It’s been a long day—homework, class, more homework. Time to relax.
I put my coat and books away, and head into the kitchen to boil some water. While the kettle is warming up, I open the cupboard, grab a mug, then take a look at my tea selection. After some careful thought, I choose a Strawberry Secco: a Sencha green tea infused with, you guessed it, strawberries.
I open the bag and pour the loose leaves into the strainer. The kettle clicks. Once I’ve filled the mug with hot water, I stick the strainer in and wait.
Usually, I start my day with a cup of black coffee brewed in my French press. But when I need to unwind or guard against impending illness, it’s tea that I turn to.
And I’m not the only one.
Where It Comes From
What comes to mind when you think of tea? Gold-rimmed tea cups? Scones with clotted cream? Downton Abbey?
While doing research on the history of tea, I was fascinated by its origins and how there is more to this drink than afternoon tea parties.
Tea originated in ancient China, where it has been drunk since at least the third century BCE. Visiting Buddhist monks introduced tea to Japan around the eighth century CE. Portuguese traders and missionaries were the first Europeans to drink it, and the Dutch were the first Europeans to export it in the 17th century.
The East India Company began shipping tea to Britain in 1664, thanks to Charles II’s tea-loving Portuguese wife Catherine of Braganza. Unfortunately, tea was expensive and taxed heavily, so only the nobility could afford it. This led to smuggling, selling adulterated tea, and—in pre-revolution America—the infamous Boston Tea Party.
Eventually, the tea tax was dramatically reduced, making it accessible to lower-class citizens. After 1834, more tea was grown and exported from India. It even served as a morale booster during the First World War.
As interesting as the history is, the different varieties are even more so.
Most tea comes from the same plant, Camellia sinensis, but there are different ways of making it. While some types are marketed as having lower caffeine levels than others, the way and length of time it is steeped can also affect the caffeine content.
There are several steps in traditional tea processing. First, the leaves are harvested. Then, they’re left out on trays to wither or wilt. This is where they lose most of their moisture. Next, the leaves are bruised—through rolling, kneading, or crushing—before the next, and most important, step: oxidation.
Oxidation is where the tea leaves are exposed to air, so they can dry and darken. It determines the type of tea you’ll get: the darker the leaf, the stronger the tea. The process stops when the tea leaves are heated via steaming, baking, or pan-frying. The leaves are then dried and packaged for distribution.
Black tea is your popular English Breakfast and Earl Grey, Darjeeling and Ceylon. It typically has the most caffeine content thanks to the long oxidation process. Masala chai is a black tea beverage originating in India. It is prepared with milk, sugar, and spices such as ginger, cardamom, and black peppercorns.
Oolong tea is semi-oxidized, between 10-85%, so the caffeine content can vary significantly. Most oolong tea comes from China, including the well-known Wuyi tea from the Fujian Province. Taiwan produces the High Mountain Tea, sometimes called a Green Oolong.
White tea is generally considered the least oxidized tea, since it doesn’t go through the actual rolling or oxidation processes. However, since it is sun-dried, it does experience some oxidation. It has a delicate flavor and is pale yellow when brewed. Popular varieties include Yin Zhen Silver Needle and Darjeeling White Tea.
Green tea is minimally oxidized. There are different types, including matcha (powdered leaves), genmaicha (mixed with roasted brown rice), and sencha (steamed leaves). Most of the world’s green tea comes from China and Japan.
Herbal teas, including rooibos tea, and fruit teas (tisanes) aren’t actually teas. They contain dried fruits, flowers, herbs, roots, and spices, but no tea leaves, so they’re mostly caffeine-free.
Green and herbal teas have been touted as alternatives to modern medicines, boasting health benefits such as weight loss, rejuvenation, and fighting off diseases.
What It Does
How strong is the science behind the health claims?
I asked Dr. Katarine Holewa, a naturopathic physician and registered acupuncturist at VitaCare Natural Health Clinic. While teas have been used for healing for centuries, she warned that they’ve been overhyped by beauty and weight loss industries.
“[There] is no herb that will magically make you lose weight, increase libido, regrow hair, look 10 years younger,” she said. “Not overnight, not even [in] a week.”
So-called “wellness teas” may have proven benefits, but they also have potential side effects. Take the Chinese fermented tea pu-erh (pu’er), for example. Preliminary studies show that it promotes weight loss, boosts liver health, and inhibits cancer growth. However, due to its higher caffeine content and fermentation, it can also lead to insomnia, dizziness, dehydration, and diarrhea.
The South American yerba mate is also drunk for health reasons. It’s used as an alternative to coffee and is a source of nutrients and antioxidants. Other health benefits include reducing cancer, inhibiting inflammation, and promoting weight loss.
While yerba mate can be consumed by pregnant women, drinking it in excessive amounts could affect fetal development due to its high caffeine content. (Yerba mate has about the same amount of caffeine as coffee.)
Like with the pu-erh, yerba mate could cause stomach complaints. Drinking hot yerba mate and/or smoking it might potentially lead to certain cancers. After trying the Brasiliano variety, I may add that, while the leaves smell nice, the brewed yerba mate itself smells and tastes unpleasant.
On the other hand, herbal teas are underappreciated for their true health benefits, according to Dr. Holewa.
“[Many] people are not eager to embrace this form of healing until they try it,” she said.
She highlighted an overreliance on pharmaceuticals and the need for a “quick fix,” as well as a lack of trust in something so basic as tea. It’s a shame, Dr. Holewa said, since herbal teas have genuine health benefits, like peppermint tea’s energizing and uplifting effects, chamomile tea helping to get a good night’s sleep, and ginger tea for warming and as an antioxidant.
From my experience, drinking tea is a great way to “flush” out a cold or flu. Whenever my siblings and I have gotten sick, our mom has told us to “drink liquids,” which usually means hot tea. She’s also made ginger tea for us from scratch—it tastes as potent as it sounds.
Dr. Holewa uses detox tea as part of VitaCare’s whole body detoxification program. (A detox tea is drunk to help the body expel harmful toxins. This is different from a cleanse tea, which is drunk to lose weight.) In this program, she creates a personalized plan for her patients based on their medical history, health concerns, and diets.
She explained, “[Teas] are generally not expensive, there are many options, they are typically easy to find, and are often gentle enough for most people to be able to take.”
Dr. Holewa recommends that patients consult with a health professional for a personalized tea prescription. It’s a safer option, especially if they have health concerns, and will better guarantee the results they are looking for.
Where You Can Get It
Where can you find good tea? There are a few places in Nanaimo you can check out.
Tea Desire has two locations in Nanaimo: Woodgrove Centre (recently reopened) and Country Club. I’ve visited both and talked to Jasmine (at Country Club) and Josefina Chapman (at Woodgrove).
The chain was started in 2005 by Tony and Heidi Aupers, who grew up in Holland and Germany respectively. When they moved to Canada in 1996, they were surprised by the lack of specialty tea stores, so they decided to open their own.
The first store (now closed) was in Vernon. Besides the Nanaimo locations, they also have a store in Sicamous and an online service across Canada and the United States.
Tea Desire carries over 200 loose leaf teas, mostly from well-known European suppliers. There are the “Tea Desire” bulk loose leaf teas and the prepackaged “Tea Forte” kinds. The variety at the Country Club location alone is staggering. The chain also sells beautiful mugs, flavored sugars, spice mixes, and fair-trade goods.
Jasmine has a few recommendations: People easing out of the coffee habit can go for cafe latte (with caffeine). If they want to go cold turkey, they can get latte macchiato (without).
For people who don’t like tea but want to start drinking it for health reasons, they can choose any of the fruit infusions. And for those with a sweet tooth, like Jasmine herself, there’s the cinnamon-crème brûlée.
Chapman advises customers to pick teas that will suit their liking, whether fruity, spicy, or flowery. “All teas are good, but one must choose tea they will enjoy, and always look forward to having [at] their tea time.”
If you feel overwhelmed, there’s also Winston’s Tea Company Ltd. located at Country Club Centre. It has a smaller selection, and most teas are available in several sizes. The website contains information on tea, including tips on how to properly steep each type.
I spoke to an employee, Melissa, when I visited the shop. She told me that many customers appreciate the variety of tea and beautiful accessories, such as scarves and organza bags, that they sell. “You don’t have to be a tea lover to find something for yourself or someone else.”
What also stood out to me was the store’s aroma. During our conversation, a lady entered and remarked, “It smells wonderful in here!” It’s what a lot of people say when they visit.
In terms of tea recommendations, Melissa says that it depends on the day and what kind of tea she has on hand. She recommended the marketspice black tea and cranberry herbal tea to me, in particular. The variety packs and tea samplers are also a good bet for new tea drinkers.
“Come and check it out,” she says. “We’re always here [at Winston’s] to answer your questions.”
Back in my kitchen, it’s been five minutes and my tea is done steeping. I remove the strainer, dump out the tea leaves, and take a sip.
Green tea and fruit mixed together. Just what I need.
Fruit teas/tisanes are a good choice if you’re somewhat adventurous—strawberry, cherry, and apricot teas are some of my favorites. I’ve found green tea more of an acquired taste, but it’s nice and soothing.
In terms of health benefits, I did find that drinking at least two cups of green tea per day (with meals), paired with a regimen of 10,000 steps a day, helped me lose some weight.
Sampler packs and variety bags are a great way to try different teas without paying too much for something you might end up disliking. If you don’t have a strainer, check that what you’re getting is bagged instead of loose leaf. To fully embrace your tea journey, I recommend getting a strainer or tea ball. As a bonus, buying loose leaf tea is better for the environment.
It doesn’t matter whether you are new to tea or have a history with it, whether you drink it plain or sweetened with cream and sugar. Tea is for everyone!