Tea in Time
From the leaf of camellia sinensis, tea continues in popularity throughout the ages as a beverage of choice. What exactly is this evocative brew, and why has it started wars, soothed our nerves, and been the center of ritual and celebration?
All tea starts with the mother bush (in some cases: tree), camellia sinensis, and reaches perfection according to exacting standards regarding harvest, handling, oxidation, and aging. Black tea is produced after leaves are wilted, bruised, rolled, and fully oxidized. Green tea is made from unwilted leaves that are not oxidized. Oolong is partially oxidized; purple and white tea is from very young plants with minimal oxidation; and Pu erh goes through fermentation. Variations abound in each category depending on departures from the standard process, modifications in oxidation time, rolling or pressing leaves, etc. Consequently—and of importance in our determination to deliver exceptional teas--the more unique its harvest, handling, and processing, the more rare the tea. And, just as in wine, some teas are blends.
Incidentally, herbal “tea” is correctly called “tisane,” and is an infusion of water with dried fruits, herbs, and/or flowers. Tisanes have been brewed throughout all of history for their noted healing properties. *
In American history: Tea was a valuable commodity in the colonies. After the British gained control of New Amsterdam and renamed it New York, daily tea drinking rose in popularity and tea parlors opened everywhere. Upper-class households upheld this daily rite with opulence, using fine porcelain for their much-revered tea time. Because of tea’s cost, it was primarily high society that partook of this pleasure, though lower-class households kept the kettle simmering as well.
Tea at the time was heavily taxed….and you know the rest of the story. Decisions over taxation and import ultimately led to American independence. One of the heroes of the American Revolution, George Washington, for whom this company is named (Nelson was his beloved steed), was a consummate tea drinker who favored Hyson and Bohea tea.
The Young Hyson we carry, "The Samuel"
During The American Revolution, colonists exhorted one another to desist drinking tea in defiance to the Crown. All the while, due to the advent of fast clipper ships, trade with China grew. In the end George continued to sip Hyson and Bohea at Mt. Vernon, Nelson enjoyed his bag of oats, tea became common in most households, and the British lost their claim to their American colonies.
In world history: Tea reaches across the ages and over every continent. It can trace its lineage to 3000 BC when a Chinese emperor introduced tea as a beverage and tonic. Valuing the stimulating effects of tea to keep them awake during meditation, Buddhist monks played a huge role in spreading tea to other Asian countries, such as Korea and Japan. By the 7th century AD, the pleasure of tea was well known, hence strict codes of etiquette, as well as standards in production and harvesting. Tea houses arose, as did tea masters. China’s Lu Yu, still regarded the “patron saint of tea,” wrote The Classic of Tea in the 8th century, detailing all aspects associated with tea and its enjoyment, from the cultivation of the plant, to processing, to correct water ratio, to brewing.
By the late 16th century the world saw the development of the famous Silk Road. In its day, the Silk Road advanced a more “global” opportunity for trade and interchange of customs and commodities. While tea became a key export, the arduous trek from China to Europe affected its quality. This compelled the Chinese to devise a better way to ship. Necessity being the mother of invention, black tea was created. As a result, black tea became the export while the Chinese continued to drink green tea. This endures today, as upwards of 75% of the non-Asian world prefers black tea.
One of the black teas we carry, Keemun, or "The Thomas"
In the body: Tea is complex, and the list of tea properties is extensive: polyphenols, alkaloids such as caffeine, theophylline and theobromine, amino acids, carbohydrates, proteins, chlorophyll, volatile organic compounds which produce vapors that bring such amazing aroma to tea, fluoride, aluminum, minerals, and trace elements. Catechins from polyphenols are thought to bring health benefits, particularly from green tea. Much has been written about green tea, in particular, and its beneficial qualities against such disease as cancer. Research has neither sufficiently disproven nor has it conclusively proven this claim, though university studies with positive results abound.
Polyphenols: Most experts consider polyphenols from tea are the same as found in red wine, commonly known as tannins. It is the tannins that are researched primarily when scientists investigate health benefits. Epigallocatechin gallate can be called the tannin of tea, and morphs into other compounds during oxidation, producing unique flavors and colors of the tea liquor. Catechins are responsible for astringency, body, and sharpness of flavor, and are only released during infusion. Incidentally, when one is drinking tea for health benefits, it is wise to understand that the first bud and two leaves of a branch are the richest in these polyphenols.
Alkaloids: Caffeine is an alkaloid. Found in tea, it was initially referred to as theine. (Theine, incidentally, is classified as a stimulant, whereas caffeine is classified as an excitant. Theine is much more gradual in its effect on the brain and nervous system.) Of note: caffeine is highest in the first two leaves and bud of a tea plant and is rapidly released into the water upon brewing the leaves.
Amino acids: Tea contains approximately twenty different amino acids, which lose potency during the withering process.
Glucides, mineral salts & vitamins: Though tea contains vitamin C, this nutrient is completely lost during processing. Tea does retain vitamin B and bioflavonoids, along with potassium and fluoride. Green tea contains twice as much fluoride as black tea.
*Nelson and George assumes no liability of possible adverse consequences as a result of the information herein, on social media, or on packaging. Information presented here or in any of our social media or on our packaging does not represent medical, mental health or any other professional advice. All comments regarding health benefits of teas should be regarded as opinion or anecdote unless otherwise cited, and may or may not be grounded in scientific fact.
More and more, tea masters are becoming a bit more flexible when giving brewing instructions, though admittedly one cannot stray too far from traditional brewing times/amounts for each individual for fear of not being able to appreciate or glean properly the notes and aromas inherent in the tea, if the water, for example, is too hot or if the tea is steeped for too long. A little “ play with the rules “ is in order, however, and can vary per individual taste: a little more tea in the pot/cup, a few seconds more steep time are usually what is played with. Taste is subjective and quite dependent on particular habits. We invite experimentation since each tea drinker, connoisseur or not, has his or her personal taste. Each change in criteria will produce a tea that is slightly different. As an example: lower temperatures produce a lighter, sweeter, smoother profile; higher temperatures produce more body and is more robust. If you want a strong flavor, consider increasing the amount of leaf, rather than brew time, since excessive brew time can produce bitterness, making your tea “harsh.” Here we see “the art” of tea drinking in practice! One criterion for which one should remain vigilant is the quality of water: spring water is always recommended, the fresher the better. Water like food can also become stale greatly impinging on the flavor of the tea. Great tea deserves good quality water in which to express itself fully.
Below are some guidelines we suggest:
FIVE STAGES OF BRINGING WATER TO A BOIL
In case you lose your thermometer while brewing tea, you can rely on these five states of bringing water to a boil, based on Chinese practice.
- Shrimp Eyes: Small Pinhead Bubbles
The point where you first start seeing bubbles in the water. This means that the water is around 155-165 degrees, making it perfect for delicate green teas.
- Crab Eyes: Large Pinhead Bubbles
These are slightly larger bubbles. The important thing to note is that small wisps of steam will start to rise from the hot water. The temperature is roughly 165-175 degrees.
- Fish Eyes: Small Pearls
In this stage, the water bubbles will be the size of small pearls. The rising steam will be storng. This water is roughly 175-185 degrees.
- String of Pearls: Streaming Pearl
This water is around 185-200 degrees. The bubbles should be streaming to the top and it should be almost boiling.
- Dragon Eyes: Raging Torrent
This water looks like rapids in a raging river. It is bubbling violently with swirling and rolling bubbles. The temperature is 200-212 degrees, which is the boiling point of water.