Southerners serve it sweet and iced. The Japanese whisk it. The Brits guzzle it with buckets of milk and sugar. The Aussies brew it in a “billy” can. People around the world are serious about their tea and its preparation. So, why should you be?
In all its complexities, tea offers a simultaneous feeling of calmness and alertness; the drink has a grounding effect that brings the sipper back down to earth. Unlike the rush of coffee, aka the “jet fuel” that sends your pulse racing, tea levels the head, slows the heart rate, and pours a sense of presence and awareness over you.
Jesse Jacobs, the man behind Samovar Tea in San Francisco, is dedicated to creating teas capable of transporting the drinker. “When I started Samovar, I realized that tea would be the perfect vehicle for satisfying just what the world needed today: to slow down and to unplug,” he explains. Each blend Jesse formulates – from the rooibos-based “Ocean of Wisdom” to the “Velvet Cacao Pu-Erh” – is meant to encourage wellness, energy and balance. He also cites freshness as key, and recommends buying in smaller batches.
More delicate than coffee, more interesting than water, and much healthier than soda, there are no downsides to enjoying tea – except, perhaps, when having to choose from the wide variety of “types” that exist to accommodate various states of being. Herewith, a primer to get you brewing.
Know Your Type: The Main Varieties of Tea
Just as there are many varietals of wine, each with a unique flavor and terroir, different kinds of tea suit different palates, depending on the blend and the region in which the tea was grown. The four major types – black, white, green and oolong – all come from the same tea plant known as “Camellia Sinensis.” Although each type has a different processing method, they all contain antioxidants and flavonoids known to fight disease and cancer, as well as theanine, which help to heighten mental alertness. Keep in mind that the longer you steep your tea, the more flavonoids will be released from the leaves or bag and the stronger your brew will taste.
White tea is the least processed and therefore the least caffeinated; the leaves are picked while the buds are still light in color. These teas also tend to retain most of their natural flavor, and are best when you’re looking for something soothing and delicate to sip on a hot day or a calm evening.
Green tea is less processed, as the leaves are baked, roasted or steamed rather than fermented. It’s the best tea for assisting weight loss, thanks to its high levels of catechin polyphenols – the catenoid compounds that pair up with other chemicals in the body to burn fat tissue for energy. When blended with jasmine flowers, for example, green tea can both soothe and uplift, as jasmine is a natural sedative and green tea is mildly caffeinated, perfect for boosting the mood.
Oolong tea falls into the semi-fermented category, though it can range depending on the blend. Most oolongs have a yellow or light brown hue and possess a subtle aroma and flavor. As a quick guide: Champagne Oolong can be on the stronger side, while a Poochong will be relatively light. Known for being incredibly complex in body, aroma, taste and even aftertaste, oolongs (and pu-erhs, for that matter) can fetch thousands of dollars a pound.
Black tea is the most processed of the group – “processed” meaning it’s allowed to oxidize and ferment longer than the other types, resulting in its strong flavor and dark color. Black tea is also the most caffeinated. (As a general rule: the more processed the tea the stronger the brew, due to the flavors brought out by longer exposure to air.)
Pu-erh tea a.k.a. “after oxidized” tea is the only tea that is truly fermented. A bit like the blue cheese of tea, pu-erh is earthy and rich, with notes of peat moss, leather, bittersweet chocolate and even espresso (take note, coffee lovers!).
Unlike teas that come from the tea plant, herbal teas provide different benefits based on the various chemical compounds found in their plant. For example, berry teas are known to curb food cravings, while chamomile tea rests the nervous system and helps with insomnia. Ginger tea aids digestion because of its spice, provoking peristalsis, and mint soothes an upset stomach. Rooibos tea is packed with vitamin C and antioxidants to protect the immune system. If you’re caffeine sensitive, go herbal, since all teas have caffeine but herbals naturally do not. (According to Jesse, avoid “decaffeinated” teas. He doesn’t offer them at Samovar since the process involves a lot of chemicals and machinery – “not good for the tea or the earth.”)
Switching from Coffee to Tea
Which tea is best as an alternative to coffee? As a former coffee addict himself, Jesse recommends Masala chai: “When cooked with milk and sugar, it’s the perfect latte replacement.” Another option is his Velvet Cacao, a Pu-Erh-based blend that includes ground cacao shells and coconut for a drink that’s “much more complex and full-bodied than coffee, but similarly creamy, rich and caffeinated,” Jesse says. A classic black tea also does the trick, since it’s fully oxidized and therefore has a good dose of caffeine. And for a hit of green in your morning pick-me-up, try matcha, a creamy drink that froths up when heated and whisked similar to a cappuccino or latte – but with all the benefits of a green tea.
Just another reason to add tea to your daily routine as a positive way to wake up, calm down and simply enjoy the present.
What are your favorite teas and why? Let us know in the comments below.