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October 1, 2018 | by  | in Features |
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What’s the Tea?

My mother’s favourite saying is, “I’m gasping for a cuppa tea!” This usually means she’s had a very long and stressful day, and can’t wait for the warmth of a steaming mug of English Breakfast in her hands to mimic the feeling of human contact, without the annoyance of said human contact. However, I have also witnessed her wake up from a three hour nap and announce that she is, still, “gasping for a cuppa!” So there goes that theory.
There are hundreds of teas available to consumers all around the world. It’s drunk on every continent (including Antarctica!). But nobody knows the exact origin of tea. The story goes that, 5000 years ago in 2737 BC, Emperor Shen Nung was travelling through China, and being a man far ahead of his time, was very into sanitation. He had stopped to rest and boil water to drink when a gust of wind blew leaves into his water, which changed colour. Shen Nung was a scientific kind of chap, so he experimented, and discovered something pretty tasty. In reality, this leaf-juice was probably far different to what we drink today, because our tea goes through a carefully timed process of cutting and drying before it arrives in our mugs. And the story probably isn’t true, anyway.
Tea plants were not common in China until during the Tang dynasty around the year 600 AD, when a lot more plants were found. The Chinese government really encouraged the drinking of tea, as it had apparent health benefits and, of course, made China money. Tea spread to Japan via priests studying in China, who returned and created the Japanese tea ceremony, based on the idea that sitting down and sharing tea can bring peace between people. And honestly, I feel a lot less grumpy with my mother if she brings me a cuppa. Extra points if there’s a Gingernut.

Tea slowly spread all over the world, and today is iconically British. In fact, tea only arrived in Britain in the 17th century, brought to England by the Dutch, who got it from the Portuguese during the Dutch-Portuguese War. The four main producers of tea today are China, India, Kenya, and Sri Lanka. Almost all tea is harvested by hand twice a year, first in early spring, and again in summer. The plants must be cared for and pruned all year round, but when it comes to picking, only the two top leaves and the bud from each plant are harvested. The tea you drink is probably from a plant that has been thriving for years. The picked leaves are taken to a factory on the plantation. It has to be close, as oxidation starts right away, which can affect the taste of the tea. Different teas often have differing levels of oxidation.
Here’s a twist: black, green, oolong (actually pronounced “woo-long”), and the rare white tea are all from the same plant: Camellia Sinensis, otherwise known as the tea bush.
Different varieties of tea are determined by how the tea is picked and processed. Some teas have things added, like Earl Grey, which is black tea mixed with the essential oil of bergamot orange.
Black tea is the most popular, and counts for 75% of all tea production. It is picked, cut, and then dried, during which it turns from green to the familiar reddish-brown. Green tea uses much the same process, but is steamed instead of dried. This stops the oxidation process, which is the stage which turns the leaves brown, which is why green tea stays green. Oolong tea, which is more common in Asian countries than Western, falls between black and green, and is oxidised and then steamed, too. White tea, which has only been available outside of China for a few years, is only picked two days out of the year, before the buds are open. It’s then processed in a similar way to green tea.
Despite the name, herbal teas are not tea, as they contain no tea leaves and are actually just steeped herbs or fruit. Surprisingly, chai is tea, and is made from spices mixed with black tea. The recent darling of the health food industry (apart from kale, and fuck kale) is matcha. This is simply green tea ground down, usually by hand, to a fine powder. The tea bushes are covered from sunlight in the 20 days before harvest, so the plants produce more chlorophyll (if you recall Year 12 biology), and thus more of the amino acid, L-Theanine, which is thought to promote relaxation.
The health benefits of tea are general knowledge, but surprisingly lack evidence. Green tea especially is high in antioxidants, which we assume are super good for us. This is based on the idea of antioxidants fight free radicals in our bodies. Free radicals are little oxygen molecules floating around trying to rip other oxygen molecules away from our body’s existing atoms to become stable (Year 13 chem, anyone?). According to the free radical theory of aging, our body wears down due to this cellular destruction, and antioxidants were meant to provide spare oxygen molecules for the free radicals to steal. Free radicals are a real thing, but antioxidants have recently come under debate. Experiments on genetically modified mice have shown that mice who are altered to have less susceptibility to free radicals do not actually live longer than normal, and national regulatory agencies like the FDA are now taking a skeptical view of unsupported claims in their nutrition recommendations.
Despite the current uncertainty around whether or not antioxidants are as good as they’re made out to be by companies trying to sell us things, it is scientifically agreed that, at least, they shouldn’t hurt you.

We can’t explain it, but historically tea is correlated with benefits such as lower blood pressure and less risk of heart disease. But perhaps people who drink tea just generally live healthier lives? Hey, better safe than sorry.
No matter the health benefits of tea, it is generally agreed, as my mother has clearly figured out, that tea works as a refresher, a relaxor, and a comforter. It’s my go-to in almost every situation. Studying? Cup of tea. Bad day? Cup of tea. Friend’s boyfriend cheated on her? Cup of tea. Hot or cold, milk or sugar, tea is there for us. And thanks Mum, I will take another Gingernut with that.

• Coffee contains 80-120 mg of caffeine per mug. A mug of black tea has 20-60mg
• New Zealand consumed 1.19kg of tea per capita in 2016, making us the 6th highest consuming country
• Turkey was number 1 with 3.16kg
• China, surprisingly, was only 19th

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