For both simple and serious reasons, tea is the superhero of all beverages—most simply because it is versatile. It can be drunk hot or cold, winter or summer, and morning, noon, or night. More importantly, tea is touted for its health benefits including high antioxidant and vitamin C levels and more. Tea has also stood the test of time. It spans both centuries and cultures, from its roots in Asia through Europe and India and to America. Tea has even played an important role in history. The taxation of tea led to the Boston Tea Party and, as a result, is thought to have played a part in starting the American Revolution. If that alone doesn’t give it superhero status, consider that tea can also serve as a natural dye! There are also less-tangible benefits of tea, as well. Tea soothes colds and comforts us through times of stress and sadness.
But what is tea, where does it come from, and why is it important to drink organic tea?
What Is Tea?
The truest tea comes from the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, and depending on where it is grown and how it is processed it results in black, green, oolong and white teas. Herbal tea is also available, but it is not made from the tea leaf; rather, it is infused herbs. Specialty teas may include tea leaves and herbs with the addition of flowers, fruits, and spices. We discuss the varieties in more detail below.
The best tea is grown at high altitudes and consists of the smallest new-growth leaves and unopened leaf buds that are picked by hand.
A Short History of the Origins of Tea
The tea plant is native to China and was first cultivated about 2,000 B.C. The Japanese “discovered” it during the eighth century A.D., followed by the Europeans during the seventeenth century, when the British quickly adopted this drink. Tea has played an important role in English culture, and can be seen in the popular British observance of afternoon tea, a light meal served at about 4:00 p.m., and high tea, which became a substitute for afternoon tea in the nineteenth century. Because China could not meet Britain’s high demand for tea, Britain set up tea plantations and colonies in India to support this import. It was not until the twentieth century that America started drinking it iced, which is thought to have started at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904.
While tea has been around for thousands of years, it hasn’t been until recently that we have been able to select from the expansive variety of organic teas that are available today. Many organic tea companies are emerging with the awareness of organic farming methods on the rise. Even the larger, established tea producers, such as Celestial Seasonings and the Republic of Tea, are now using organic tea leaves for some of their blends.
Why Drink Organic Tea?
Organic tea is grown and processed without pesticides or artificial fertilizers and is also often Fair Trade. This means that you can reap the health benefits of organic tea knowing that small farms are being supported, workers on tea plantations are being treated fairly, and that both the workers and our environment are not exposed to the harmful chemicals used in conventional tea production.
Perhaps the most well-known benefit to drinking tea is for the high level of polyphenols found in tea leaves. Polyphenols are a type of natural plant antioxidant that has been found to help fight free radicals—molecules that occur in the environment that can cause damage to our cells. The accumulation of free-radical damage is thought to lead to heart disease and cancer. Green and black teas are the best known for their antioxidant benefits. Tea is also a wonderful alternative to coffee, with many varieties having just half of the caffeine. The antibacterial properties in tea are also said to improve oral health by preventing tooth decay and halitosis.
Types of Tea
There are four "true teas" that come from the tea plant. They are black, green, oolong, and white and are so named for their production processes. Black is the most processed, followed by oolong, green, and white. All other teas are made with herbal, floral, fruit, spice, or combined infusions.
Black tea is the only “true tea” that is fully oxidized. In its production process, the leaves are picked and tumbled in a machine so that the juices from the leaves react with the air causing it to oxidize, or ferment and turn black. The leaves are then dried to produce the final product, which results in a strong dark reddish-brown brew. Popular varieties include Darjeeling, English breakfast, Earl Grey, and Lapsang Souchong—a distinctively smoky variety.
Green tea is not oxidized; it is steamed and dried, resulting in a slightly bitter, greenish-yellow blend. Green tea has the lowest amount of caffeine of the four “true teas.” Dragon well, tencha, and gunpowder are popular choices of green tea.
Oolong tea falls in between black tea and green tea in terms of taste and color because it is only partially fermented. Formosa oolong, which comes from Taiwan, is the best-known oolong tea.
White tea is the rarest of the four. It is the least handled in production, requiring only plucking and drying.
Rooibos tea is most commonly referred to as red tea, and does not actually come from a tea plant, but from a red bush in South Africa and is considered an herbal tea. Rooibos is reminiscent of the taste of green tea, but is less bitter.
Herbal tea is a hot water drink infused with herbs that often have medicinal properties and most often do not contain caffeine. Popular herbal teas include Peppermint and Chamomile.
Chai tea is a popular tea from India that consists of loose-leaf tea, milk and ground spices including cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, grated nutmeg, and pepper.
Specialty teas have a base of one of the above teas with the addition of flora, spices, or fruit. The possibilities of tea in this category are virtually endless!
Tea is available at just about any grocery store. Organic tea is less widely available, but now that many major brands are developing and launching organic tea lines, they are becoming more popular. The best place to find a wide variety of high-quality organic tea is at specialty tea shops, coffeehouses, and gourmet stores. Herbal teas are also available in health-food stores. Tea comes loose or in tea bags. We recommend loose tea for its flavor, but if you prefer tea bags for their convenience, look for the environmentally friendly alternative—natural, unbleached tea bags, which should be free of excessive components like extra strings, tags, and staples.
Tea may be stored for up to a year, and it should be kept in a cool, dark place in its original plastic or foil packaging in an airtight container.
While tea bags are the most convenient method for preparing tea, loose tea provides the best tea experience as it allows the tea’s full flavor to circulate. For best results, bring filtered water to just under a boil. Place the tea bag or loose tea (one teaspoon per cup) in your tea cup, tea ball, or tea pot and allow it to steep 1–3 minutes for green tea, 3–6 minutes for black tea, and 6–8 minutes for oolong tea. Herbal teas need more time and should generally be steeped 8–12 minutes unless the packaging indicates otherwise. Use the above guidelines to determine which end of the spectrum you like your tea, weakest to strongest. Be sure to stir the tea to promote circulation. Remove the tea bag or tea ball and serve. Many people enjoy adding honey, sugar, milk, or soy milk, but many are purists and want to savor it unenhanced. Of course, a traditional crumpet, muffin, or cookie can be a wonderful treat alongside a hot cup of tea!