Food

Tea Time

Black, green, herbal, with honey, with sugar, with milk, or plain – we’re talking all about tea

It’s the most consumed beverage in the world, after water, but what’s so special about it? We talked to Canada’s tea bigwigs to find out.

“I’ve always been a tea fan,” says Louise Roberge, who in 2000, became the president of the Tea Association of Canada (TAC), now the Tea and Herbal Association of Canada. She’s also a Certified TAC Tea Sommelier Professional, a designation obtained through a course the association offers to anyone interested.

Made from the Camellia sinensis plant, legends surround the exact origins of tea, but according to TAC, people drank it mainly for medicinal purposes in China until the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), when tea became more of a pastime and even a source of artistic inspiration. Tea appeared in Japan in the 7th century AD, and the first tea chests arrived in Europe in 1606. France and Holland were the first European countries to embrace the beverage, and Russia was introduced to it around the year 1618. Although tea is synonymous with Britain now, England was the last European country to jump on the bandwagon from 1652-1654. In Canada, the first tea shipment was imported by Hudson’s Bay Company in 1716, and it took more than a year to arrive.

Types of Tea

Black Tea: This tea is made from fully oxidized leaves, which produce an essential oil that creates the aroma and rich flavour associated with the amber drink.

Green Tea: The leaves of this tea are steamed or heated immediately to prevent oxidation. Then they are rolled and dried, which creates a delicate taste and a light green colour.

Oolong Tea: This type of tea uses leaves that are partly oxidized, combining the qualities of black and green tea to create a highly aromatic and flavourful brew.

Pu-erh Tea: Produced in the Yunnan province of China, this tea is buried after oxidation. It is the only tea that is aged, creating a full-bodied flavour with earthy notes, which Roberge describes as mushroomy. She recommends it as a first-time tea for coffee drinkers.
White Tea: This tea is made from leaf buds that are covered in whitish hairs and plucked before they open, producing a mild, naturally sweet flavour.

Yellow Tea: This is a rare tea, produced similarly to green tea, but the leaves are dried longer. The leaves turn yellow while drying and lose some of the grassy flavours green teas are known for.

Herbal tea: Technically, herbal tea is not a tea, because it is not made from the Camellia sinensis plant. It is an infusion of leaves, roots, barks, seeds, or flowers.

Roberge, whose parents drank black tea with milk and sugar every night before bed, began drinking tea at home when she was 11 or 12. And her mum would even deglaze a pan with tea and make her gravy out of it.

“It’s such a diversified product,” Roberge says.

Today, Roberge appreciates the privilege she has of being able to try many different types of teas in her role with TAC. She loves bags as much as loose leaf, and often starts her day with black tea, moves into a green or oolong in the afternoon, and finishes with an herbal at night.

According to TAC, which began in 1954 to promote tea and health, 84 per cent of Canadians drink tea. If you’re not a tea drinker right now and would like to become one, Roberge suggests heading into a specialty tea store like DavidsTea or Teavana to sample some blends.

Tea is a relatively benign beverage by itself, according to TAC. Both tea and herbal tea contain zero calories unless you start adding sugar or milk. And except for decaffeinated tea or naturally caffeine-free herbals, there is an average 45 mg of caffeine in a cup, compared with an average 142 mg in the same amount of coffee.

Research presented at the Fifth International Scientific Symposium on Tea & Human Health in 2012 found tea to have preventive health benefits, including a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. Tea has also been linked to bone and muscle strength, mental sharpness, and the flavonoids (active dietary compounds) found in tea have been tied to anti-inflammatory benefits.

Tea can have spiritual benefits, too, even by the very process it takes to make it.

“You have to take a moment,” Roberge says. Boiling the water, getting the tea, the cup – it makes you stop, she explains. This can easily become a moment of calm, where you take a few deep breaths, pause to reflect on the day so far, or just gather your thoughts. “It’s good for your soul,” she says.

While your kettle is heating up, you can take the time to think about how the tea you’re about to drink is good for your body and the farmer who grew it, too. “Have one cup of tea a day,” Roberge says. “It’s good for you and the world around you.”

Though we always hear people say their own hard and fast rules about tea – milk first, milk at the end, no milk in herbal tea, etc. – Roberge says tea really depends on personal taste.

“The perfect cup of tea is the way you like to drink it.”