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Texas Sees Green: Texas Gets Turned On To The Benefits Of Tea

Aug 17, 2007
We've all been there, at least in some form that complex and mystifying land of too many beverage choices and their accoutrements. While office jokes of the five-minute coffee order ("I'd like a double half-caff, three-fourths-skinny, dry mocha Rocha hazelnut, light whipped cream latte") may be the first thing that comes to mind, the possibilities of tea variety and preparation are almost endless. Dallas, Houston, and the rest of Texas are the most familiar with black tea, demonstrated by their strong tradition of the sweetened, iced variety.

Tea's health benefits are innumerable; infused with antioxidants, including the powerful catechins and ECGC, high quality teas are considered to be healthy, traditional beverages that, unlike coffee, can be safely enjoyed at will. Several studies show that drinking five or more cups of green tea a day actually reduces the risk of dying from many illnesses, including heart disease and stroke.

Now, that's something your health insurance company will love. And that's just one kind. Tea is actually the second most popular drink in the world next to water, and was enjoyed long before the modern era began. Texas and the rest of the Western world are slowly catching on to this.

I recently visited a tea house, which are starting to pop up in Austin, Houston, and other Texas cities. I was seeking simplicity, tired of waiting in line for that poor, anonymous office gopher to finish a ten-employee order that sounded more like a theater student's warm-up exercise -- or a very bad joke. This was a definitive error in judgment. While the experience was undeniably educational, my choices weren't just varied, they were like looking into the endless spiral of time. The conversation with the clerk went something like this:

"I would like a nice cup of hot tea."

"Uh, ok. What would you like?"

"Tea. I'd like a cup of tea. Oh, right. Well, what kind do you have?" (Mistake Number One.)

"Well," she huffed, obviously a bit annoyed with such a novice. "We have most worldly varieties -- black tea, red tea, green tea, yellow (Deep inhale.) "White tea, herbal tea, twig tea, fruit"

When did all this start sounding like a Dr. Seuss novel? "Uh uh, white. I'll try white."

"Chinese, I assume? How about a nice Bai Mu Dan?


"Would you like milk? Soy? Rice? 2%? Whole?

"uh. No milk. Is there more than one kind of this, this Bai Mu Dan?" (Mistake Number Two).

"Well, sort of. Bai Mu Dan is a kind of white tea, but you can get it in different preparations, grades, and from several different provinces, although Fujian is the best. Would you like loose-leafed, pyramid-bagged, cold-pressed? Earthenware, glass, or porcelain tea pot? We can also do blends to make it half-caff or super-caff. Would you like honey, white sugar, raw sugar, brown sugar, agave nectar"

My thoughts trailed off somewhere along the sweeteners, off to the barbecues of Texas -- where tea was mostly simple. And iced.

"Or would you prefer an oxidized tea?"

"Uh"My half of this conversation was composed entirely too much of monosyllabic mutters. "How 'bout just a cup of black coffee?"

Don't worry. It's not as hard as it sounds. I finally settled on a Bai Hao Yinzhen -- the highest grade of white tea -- an earthenware teapot, no milks or sweeteners (please). I figured my health insurance company would be proud. Then I promptly returned home and fired up the Wi-Fi for a night of research. I simply would not be duped by the world of hot beverages.

It turns out tea is not just tea -- even in Texas. In fact, "tea" is often not tea at all. To be considered genuine, the drink must be infused from at least one part of the plant Camellia sinensis, (of course informally known as the "tea plant"), usually the leaves. What Americans call "red tea," for instance, is not really tea, but a brew made from the South African rooibos plant; herbal drinks, similarly, are considered infusions. There are four main types of true tea: white, green, oolong, and black, all classified according to how the Camellia sinensis is processed.

Because the leaves of the plant can begin to wilt and oxidize within hours, the stage at which this oxidation ceases determines the type of tea. This process is called "fermentation" in the industry, but is formally known as enzymatic oxidation. The further this progresses, the more chlorophyll breaks down, the more tannins are released, and the darker the tea leaves become. Enzymatic oxidation is stopped at any given stage by heating -- either by steaming, or through a dry cooking method.

White tea is considered the least processed, as oxidation is immediately halted after picking. Due to this lack of "fermentation," white tea retains high levels of catechins, and because only young leaves or new growth buds are chosen, also retain more of the natural caffeine. The plant may even be shielded from sunlight to prevent it from developing chlorophyll, both factors giving it a pale appearance.

As fewer young leaves are harvested, and the process is more sensitive, white teas -- particularly the good ones -- are correspondingly more expensive. This type of tea is considered a specialty of the Fujian province in China, and the most popular include Da Bai (Large White), Xiao Bai (Small White), Narcissus, and Chaicha.

Green tea is slightly oxidized, and is the most globally well-known next to black tea. It is ubiquitous in Japan, so much so that it is often referred to simply as "tea." Green tea is either dried separately or rolled into pellets, which are later called "gunpowder" teas.

Green tea's health benefits have taken over the media spotlight in recent years, and with good reason. The infusion has been used as a traditional medicine in Japan, India, China, and Taiwan for millennia -- treating everything from digestive disorders to uncontrolled bleeding. In 1191, the Zen priest Eisai wrote what is roughly translated as The Book of Tea, describing how to recognize and grow the plant, as well as how to apply it medicinally. Modern claims on the positive effects of green tea include everything from increasing fat oxidation (thereby raising metabolism), to treating neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

The word oolong means "black dragon," and it is believed the tea is named after one or more legends surrounding the leaves. Oolong teas are considered semi-oxidized, the level of fermentation ranging from 10% to 70%. The Chinese know semi-oxidized teas collectively as "blue-green tea," and oolong as specific types of these. The most famous are produced in the Wuyi Mountains of the Chinese Fujian Province and in the Central Mountains of Taiwan.

Black tea is fully oxidized, and ferments for anywhere between two weeks and one month. In China, the tea is referred to as "red tea," due to the liquid's reddish-brown hue, while Westerners call it "black tea" due to the color of the leaves usually used. Black tea is the most popular tea in South Asia and certain parts of Africa, and can keep for up to two years when properly stored.

Unblended black teas are classified much like wine -- according to their estate, year, and flush (or time of year in which the leaves were harvested). All black teas (blended or single origin) are also grouped according to production method -- orthodox or CTC (Crush, Tear, Curl) -- and further classified based on quality. For orthodox black teas, the Orange Pekoe System is used to judge quality, while CTC's are evaluated according to other standards.

Considering humans have been tea drinkers for the better part of 5,000 years, a cursory glance at classification is just the beginning. When given the time, we Homo sapiens are inventive little creatures, and, over the millennia, have perfected elaborate systems for brewing, storing, serving, and preparing tea. Certain varieties are purported to fetch thousands of dollars a pound, and are well worth the cost. Better yet, they may even extend your life. And, really, who couldn't use a cuppa' with the grandkids?

Tea's benefits include increased energy, better health, and possibly a longer life.
About the Author
Pat Carpenter writes for Precedent Insurance Company. Precedent puts a new spin on health insurance. Learn more at Precedent.com
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