Why January is tea time

Published 12:23 pm Tuesday, January 30, 2024

By Steve Roark

Volunteer, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

With January being National Tea Month, and since most teas are derived from a tree, I thought I’d study up and share some things I did not know about the world’s most popular beverage.

In my research I got bogged down on the definition of tea. My best shot is that tea is made by steeping plant parts in boiling water, which if you want to get fancy is called an infusion. Usually when folks speak of tea, they are referring to a tea made from the tea plant (Camellia sinensis), an evergreen tree from which leaves and twigs are harvested and processed to make the ground up material you buy either in brewing bags or loose. China, India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya are the primary tea-producing countries.Lipton, Tetley, Bigelow, most of your major tea companies use a blend of several types of tea to create a certain flavor and smoothness. The most common kinds of tea you’ll run across are black (exposed to air over time to oxidize), green (not allowed to oxidize), and oolong (semi-oxidized). And there are lots of herbal teas that come from all manner of plants such as mint, chamomile, etc. These are referred to as tisane tea, a tea made from something other than the tea plant.

Other than water, tea is the most consumed drink on the planet. Its use spans thousands of years in China, but it didn’t make it to Europe until 1610 when the Dutch began importing it. Here in the U.S., it’s number two behind coffee, but its popularity is growing due in part to some health benefits.

It’s been known for some time that black and especially green tea contains antioxidants that help stave off cancer. What I didn’t know is that research is suggesting that tea consumption may help promote weight loss by increasing the amount of energy spent by the body. This is due to the presence of catechin, one of those antioxidants. According to one study drinking 3 cups of green tea per day showed a significant increase in the amount of fat being metabolized by the body for energy. Another study suggests that consuming tea can reduce the tendency to accumulate fat. Still another study showed that people drinking 3 cups of black tea per day produced 5 times the number of germ-fighting cells than non-tea drinkers, suggesting that tea drinkers can fight off viral infections better than non-drinkers.

Another thing I was hoping to learn in my research is how to make a really good cup of hot tea. So here are some of my gleanings: Heat your water quickly and use it as soon as it comes to a boil. When water is heated too slowly or over-boiled, it loses oxygen, which can cause tea to taste flat. Steeping time varies with the kind of tea you’re making. The recommendation for black tea is 3 to 4 minutes, for green 1-2 minutes, for oolong 2-3 minutes, and for herbal teas 5 to 7 minutes. If using loose tea, the suggested amount to use is 1 teaspoon per cup of water, or 3 tablespoons per pot. I’m using loose tea more and more and like to use one of those small metal tea balls to keep things neat. One other tidbit I got from a British citizen who drinks a lot of tea is to cover the teacup while steeping. Oh, and if you ask for tea with your meal anywhere but the south, it will likely come hot. Southerners like it cold and so sweet it hurts your teeth.

If you need to cut back a little on caffeine consumption, tea drinking may be for you. Drinking black tea over coffee drops caffeine consumption by two thirds, green tea by three quarters.

Steve Roark is a volunteer at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.