Tea 101: Understanding Your Brew

Tea is an ancient beverage, but beyond that the definition starts getting a little complicated. The word “tea” probably brings lots of different ideas to mind, from a refreshing deck side cooler to an herbal preparation designed to help you sleep. That's because teas can be very specialized beverages.

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Understanding Different Teas

Classic China Tea – Classic tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant, a variety of camellia that originated in the Far East. You can cultivate, dry and drink your own classic tea pretty easily. It's been cultivated in China for over 5,000 years. A home grown and dried China tea may not have the punch of your favorite oolong or Darjeeling brand, though. Many of the best classic teas in the world are blends or have been specially fermented or processed in other ways.

Green Tea – You've probably heard of green and white teas. These teas are from the Camellia sinensis plant too, but are taken from immature leaves and buds. They undergo very little processing, and the resulting flavor is mild and subtle.

Young teas need less “steeping”, the time it takes the tea leaves to release their flavor and color in hot water. They're also getting a lot of attention as super foods for their antioxidant properties.

Herbal Tea – Herbal teas can be made from just about any type of plant material. Dandelion root, fenugreek seeds, white willow bark and lavender flowers are all popular ingredients in herbal teas. Where classic China teas are popular for their flavor, herbal teas are important for their restorative or medicinal properties.

White willow bark contains salicin, a chemical similar to salicylic acid, the pain reliever in aspirin. A tea made from it can relieve pain the way aspirin does, but without the pharmaceutical processing involved.

Fenugreek seed tea can help reduce ringing in the ears, and when steaming lavender tea is inhaled, it becomes a natural and safe muscle relaxer. These are a few examples of herbal teas that can provide relief from discomfort. With a little honey and lemon they can also be a tasty way to take your medicine.

If you're planning on using herbal tea as a medicinal treatment, read the label carefully and check with your doctor if you are pregnant or already on medication.

Organic Tea – Organic tea, regardless of its composition, is made without the use of chemical pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. The term “organic” is controlled in the U.S. by the Department of Agriculture (USDA). When you're looking for natural or organically grown tea, check for the green USDA organic seal on the blends you buy.

The next time you contemplate a trip to your favorite coffee bar, try a cup of tea instead. You can customize your brew to relax your muscles, clear your sinus congestion, reduce your blood pressure or just taste wonderful. You'll be part of a growing tea drinking tradition.

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