By Richard E. Bleil, Ph.D.
Tea comes from the tea-leaf. It’s not called tea because it often comes in a flow through bag, but because it specifically comes from the leaf of a specific tree (genus Camillia from the flowering plant family Theaceae). I mention this because today I would like to write about tea, not potpourri in a bag. If you like “herbal tea”, more power to you, but it’s not really tea.
Me? I like tea. I like it iced, hot, even tepid. I like Chai (made with milk and spices), I like it sweet, with honey, with milk, with lemon, with a combination of these or straight. It’s lovely. I like it with scones, biscuits, cookies, cheese, meats, or just by itself. I’ve been privileged to have “high tea”, served with a lovely tray of finger sandwiches, cookies, scones, jam, and whipped cream at a small tea shop in Ohio opened by immigrants from Scotland who always wanted to own a tea shop in America. It was incredible.
Tea is made by what chemists would call a liquid/solid extraction. The tea leaves are allowed to brown, dried, and ground. Some teas are mixed with other ingredients, and the tea is then ground to moderately small pieces and sold either as “loose-leaf” or in disposable bags. The solvent in the extraction is hot water. The water permeates the tea-leaf, and extracts soluble or slightly soluble chemicals into the water, making a delicious treat for the olfactory and taste senses. It is possible to “burn” tea, however, and the proper temperature at which to perform the extraction depends on the type of tea. If the water is too hot, it will extract bitters such as tannic acid which will make the tea less enjoyable. I must admit, I didn’t really believe this until I purchased an electric tea kettle with proper temperatures programmed into it.
There are a great variety of teas. The most common tea in America, thanks to a major tea company, is a combination of orange and black pekoe tea. This is most likely the type of tea you will get if you request tea in a restaurant and they brew their own. If you do this, however, be sure that the tea is fresh brewed every day, because a black mold will grow very quickly in tea, whether it is sweetened or not. These look like little floating pieces of tea-leaf, so be sure to ask the server when the tea was brewed. If it comes from a powder, well, it’s your choice, I guess, but I don’t waste my time with instant tea.
Probably the tea that most people (at least in America) know by name is “green tea”. Green tea is not allowed to oxidize as long as orange or black tea, leaving it the green hue. (Oxidation is a natural process; think about the leaves on your lawn after falling, turning brown or orange. It’s a very similar natural process for Pekoe tea, but they don’t let the leaves turn completely in green tea making a milder flavored tea.) Today, you can even get “white” tea-leaf tea, which is often made from the leaves of tea buds, before they even turn green.
One of the more fun tea names is “gunpowder green tea.” No, there is no actual gunpowder in it, but it is higher in caffeine content, so it has a little more of a “kick” to it than traditional tea.
Some teas are flavored with additional ingredients, which are often natural as well. Jasmine tea has petals from the Jasmine flower, giving a marvelous and subtle fragrant overtone to the drink. Earl Grey tea (probably the best known additionally flavored tea) is made from oil of bergamot, which is a variety of orange found in Italy and France. In many Chinese restaurants, I’ve enjoyed Oolong tea, which is very similar, but the process includes withering the entire plant under a strong sun before oxidizing and further drying.
There are other forms of tea as well, but I just love everything there is about tea. The process to produce it is very natural, including naturally oxidizing the leaves. No doubt, some companies have additives, but high quality loose-leaf teas are readily available, and I strongly urge the reader to try them. In fact, I further recommend you find a vendor that purchases teas from overseas, but to ensure that a “mega corporation” hasn’t gotten their hands on it and tried to “improve” the tea, but also to help support the tea growers around the world.
When you get tea, here is a fun thing to try with black pekoe. When the tea is ready, take a single teaspoon of lemon juice and stir it in, being careful to note the color of the tea before and after. You will notice a color change from brown to orange. This is not because you’ve diluted the tea (if you need proof, try adding one teaspoon of hot water first), but is the result of a naturally occurring acid/base indicator that is extracted from the tea-leaf. See, the lemon juice contains citric acid (which is why it is so sour), and when added to the tea causes a dramatic drop in the pH (acid level) of the tea itself. This natural indicator changes from brown to colorless, leaving the background orange color that was also present.
I hope you decide to explore teas. Cheers!
Editorial note: Some misspellings have been corrected.