Tea has been a important beverage in many cultures for thousands of years, and throughout history has often been prized for its medicinal value and health benefits -- in addition to the caffeine buzz.
Tea originated in China some time during the Shang Dynasty between 1500 and 1046 BC, although the details of its emergence aren't clear. In fact, there are a variety of legends surrounding the origins of tea, and very few verifiable facts. According to the folks over at tea.co.uk,
Perhaps the most famous [story of the origin of tea] is [that of] of Shen Nung, the emperor and renowned herbalist, who was boiling his drinking water when leaves from a nearby tea shrub blew into the cauldron. He tasted the resulting brew, and the beverage of tea was born.
An alternative story links tea drinking to the Indian prince Bodhidharma, who converted to Buddhism and in the sixth century and went to China to spread the word. He believed that it was necessary to stay awake constantly for meditation and prayer, and took to chewing leaves from the tea shrub, which acted as stimulant, helping him stay awake. (An alternative, more macabre version has Bodhidharma accidentally falling asleep, and upon waking cutting off his own eyelids in disgust at himself. He threw the eyelids away, and from them sprouted the first tea shrub).
Kinds of Tea
There are several different categories of tea with hundreds of unique varieties in existence, although they are all basically the same plant: Camellia Sinensis. Differences between individual teas is the result of the climate/environment in which the plants were grown, as well as the harvesting and processing practices of the product owner. The basic categories are as follows (info courtesy of itoen.com):
White tea undergoes the least processing of all teas. Traditionally cultivated in China, white tea was picked only a few days out of the year, when a white down, known as bai hao, appeared on the tender shoots. The tea shoots are allowed to wither then dry to prevent oxidization. This process is a delicate one, requiring strict attention from the tea makers.
Because they are unoxidized, green teas keep their vital color. To prevent oxidization, the leaves are heat processed to eliminate the enzyme responsible for oxidization. In China, this is generally done by roasting or pan-firing the leaves, while the Japanese generally accomplish this by steaming the leaves at a high temperature. Each process tends to bring out a more particular flavor from the tea leaves. The Chinese style of processing tends to bring out a mouthwatering range of flavors from citrus-like to smoky with a lighter body...Green teas that have been steamed contain more moisture and are therefore more delicate.
Oolong, also spelled Wu Long, teas are semi-oxidized. The term in Chinese actually means "Black Dragon". Oolong teas have long been cultivated in both mainland China and Taiwan. In general, larger, mature leaves are picked, withered, rolled, oxidized, and then fired...Often, different tea estates have their preferred ways of making oolong tea. It is because of the intricacy of this process that oolong teas can have the widest array of flavors and aromas. Furthermore, oolongs can be steeped several time, with each successive infusion having its own distinctive taste and fragrance.
Black tea is the most well-known variety of tea in the West. Known as "red tea" in China, black tea leaves are fully oxidized. In the case of most black teas, younger leaves are picked before being withered, rolled, fully oxidized, and fired. While created originally in China, black teas are now cultivated worldwide. Some of the most famous black teas come from the Indian regions of Assam, Darjeeling, and Nilgiri as well as Sri Lanka. The use of machines is becoming more common, but the best black teas are those entirely done by hand.
How to Brew Your Tea
Brewing a good cup of loose tea is quite simple: All that is required is good water*, the correct quantity of tea, and control of the steeping time. (* If your source of water isn't the best, try using bottled spring water or purified water; many teas have subtle flavors that can be destroyed or masked by water that contains heavy concentrations of iron or other impurities.)
How long and at what temperature to brew your chosen tea depends on the kind of tea being steeped. The following chart should give you a good idea of what to aim for when brewing tea.
image from stashtea.com
Why Tea is the Perfect Beverage of Choice
There are numerous reasons why brewed tea is an excellent choice when it comes to selecting a staple beverage. First of all, there is the fact that tea comes in a wonderful assortment of flavors; so many so, in fact, you could have a different variety of tea every day for months and never run out of options. Also, home-brewed tea, hot or cold, is relatively easy to prepare, and unlike soft drinks you have complete control over the quantity of sweetener (if any) you wish to add.
In addition, all four of the basic tea types are high in polyphenols, a type of antioxidant that seems to protect cells from the DNA damage that can cause cancer and other diseases. A 2009 review of 51 green tea studies found that sipping three to five cups a day may lower the risks of ovarian, colorectal, lung, and prostate cancers.
There's also evidence that tea can have positive effects on the brain. For example, downing from one to four cups of black or green tea a day has been linked with a lower risk of Parkinson's disease. Drinking tea may also be helpful in preventing or delaying certain risk factors of cardiovascular disease, and lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides. According to one Japanese study, adults who consumed five or more cups of green tea per day had a 26% reduction in death from heart attack or stroke compared with those who had one cup or less.