Coffee is generally considered the hot beverage of choice in North America. It offers a quick jolt of caffeine in the morning, and is a reason to get together with friends for an afternoon chat. Some people, however, have begun to look at the other options available when the craving for a hot drink hits. Tea usually lives in coffee’s shadow, but the ancient drink of the east has recently been growing in popularity on this side of the Atlantic.
Britain adopted tea as their token drink long ago. But tea was around many years before anyone in England knew about it. The drink has an extensive history, and comes in many varieties and forms that far surpass the small tea bag the Brits have come to love. Those who find the many types and tastes of tea slightly overwhelming can attend tea workshops at Camellia Sinensis, a small teahouse downtown. A trained “tea expert” leads workshop participants through a two-hour lecture on the wonders of tea and how it came to be.
The first surprising fact workshop attendees learn is that all teas, no matter what the colour, flavour, texture or taste, come from the same tea tree originally. The Camelia Sinesis (the Montreal teahouse’s namesake) is the only tree used for the production of tea the world over. The different types of teas are a result of the way the leaves are picked from the tree, and how they are treated after harvesting.
The difference between green tea and black tea, for example, is not a question of the type of leaf used, but simply the process by which the leaf is handled. There are four main “families” of tea: green, white, black, and Wulong.
Green tea is known for its anti-oxidant properties. Fifty per cent of the humidity is extracted from the leaves immediately after they are harvested. Rather than being left to oxidate, green tea leaves are exposed to extreme heat to cut the oxidation process.
In China, a wok-like instrument is used to heat the leaves. In Japan the tea leaves are exposed to hot vapor in order to cut oxidation
Contrarily, black and Wulong teas are actually left to oxidate after harvesting. The leaves are kept in oxidation rooms for a period of three to six hours and their oxidation levels are checked regularly. Oxidation rooms are very humid and steam is thick in the air.
When the desired oxidation level has been attained, the leaves are exposed to the same extreme heat to cut the oxidation.
Black tea contains the most caffeine because of its high oxidation level. The caffeine in black tea is released more quickly into the blood stream than with other types of tea. The stimulant is considered to be more physical, whereas green tea produces a more mental stimulation.
The caffeine found in tea is gentler on the system, however, than that found in coffee. The caffeine in tea is released slowly into the body because of the tannins present in the tea. While coffee gives the blood a quick jolt within 30 minutes of its ingestion, the caffeine in tea is released over four to six hours after drinking a cup. Coffee goes to the heart and speeds up the pulse rate, while tea moves more slowly through the body. As a result, tea drinkers usually feel more alert for extended periods of time, while coffee drinkers get a quick buzz that fades out almost as quickly.
Wulong tea is similar in colour to black tea, but contains less caffeine. Three leaves are harvested with each root used for Wulong tea. The leaves are not rolled the way they are for green and black teas. Wulong leaves are free to expand in the water while they are infused. The lower oxidation levels in Wulong tea give it a more delicate flavour than its black counterpart.
White tea is considered to be the “naturalist” of the four tea families. Only the root of the leaf is harvested for white tea. The root is sun-dried after harvesting. There is no process of oxidation for white tea and it does not contain any tannins. One does not have to worry about infusing a white tea for too long. White tea will never become bitter because of its lack of tannins.
In China white tea was traditionally reserved for emperors. Because it only uses the root of the leaf, white tea was perceived as a luxury and was therefore only ingested by royalty in society.
Today anyone can enjoy white tea when looking for a gentle infusion with a very natural feel and taste.
When infusing tea a number of factors should be considered. One has to be aware of the quantity of tea used for each infusion, as well as the quantity of water. The temperature of the water is important, and varies depending on the type of tea being infused. Finally, the time of infusion is a key factor in terms of taste and quality of the finished product.
Water used for tea-making should be of the best quality possible. The water should not be de-mineralized because it will cause the tea to lose its flavour. Bottled water is best for the perfectly infused cup of tea, but tap water will suffice for those on a tighter budget.
As far as the tea leaves are concerned, an infusion can be either free, or controlled. A free infusion allows the leaves to float freely in the teapot without any constriction.
A controlled infusion requires some kind of filter to keep the leaves together in one spot. Filters are available in a wide range of materials. Cotton filters are best because they are flexible and allow for some motion of the leaves. Other filters are made out of metal, or vinyl. Delicate teas, such as white tea, should never come into contact with metal because they will pick up the metallic flavour and their own delicate flavouring will be lost.
Teapots are also available in different materials. Ceramic pots will not absorb the flavour of the tea being infused. Teapots made out of terra-cotta, however, will absorb the tea flavour and the infusions will become more and more flavourful the more frequently the teapot is used.
Teapots should never be cleaned with soap because it ruins the flavour left behind on the inside of the pot. The tannins in tea will leave brown marks on the inside of the pot, but these tannins are good for increased flavour in every subsequent pot brewed using the same pot.
Tea should be infused using two teapots. One for the actual infusion and one that will hold the tea once the infusion has been completed.
It is a good idea to heat a teapot both inside and out before using it. Running hot water around the outside of the pot, as well as inside, will allow for a good temperature of the instrument before infusion has even begun.
Water should generally not be boiling when it comes into contact with the tea leaves. Different leaves require different temperatures of water and it is a good idea to check what temperature is needed before using water that is either too hot, or not hot enough.
The flavour of the tea will change with every minute it is left to infuse in the water. In order to acquire the desired taste, one may check the tea for flavour now and again during the infusion.
Once the taste is right the tea should be transferred from the original teapot into the other heated pot. Using a second teapot will guarantee the best taste for t
he tea because it won’t be over-infused.
While infusion can take a long time if every step is vigilantly followed, a pot of tea can be made quite simply when time does not allow for the ceremonious approach. Tea bags have made tea drinking far more practical for our fast-paced world. This portable version can also be enjoyable. While tea bags are often made with black tea, companies have started to produce green, white and Wulong teas in tea bag form as well.
Because of the many types of teas produced around the world, and the many ways in which each type can be prepared, the options can seem limitless when it comes to this infused hot drink. Many people enjoy the ritual that is inherent in classical tea infusion, and find it to be a relaxing alternative to the quick brewed cup of coffee.
There is a history behind the discovery and the production of tea and enthusiasts can explore an entire “tea culture” that has grown out of this very simple product. From white to black, Wulong to green, tea offers a wide variety of ways to appeal to the senses and intrigue the mind.
To find out more about the workshops offered at Camellia Sinensis visit their website at:
Or stop by the teahouse at:
(off of St. Denis)
– Tea is the second
most popular drink
in the world. (Water
is first, Coke is third!)
– There is an old
Chinese saying that explains why their tea
cups don’t have handles:
“If it’s too hot for
the hands, it’s too hot for the mouth.”
-Tea didn’t make it to England until the 17th century.
-Tea aids digestion, but it’s best to wait until one hour after eating before having a cup.
-Tea contains many vitamins: B,C,E,K,U are just a few!