The Journey Into Tea

We could have us a high time.

Tea, second only to water, is the most consumed beverage in the world. Curiosity leads us to wonder what’s so special about this historically significant drink.

In the late 90s, I was studying Traditional Chinese Medical Massage (tui na), practicing qi gong, and reading about all manner of health and longevity practices. Naturally, tea was a theme in many of my readings. My teachers, too, were espousing the many virtues of tea. I was quickly learning that the world of tea offers poetry, legend and lore. It also opens a path toward experiencing a connectedness with the inner self, the world and its people.

And thus began my journey with tea.

So many of us are learning about the studies that are proving the physical benefits of tea drinking, benefits that have been accepted as commonplace by millions of Chinese, Japanese, Tibetans, Indians and more for many centuries. Tea is helpful in keeping alert, and yet relaxed. It supplies healthful antioxidants, has anti-mutagenic (anti-cancer) properties and helps to maintain electrolyte balance and hydration in the body. Black and pu-erh teas are being shown to reduce cholesterol levels without the side effects so prevalent with statin drugs. The list goes on and on, with new research coming out all the time, showing tea to be a rather healthful beverage. One does not have to look further than the daily newspaper, the internet or Oprah, for that matter, to find out just what tea can do for our health.

Having experienced the benefits of tea drinking in my own life, I began sharing tea with some of my massage clients before their sessions and noticed some wonderful things happening. As they came in for a session, stress written all over their faces, I offered a cup of warm green tea. Soon, their voices would lower in tone, speech would calm, shoulders would drop and the worried brow would relax. Tea is calming, even with the presence of caffeine. That is because there are other compounds within tea that effectively relax muscle tension. Tea boosts alertness while relaxing the body.

My intention in serving tea was to help calm, but I began to learn that most people expected the tea to taste awful. Many would ask when they tasted good tea prepared properly, “Is this really green tea?” It seems that the tea experience that people have had in this country is with a tea bag. And those experiences have all too frequently been less than positive. The tea is often bitter or lacking in flavor due to over-processing, old age, and improper steeping methods. Many, despite the fact that the flavor of poor quality tea is not all that appealing to them, continue to drink tea because they are reading about the health benefits that are bestowed onto us by tea.

In our society, there exists a mystery surrounding the preparation and enjoyment of tea. And while it is true that there are many subtle nuances in tea brewing, preparing a good tasting cup is not rocket science and can be quite a joyful experiment.

Let me point out that all tea, be it white, yellow, green, oolong, black and pu-erh, all come from the same plant, camellia sinensis. And while we often call other hot beverages tea, they are, in fact, herbal infusions or tisanes. True tea has only one source, and the only differences in the six types of tea are in the post-plucking processing.

In regard to tea preparation, there are a few key factors to take into consideration:

1) Quality of Tea – Poor quality, old, dusty leaf will yield a lackluster cup while high-quality and fresh leaf will give great flavor steeping after steeping.

2) Quality of Water -Unfiltered tap water should be avoided. It is full of chlorine (and other contaminants) that will ruin the flavor of the liquor. Distilled and reverse-osmosis filtered water should also be avoided as they will render flat tasting tea. Water stored in plastic bottles will impart a bad taste in your tea. Best to use fresh spring water or water that has been filtered with a carbon-based filtration system.

3) Water Temperature – Too high a temperature will leave green tea bitter. Best to use water at 175 degrees. Oolongs, hardier than whites, yellows and greens, brew best between 195 and 205 degrees. Black tea can handle water just off of a boil. The only tea that uses boiling water is Pu-erh tea.

4) Steeping Time – Loose tea can be steeped multiple times. Multiple, short steepings will show the tea’s array of flavor qualities while longer steeping times will make for a stronger cup. Over 3 minutes with green tea will make for a bitter cup, while black teas usually steep 4 to 6 minutes.

Tea is not only good for you, it should taste great too and if it appeals to ones sense of flavor and aroma, one will drink more and thus enjoy more benefit. It is actually quite simple and should be fun to brew a good cup.

Perhaps it was said best many years ago…

“Tea is naught but this: First you heat the water, then you make the tea. Then you drink it properly. That is all you need to know.” -Sen No Rikyu, Japanese tea master (c.1591)

My curiosity about this second most popular beverage in the world has led me to see that tea is not only a healthful, delicious beverage, but an experience unto itself. It is a practice of joy, a creation of ritual, and a way of connecting and sharing with others, an opportunity to stop, sit still, and experience being alive.

May we share a cup soon.

With gratitude,