Hot Tea can Warm You Inside and Out.
Hot Tea Warms the Body and the Heart.
China gets a lot of bad press these days, for various reasons. But in two areas they have
excelled for centuries: fireworks and tea. We shall leave the pyrotechnics for perhaps another
time, and turn toward tea, the second most consumed beverage on the planet, after water.
No one knows really how long ago the Chinese discovered the pleasures and benefits of tea,
but it has been close to two milennia back that they began to use it on a regular basis. One
amazing thing is that ALL tea, properly called, derives from exactly the same plant, Camelia
sinensis, and its very close cousin Camelia assamica. How can this be? you ask. It all
depends on when in the plant’s growing cycle it is plucked, how it is plucked, and the various
ways the plucked leaves are handled before it goes into your cup.
Yes, white, green, yellow, red, black, oolongs, pu ehr and other aged teas, all the “bricks” and
“cakes” and “pressed” teas are from exactly the same plant. The time of harvest during the
growing cycle of the plant also affects flavour, the First and Second flush picks, late harvest,
autumn flush, and what part of the plant is taken all are managed to bring out different
characteristics from even the same bush. And this is the ‘magic” of tea. The chinese are very
ingenious, and over time have tried many things, perfecting that which brings good results.
The wide range of flavours derived from this one leaf, nothing added, only handled differently
is nothing short of astounding.
As the tea plant became known in China, it was also discovered in India (and neighbouring
Nepal and Tibet as well), along with its close cousin, the assamica, the type most common in
northern India’s two famous tea provinces, Darjeeling and Assam. Again, a vast range of
flavours can be derived from the same plant, depending on how it is handled.
The health benefits of tea are well known throughout China, India, and the rest of the ancient
tea-driinking world. These are slowly becoming known in the West, and scientific studies are
increasingly demonstrating what these benefits are and often how they operate on our bodies.
Enzymes, antioxidants, bioflavinoids, tocopherols, bring definite benefits to those who enjoy
tea. Some types provide more or less of certain helpful compounds, but this will have to wait
for another time.
Personally, the aspect of tea which I love the most is its soothing flavour, always interesting,
and I can always find a tea that suits my present mood or disposition, whether I wish to calm
down and relax, simply delighting in the sensory qualities of a great cup, or need a pick-meup;
whether I am in the mood for a strong, “rowdy” cup or a smooth, sweet, mellow one with
loads of complexity. I enjoy exploring whatever tea is before me, savouring its smell (“nose”,
the flavour itself, colour, feel on the tongue, astringency or smoothness, and noting the
changes as it cools.
SO... how to begin your own exploration of tea’s delights? Most folks have never tasted
anything besides the pre-bagged teas from the grocery store, and these are seldom, if ever,
worth exploring. No, not even the popular brands, Stash, Tazo, Twinnings, Bigelow, let alone
LIpton or Red Rose, PG Tips, Good Earth. deliver acceptible quality. Good qualtiy loose leaf
will deliver if well chosen and properly brewed.
One of the interesting aspects of tea is that it does store quite well, if a bit of wisdom is
applied. Larger leaf “particles” store better, particularly when compared to typical “tea bag cut”
or “fannings and dustings” (what I rather callously refer to as “floor sweepings”, and most
often what is used to fill the littie single cup brew bags from the grocery store). The smaller
particles have more surface area exposed to the air (oxygen is the worst enemy of tea, light
being a distant, but significant, second). The “fannings” have a very high surface to weight
ration when compared to a whole leaf tea, even more when compared to a tightly curled or
rolled leaf. Of course, the larger leaf bits equal higher grades, thus more dear. But, particulary
when one is putting away tea for long term storage (against the day when one cannot simply
run out and buy another supply) the additional cost is well worth it for the pleaseure delivered,
both when drunk soon after purchase and when ferreted out of storage “in the day”.
Often the difference in price, while a significant increase in percentage over the low grade, is
not much in terms of price per cup. Proper “dosage” when brewing is about 2 grammes for an
eight ounce cup. That delivers about 225 cups per pound (454 grammes/lb, 2 grammes/cup =
227 cups/lb). Divide the price/lb by 225, and your “far too dear” special grade oolong from
Formosa, at $35/lb costs a mere fifteen cents the cup. Compare this to the cost of a one litre
bottle of drinking water today, at near a doller.. that same 8 ounce cup costs twenty five cents.
Buy that tea iat today’s dollar, put some of it by for the long term, and when eggs are five
dollars each, your tea is all but free.
SO.. how to “put it by” for long term storage? As mentioned, air/oxygen is tea’s most lethal
opponent. If you buy your tea “loose” by the pound, it will likely be put into a small paper bag,
perhaps mylar lined, the top rolled over and taped, or secured with the “tin tie” bonded to the
bag. This is fine if you will use the tea within the month. For the medium term, say, for a year,
perhaps two, a glass jar with a tight sealing lid will serve, fill it absolutely as full as you
possibly can, perhaps vibrating or shaking it down, refillig, and so forth, untll that jar is well
packed. If the leaves are very open, large, curled, there will be a lot of air surrounding them,
leading to shorter shelf-life. A broken or cut leaf grade will be a bit lower quality to begin with,
but will store longer under the same circumstances. Thread the jar’s lid down tight, then put
your jars of tea into a cardboard carton, or store in some dark place (remember, light is
Enemy Number Two), preferably in a cellar, cool room, whatever, as heat will also lead to
faster deterioration. A small garden shed, uninsulated, is NOT a very good place. A shelf in a
pantry or store-room will serve, if the area can be closed off to the light. For long term
storage, oxygen absorbers are a great tool. Calcuating the size packet for the capacity of the
container is not as straightforward as for, say, beans, where the percentage of air relative to
the capacity of the container is fairly constant. For a full-leaf tea, probably a 40% figure would
be close, for a broken or cut leaf tea, perhas even as low as ten or fifteen percent would
suffice. As always, it never hurts to toss in an extra packet, or use one “too large” for the
container’s calculated air volume. (don’t forget to multiply your air volume figure by 20% to get
OXYGEN volume, then use the appropriate packet size for that figure).
To get a more reliable, and easier to store, packaging, I use the four-layer “high barrier” foil
packaging, preferring the “gussetted bag” style for good cost to performance rating. These
bags are easily heat sealed, either with a relatively inexpensive hand heat sealer, or even
(I’ve done it when needing to seal a bag and no “proper” sealer about) a clothes iron. An
absolutely air tight enclosure can be had. With a bit of creativity one can draw a vacuum
before sealing, use oxygen absorbers, nitrogen or CO 2 flush then vacuum.... with any of
these methods one can “put by” very high quality teas in a rather economical fashion and rest
assured that, until/unless the bag itself is broken or pierced, the tea will be as fresh on a
hundred years as it is today. Using a smaller packet size will preserve more of it for longer, as
one can then open one of, say, three smaller packets thus preserving the remaining two thirds
in perfect condition until needed. Or to trade with someone else who REALLY wants that
lovely tea you shared with them, but has NO idea where to find such a thing.
As a “class” or type of tea, my absolute favourite is the oolongs. These span a wide range of
flavours, as they are made with varying degrees of oxidation, at some of them giong through
many cycles of partial oxidation, then heating, then osidixing again... between these “bouts” of
treatmend the leaves being gently crushed, kneaded, pushed about, until the “Tea Master”
determines he has the effect he wishes. Oolongs are, as a class, considerably more dear
than, say, a classic black or green tea, but oolongs, in general, also have one amazing quality
to which I have only recently been exposed: most oolongs can be steeped, or brewed,
mulitple times. I’ve had some which I have actually brewed six times, each time presenting a
different flavour profile, each one enjoyable. The next attempt (I was actually “pushing the
envelope” to see how large it was) resulted in a bland, characterless cup... which I did not
finish. Thus, a hundred dollar the pound oolong can present you with thirteen hundred
enjoyable cups, at a cost per cup of about seven cents....... making the far higher price a
Alright, I can hear you wondering “where to I PERSONALLY begin exploring tea?” I
recommend starting with some of the classic Chinese styles, most of which were developed in
one or another district several hundred years ago, and still made the same way in the same
places, often on the same grounds, twelve hundred years later. Yes, its true... some examples
are (for green teas) the “gunpowder” (so named because the physical appearance of the
rolled leaf strongly resembles the early types of cannon gunpowder.....get a Special Grade,
higher than the normal) , Dragon Well, or Lung Ching, Chun Mee; for blacks, find a good
grade of Yunnan, Keemun; and for white, the “white peony” or Bai Mu Dan. Japan specialises
in greens, Sen Cha and Bancha are the classics. Japanese greens are steamed to stop the
oxidation, and present a very bright flavour, highly prized by the Japanese. There is also the
classic Gen Mai Cha, a bancha with toasted rice kernels mixed in, providing a smooth, righ,
nutty flavour unique in all the world. India is the second largest tea producer after China, most
of their teas are the black teas... here, the growing region has much to do with the style (and
often price) of tea. The richer, smoother ones tend to be from Assam, but some areas of
South India will rival them. Darjeeling teas are generally very bright, lively, “brisk”, as Sir
Thomas Lipton would say. Not for everyone, but I really enjoy a good qualty First Flush
Darjeeling on occasion. They tend to be, to me at any rate, “heppy” teas, not for sipping
quietly by the hearth on a cold morning but better suited to enlivening an active afternoon.
India is less known for green teas, though most estates will produce at least some. I
recommend avoiding the typical blends, particularly out of India, when one is first exploring
teas, preferring to explore the single origin regional and estate teas. India use an interesting
grading system comprising a series of letters after the tea. At first, this seems too arcant to
make the least bit of sense out of it, but, in general each letter stands for a certain attribute,
and the longer the “string” the more of these attributes apply, the higher the grade (and
quality.. and price). Once one gets up to five or six of these letters, the difference in quality
with each added one diminishes. SFTGFOP will almost always be higher quality than “plain
old” OP.... and deliver greater pleasure in the cup.
Sri Lanka, formerly called Ceylon, is home to a wide variety of tea styles, as well, but here
again, I’d recommend exploring single origin estate teas, and from the different regions in that
island nation. Best known for their high quality black teas, I’ve seen some top award winners
from here in the international competitions. And the island nation of Formosa, modern name
Taiwan, is home to some of the most exquisite, amazing, delightful (and, sadly, most dear)
oolong teas anywhere, though a few gardens in China will rival even the best Formosa
oolongs. These teas can range (in degree of oxidation of the leaf) from very green (perhaps
ten percent oxidation) to fully black (ninety percent or more oxidation).
One more word on sourcing: early on in my tea adventure, I tried to find “bargains” at oriental
markets, from small to very large supermarkets in Asian sectors of some cities. Most of the
teas in these places are relatively low grade teas, though most often far superior to grocery
store offerings. Low price (compared to the grocery stores) is a benefit, but the search for a
reasonably priced loose leaf supplier will often reward your efforts by establishing a long term
relationshi with a supplier of high quality teas for excellent value, often rivalling in price the
boxed and tinned prepackaged offerings in the oriental shops, but considerably higher quality
teas. Some online sources provide low prices.. and quality to match, while others, though a
little more costly, provide MUCH higher quality. Yet others again will provide decent quality at
VERY high prices. The best path for online purchasing is to either get a solid recommendation
from a knowledgeable friend, or better yet, sample some of your friend’s teas, compare them
to the lower price product of other places. You may not think your palate is sophisticated
enough to “grade” tea, but you will know what YOU prefer when you taste it. Remember, or
take notes, what you’ve tasted from where. Some vendors will supply smaller packets to allow
one to explore. If you don’t care for one, you’ve not committed yourself to a ten year supply. If
you really like a particular tea, you can return to the vendor and acquire that large stash for
A good tea room can also afford opprtunity to explore for little cost. I always
prefer to order from the list of classic Chinese, Indian, Formosan, Ceylon, Japanese teas,
leaving aside the “herbal blands”, strange concoctions with amazing names..... ask your
hostess to guide you to some of the well established classics. They should be able to properly
brew and present an excellent cup, and start you on your journey into the delightful and
amazing world of fine teas.
The next "Tea Workshop" at GorgePrep.com is scheuduled for Sat., May10--just in time for a wonderful Mother's Day gift.