. Adding a piece of ginger when brewing tea is a popular habit of Sri Lankans, who also use other types of spices such as cinnamon to sweeten the aroma.
In a traditional Japanese tea ceremony matcha green tea powder is ground from fine Japanese green tea leaves. Its pleasant taste and health benefits make it a favorite of many tea-lovers today. Organic matcha powder is whisked in a bowl with hot water to create a frothy, bright green, nourishing beverage. Once prepared, it is then immediately consumed in its entirety.
In the Kashmir region between India and Pakistan, noon chai, a pink, creamy tea with pistachios, almonds, cardamom, and sometimes cinnamon, is consumed at special occasions, weddings, and during the winter months when it is sold in many kiosks.
In the United States, 85% of tea is consumed is iced tea and is heavily sweetened with sugar and referred to “sweet tea” in the southeastern U.S.
According to research presented at the 2007 Scientific Symposium on Tea and Health, theanine, an amino acid that is for the most part uniquely found in tea (green and black), may help prevent age-related memory decline. Additional studies have found that some teas may help with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, encourage weight loss, and lower cholesterol. Tea also appears to have antimicrobial qualities.
In fact, for well over a decade, researchers have been evaluating the link between weight loss and a chemical in green tea called EGCG, which actually does help promote weight loss. ECGC is a type of antioxidant that is found predominantly in but also in smaller amounts in red wine and chocolate. Most people know that antioxidants can help decrease the harmful effects of oxidative stress, a process associated with premature aging and cell breakdown. But this particular antioxidant does more. ECGC helps promote fat loss by increasing the rate at which the body burns fat and prevents the breakdown of a neurotransmitter called norepinephrine that signals the brain that you’re full.