WICHE: How to read your tea leaves

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What makes tea what it is.

By Jeneen Wiche

We visited friends in Boulder, Colo., during the Christmas holidays and had an opportunity to visit the Celestial Seasonings Tea Company that is headquartered there. In fact, this one factory produces all of the company’s tea sold worldwide.

Celestial Tea had humble beginnings with a group of  “passionate young entrepreneurs” (i.e. hippies in 1969) who began collecting herbs from the slopes of the Rocky Mountains and crafted their own herbal teas to sell to local health-food stores. Today Celestial Seasonings is one of the largest specialty teas companies in North America.

By definition a true tea is an aromatic beverage made from steeping the cured leaves of Camillia sinensisin hot water. The legend surrounding the first cup of tea figures around the mythological Emperor Shen Nung.

Shen was quite remarkable. He was considered the father of Chinese medicine and agriculture (the first to invent the plow and introduce the cultivation of grains); he had a profound interest in plants and an experimental attitude that was made all the more revealing because he had a transparent stomach (better to understand the medicine side of things).

Traveling thorough his kingdom on a hot summer day more than 5,000 years ago, he paused to rest, and his servants boiled some water, which was a reasonable proposition to ensure that the water was safe to drink, and a gust of wind blew some dried camellia leaves into the kettle.

The curious emperor was more than willing to try the accidental concoction and found it to be refreshing and invigorating (a little dose of caffeine never hurt anyone!).

And so it began…tea is the mostly widely consumed beverage worldwide after water.

Tea types include a confusing array of different colors, combinations and ingredients. This how I have come to understand what I am drinking on any given morning.

The most common tea types are black, green, and white. These all come from the same plant, Camillia sinensis, which distinguishes them is the processing.

As soon as the tea leaves are plucked from the bushes, they begin to wilt and oxidize. In the most basic sense the leaves begin to change color as the chlorophyll breaks down, and tannins accumulate.

This process is called fermentation, and when the fermentation is stopped by applying heat, that is how tea becomes black or green.

So a black tea, which has the most caffeine, actually is heated as it is dried to allow for maximum drying and oxidation, which creates the black leaves.

Green tea is minimally heated right after picking with steam heat, which stops oxidation and allows the leaves to retain their green.

White tea is an altogether different animal. White tea is considered the tea of Emperors because it comes from the leaf buds of the tea bush.

Yes, before the leaves even unfurl in the spring, the silvery-white swollen leaf buds are harvested in small batches, are sun-dried and slightly heated to create a very subtle tea.

Teas are reputed to have flavonoid antioxidants, which has contributed to the increase in variety found on store shelves today. The competition is fierce (and confusing).

True tea comes from the tea plant, Camillia sinensis, so what is all that other stuff?

Rooibos, or “red bush,” comes from a South African mountain bush; herbal teas are infusions of fruit and herbs; and chai is a sweet to piquant mixture of teas, herbs and spices.

Chai is of Southeast Asian origin, and I consider it a drinkable version of a good Indian curry, which is just a mixture of various herbs and spices.

It is said that many Indian families have their own signature chai recipe.

Turns out that iced tea is a relatively new way to enjoy tea. It wasn’t until 1904 that iced tea came on the scene at the St. Louis World’s Fair, the same year that the tea bag was invented.

So how do you take your tea?