Updated: Jul 4, 2020
Wu Zetian, China’s one and only empress, was one of the most controversial figures in the history of ancient China. She reclaimed lost lands, imprisoned innocent people (and some not so innocent) to gain power, improved the public education system, cut out layers of bureaucracy, and reformed the agriculture system.
Someone might disagree, but one of her greatest achievements was to re-open the Silk Road, which at the time was the main route that connected the world of east and the west. People carried not only silk in those caravans, but also tea and many other precious goods. Tea traveled from east to west as a luxury item that only the richest Europeans could afford. It was used as medicine to mix with ginger and onion to cure mild diseases. After thousands of miles of travel, the world got to hold a cup of warmth in its palm and opened its eyes to the world of Chinese tea culture.
Tea connects the past to the present, but to study tea is to study time.
Time stands still in Yunnan Province, China, which is said to have one of the oldest tea plants in the world. Some have claimed that this plant is 1,300 years old, while some have said it is 3,200 years old. One thousand years is long enough to erase the memory of even the greatest humans, such as the emperors of ancient China who longed for immortality. They are long gone, but tea stands the test of time.
Lu Yu, the Sage of Tea, spent ten years researching tea and he wrote the first known monograph on tea in 760 CE. Of tea’s benefits, he wrote:
“…. If having a fever, thirst, headache, dry eye, feeling weak in limbs, or joint pain, taking four to five drinks of tea is as effective as drinking the finest cream and honeydew.”
Today, scientists have studied the health benefits of tea and found that tea can be effective in treating varies ailments such as heart disease, liver disease, obesity, and different types of cancer.
Tea is also well-documented in its effect on anti-aging benefits. Among all classes of tea, green tea contains an abundant amount of catechin, which has powerful antioxidant activity.
Upon harvesting, green tea is immediately placed under the sun or steamed to prevent fermentation. This process has two important purposes: first, it preserves the green color in the tea leaves and allows the leaves to stay green during the rolling and drying process; second, it preserves the natural phenolic compounds that provide anti-aging benefits, which are hard to find in other tea. These phenolic compounds mainly consist of catechin, which accounts for up to 31% of the dry leaf weight.
In studies using animal models, researchers found that green tea can prevent the growth of tumor cells, degenerate fat cells, and prevent liver damage. Green tea extract is also found to be effective in preventing oxidative stress and neurological problems.
Green tea is found to be linked to the prevention of many types of tumor cancer growth, such as cancers of the lungs, colon, esophagus, mouth, stomach, small intestine, kidneys, pancreas, and mammary glands (commonly found in older female dogs and cats).
Green tea is also found to reduce blood pressure, mainly because of its high catechin content. In turn, drinking green tea reduces the risk of stroke and heart disease, which are all linked to high blood pressure.
There are many great benefits of green tea, and I am only highlighting a small portion. To dive deep and study more about the scientific studies on green tea, check out this literature review, which is where I got most of the information that I shared in this article.
If all tea derives from the Camellia sinensis plant, then why is the color of tea so important? Earlier I mentioned that green tea is immediately sun-dried or steamed upon harvesting, and this process prevents the breakdown of catechin, which is the compound that provides so many health benefits. The green color is not only the symbol of one class of tea, but it also shows the uniqueness of green tea and distinguishes green tea from all other classes of tea.
A group of researchers in Korea became interested in the correlation between caffeine intake (such as tea and coffee) with depression. In 2018, a study investigated 9,576 participants in Korea and found that participants who regularly consumed tea and coffee have a lower chance of showing signs of depression.
For a long time now, green tea has also gotten attention for its effects on weight loss. A study done in 2007 on a group of men shows that EGCG from green tea catechins has the potential to increase fat oxidation—in other words, fat burning. However, this study was done with a small sample size of six men, so the sample size was both too small and not diverse in its demographic. Studies have been done on animals, however, that have found a fat oxidation effect with green tea. However, because human biology is vastly different from animals, conducting such research is costly and challenging on many levels. Thus, even though science understands the chemical component of green tea and its positive effect on human health, more throughout research needs to be done to conclude such a claim.
Green tea is frequently compared with coffee, but green tea contains about 33% of the caffeine that exists in coffee. If you want a boost of energy, drink coffee, but if you want a mild and pleasant “pick me up,” green tea is your friend.
Matcha, or green tea powder, is widely popular in China for baking and cooking. Originally from China, matcha is used in tea ceremonies and is beloved in traditional Japanese cuisine. The price of matcha varies widely, depending on how the green tea powder will be used. The more expensive varieties, such as the ones used in Japanese tea ceremonies, are more exquisite and flavorful. Culinary grade matcha can be used in cake, ice cream, boba tea, and everyday drinking. To make an ounce of matcha, fresh tea leaves must be individually steamed and deveined. Then the steamed leaf is dried before it is ground on a stone mill. The mill must stay cool over the course of its long grinding process in order to protect the flavors and quality of the tea. Specific types of tea plants are required for harvesting leaves that will become matcha. It’s best when matcha is made from older tea plants (thirty years and older) with large leaves. Before harvesting, tea plants are covered in shade for three weeks before plucking. In short, matcha is powdered tea, but the process is much more exquisite than simply grinding leaves into powder.
Lu Yu, the Sage of Tea, not only studied every aspect of tea, but he also examined different types of water used brewing tea. Scholar Zhang Youxin recorded a true story of Lu Yu. When Lu Yu was traveling and gathering research for his book The Classic of Tea, the governor of the state (州刺史) Li Jiqin invited him to board a ship with him. Li Jiqin heard that the water from Nanling, which is near the source of Yangtze River, was perfect for brewing an amazing cup of tea, so he ordered his servant to sail there and bring some back for tea. The servant took a small boat and went on his way. On the way back, though, the turbulence of the boat spilled half of the water. The servant didn’t have the patience to go back, and he didn’t think that anyone could tell the difference in water! So he took the jug and scooped some water from the river. When Lu Yu tasted the water, immediately he said: “This water came from the river water nearby, not the water from Nanling.” The servant was amazed and humbled, so he kneeled and told Lu Yu the truth. Lu Yu was right: the quality of water is as important as the quality of the tea we are brewing. I urge you to try it out with tap water, then with purified water—you will taste the difference.
There are different boiling methods for preparing green tea. For the sake of staying on topic, I will talk about just one aspect of boiling, which is the temperature. As for water temperature, it’s best to keep it between 170 – 180 °F (77 – 82 °C). Let the water and green tea leaves meet for 2 – 3 minutes. Unlike black tea, green tea can be steeped several times.
Besides brewing tea, green tea leaves can be used in cooking. In China, desserts containing green tea are very popular. Growing up, grandma allowed me to eat very little sugary food, but I always got a pass on green tea ice cream. You can soak chicken in green tea leaves to make the chicken juicier and more tender. You can also cook eggs in green tea leaves to make a popular Chinese side dish. Bubble tea is made of green tea and milk. Tea is far more integrated in Chinese and Japanese culture, and these are just a few examples.
At one point in history, tea was a great trade secret. Transporting the tea buds out of China was strictly forbidden for many years. In 1848, the great British botanist Robert Fortune sneaked into one of the great Chinese tea gardens disguised as one of the Chinese men and stole tea industry secrets from China. Very much like China, the UK has a tea culture of its own. But despite having access to the same technique and tea buds, every region has its unique geographic properties and thus produces unique teas of its own. I grew up in the southeast part of China where the warm weather gives tea plants the perfect opportunity to prosper. There are tens and thousands of green teas from around the world, but I am going to give a brief introduction to two of my favorites.
Long Jin (Dragon Well)
The authentic Dragon Well comes from Zhejiang province in a district called Xi Hu (West Lake) in the city of Hangzhou. Hangzhou is warm and humid, and although it can get quite cold in January, the temperate rarely dips below freezing and the winter is mild. Hangzhou is one of the most popular tourist destinations for its nice climate in spring, summer, and fall. The nice climate in Hangzhou also produces one of the most famous teas. Dragon Well grows in the mountain range of Hangzhou where it gets plenty of rain and sunshine. Dragon Well is graded from supreme quality (highest grade) then from grade 1 to 5. Supreme quality Dragon Well is produced under strict guidelines, so it can get quite expensive. Many tea merchants sell “Dragon Well” produced in other regions, but the authentic Dragon Well comes from Hangzhou.
Bi Luo Chun
The history of Bi Luo Chun can be traced back to 1000 years ago. Cultivated in Su Zhou, Jiangsu Province, this tea is famous for its fragrant aroma. To make a half kilogram of supreme quality Bi Luo Chun takes about 60,000 to 70,000 tea buds. Plucking starts early in the season when the tea leaves first sprout. After plucking, tea leaves must be individually inspected and deveined by hand. This process can take up to 2 to 4 hours for 1 kilogram of tea leaves.
Tea is one of the most interesting subjects to study. The first glimpse of tea is as old as Chinese civilization, yet we are still discovering more and more about tea. People have cheated and stolen for tea, but people also became humble upon studying tea. Tea connects the past to the future, building connections between friends and family. Tea is a family tradition, and also a royal ritual. Tea is now a luxury that everyone can afford. Tea was a medicine but is now a humble drink for everyday people. There are sages who wrote books about tea and poets who wrote songs about it. If the legend was real, the discovery of tea was a total accident. Like everything else in life, the most beautiful moments are unplanned and unexpected.
I hope you get a “pick me up” from a warm cup of tea when life brings you down. I hope you reflect your past, connect to your present, and hope for your future when you drink a cup of tea.
I hope you feel a lot of love.