Tea: It’s hot. How to make a great brew!

With sales having doubled in the last five years, tea is on a tear. “Today” food editor Phil Lempert has all the details…

Tea, one of the world’s oldest drinks, is taking America by storm. With more than 125 million Americans naming tea as their favorite beverage, according to ACNielsen, sales have doubled in the past five years for a total of over $1.6 billion. And with new varieties and flavors being introduced all the time ? as well growing enthusiasm for the health benefits of tea – we can expect little slowdown in the near future.

Tea, of course, has long been popular around the world. Originally discovered, according to legend, by Chinese emperor Shen Nung in 2737 BC when a leaf from a wild tea tree fell into his boiling drinking water, tea is now the second most consumed beverage in the world (water is number one). Part of tea?s popularity stems from the many health claims made for it (see section below), but recognition of these advantages also predate our time. As early as third century AD the benefits of drinking the beverage were being told in stories and some were even written. The drink gained its name from ch’a, a Chinese word that emerged during the Tang Dynasty (618-906 AD). The spread of tea first followed Buddhist priests who traveled around China and Japan, with the first mention of tea outside of these countries said to be around 850 in the Arab world.

The story of the movement of tea to Europe has many variations, with Portugal, one of the first to gain trading rights with China, in the forefront. In this account, tea was brought to Lisbon sometime in the 1500s and then subsequently was traded to France, Holland, England and the Baltic countries. In about 1650 tea made its way to the United States.

The health benefits of tea An increasing numbers of studies show that the benefits from drinking tea are numerous. Besides being a refreshing drink with no calories (when consumed without milk), tea is a good source of manganese (essential for physical development) and potassium (which maintains body?s fluid balance). It is also packed with flavanoids, which are antioxidants that help combat free radicals. Studies also show that tea drinkers are less likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease than non-drinkers. The flavanoids are also being shown to help prevent oxidation of the ?bad? cholesterol as well as protecting the blood vessels from inflammation and inhibiting blood clotting. Tea is also a natural source of fluoride, which can help strengthen tooth enamel, and it also helps cut down plaque on teeth. Additionally, tea has about half the caffeine of coffee.

Tea tasting and brewing Just like wine appreciation, tasting tea is an art. Tea tasters have their own vocabulary to describe and evaluate various brews. These include: aroma (the odor of the tea liquor); astringency (puckery sensation created by the reaction of tannins and protein in saliva); body (tactile sensation or weight), muscatel (characteristics similar to grapes); full (possessing color, strength, substance and roundness); thick (has substance but not strength); thin/weak (lacking thickness and strength), toasty (liquor of tea being overfired). Brewing the perfect cup of tea is also an art, with various opinions on that matter. However, it usually involves the right combination of these seven factors:

The quality of the tea. Use the best that is available to you.

The quality of the water. Tap water is fine as long as it tastes good by itself. The same applies to bottled water. Do not use distilled water. Correct measurement. The general guideline is one rounded teaspoon per 8 oz. cup.

Correct steeping (brewing) temperature. This can vary depending on the type of tea, usually being higher for the stronger teas (black teas, for example).

Correct steeping time. This also varies with the different types – ranging from 2-3 minutes for white teas to 7-8 minutes for some of the more robust varieties.

Allowing tea leaf to expand fully. The tea leaves should expand 3-5 times in size, so the pot should allow for such size.

Separating the leaf from the liquid at the end of the steeping process. The tea will tend to turn bitter if steeped too long.

(By Phil Lempert, “Today” Food Editor, MSNBC News, March 2004)