According to Chinese legend, in 5732 B.C., Emperor Shen Nung discovered tea when a leaf landed in his pot of boiling water. The pleasant scent it created made the Emperor curious enough to try drinking this hot leaf juice. It gave the emperor a warm feeling that inspired his further study of the drink and influenced his conclusion in its medicinal abilities.
While not a recommendable replacement for modern-day medicines, tea can offer a wide range of benefits from stimulation to stress relief, reducing the risk of heart disease to supporting the immune system. In order to find the right tea for the right objective, a little knowledge of the different types of teas can be a great help. As a former barista and avid tea drinker and brewer, I know a few things that can help point people in the right direction.
Black & White & Green Teas
The leaf that landed in Shen Nung’s pot would have been that of the Camellia sinensis shrub, a plant native to China and India. To tea purists, only tea made from this shrub counts as real tea. As these teas are all made from the same plant, they all offer the same benefits but to differing degrees depending on how the leaves are handled, both by the brewer and picker.
The longer a tea is steeped, the stronger and more bitter the taste becomes. Hotter water temperatures also cause tea to steep faster. You can brew white and green teas at hotter than recommended temperatures or let them steep for longer than the few minutes typically recommended, and the only thing it will affect is the strength of the tea’s flavor. But if it’s your first time trying a specific tea, it would be best to follow the brewing instructions that come with it, then use that as a baseline to decide how you want to brew it the next time.
A unique feature of Camellia sinensis leaves is the massive amount of antioxidants they contain. But the amount of antioxidants that will make it into the tea vary by type. White teas contain the most, followed by green, then oolong and black teas. These differences come from the different practices used for processing and fermenting the tea leaves for each type.
The less oxidized and processed the tea is, the stronger the concentration of these antioxidants and their benefits will be, putting unfermented, uncured white teas at the top, followed by the quickly processed to prevent fermentation green teas. Oolong and black teas possess lower but still high antioxidizing abilities due to their fermentation, but these teas are more often associated with the benefits of another component of Camellia sinensis leaves: good old caffeine.
Black teas are often stated to have the highest caffeine content of all teas but this comes down more to the recommended brewing method than black tea itself. The more fermented or processed a tea is, the longer the recommended steeping time and higher the recommended water temperature for that tea is. But this isn’t because white teas are too delicate for the fully boiled water recommended for black tea, but because these are the conditions that complement each type of tea’s general flavor profile.
White teas are made from young Camellia sinensis leaves, giving them a sweeter, lighter flavor than other teas. Their flavors will shine the most when brewed with lower temperature water for shorter amounts of time. Black teas, on the other hand, are known for their strong, bold flavors that need hotter water and longer steeping times to reach their potential.
Green teas are usually the most flexible in their brewing methods, but there is an exception to this. The most popular tea in Japan, sencha, differs from Chinese green tea in how the tea leaves are processed to prevent fermentation. The Chinese pan fire their leaves while the Japanese steam them before rolling the leaves to create their signature pine needle shape. These few simple changes lead to a greener color to the tea and a slightly more bitter flavor, which will become more prominent if steeped for longer. To keep the balance of the natural sweetness of green tea and the slight bitterness from the Japanese steaming method, brewing the tea as recommended is the best way to approach sencha.
Another Japanese green tea, gyokuro, goes through a similar processing procedure as sencha but is shielded from the sun for at least twenty days while growing. This results in gyokuro tea having a paler color and distinct aroma compared to sencha but most importantly, increases the amount of caffeine in the leaves. When these leaves aren’t used to make gyokuro, they’re used to create one of the highest caffeine teas, matcha.
Matcha & Herbal Teas
Matcha’s high caffeine content comes not only from the shaded growing process but from being made of entire tea leaves carefully ground into a fine powder. One teaspoon of matcha powder, the recommended amount for one eight-ounce cup, contains 70 milligrams of caffeine compared to the typical cup of green tea’s 28. A typical 8-ounce cup of coffee contains between 80 to 100 milligrams of caffeine and a single shot of espresso averages around 63 milligrams. It may not be as strong as a cup of coffee, but it comes very close while also containing the antioxidant benefits of green tea and a smooth sweetness.
There’s one more benefit to green tea that I’d argue makes it the better choice for which drink to get your caffeine fix from. Another aspect of Camellia sinensis leaves increased by the shaded growing method is the amino acid l-theanine. L-theanine slows the body’s absorption of caffeine and is believed to have an overall calming effect on the body. This means, with matcha, you get caffeine’s mental alertness benefit without the drawback of a crash that comes with coffee.
While all traditional teas will contain some level of caffeine, non-traditional teas, called herbal teas, have none at all. Any tea made from a root, herb, flower, seed, or other plant that isn’t a Camellia sinensis leaf is considered an herbal tea. This wider spectrum makes it harder to describe the benefits herbal teas give but also means the potential benefits of herbal teas are just as varied.
Like traditional teas, herbal teas offer benefits beyond pleasant scents and tastes, many of which correlate with their medicinal uses in the past. The ancient Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks used chamomile to speed up wound recovery, which it has shown signs of doing, along with its more well-known sedative abilities.
Ginger tea has been used to relieve nausea, cold symptoms, and joint pain for thousands of years and scientists are finding evidence of these abilities in tests today. They may not be cures or permanent solutions but the people of ancient times knew how to use tea.
Tea started out as a medicinal drink before becoming the common drink it is today. But even if it’s not the healing drink it was once believed to be, it still has benefits to offer, some of which are relevant in our current pandemic. In times as stressful and uncertain as this past year has been, taking care of yourself is important, mentally and physically.
So, next time you feel stressed, try brewing a cup of peppermint or lavender tea. Or just take a moment with whichever tea you like and enjoy the pleasant scent and warm feeling of your hot leaf juice.