By Lori Foster of Spice of Life

As you lean in and take those first deep breaths, your senses awaken to the energy and charm of that satisfying cup of tea. Steeped in tradition and infused with complexity, tea continues to be the most widely consumed beverage in the world today.

The most famous tea-producing regions today are China, Japan, India, Sri Lanka, Africa, Indonesia and Taiwan. Fascinating links between modern tea drinking and ancient China weave back through history to 2737 BC.

Camellia sinensis, an evergreen plant with delicate, creamy white flowers and sturdy, green leaves is responsible for the many varieties of tea. The character, color and flavor of each are determined by a long list of variable factors including location of the plantation, altitude, climate, soil, cultivation methods and how the leaf is processed.

Six different categories of tea include white, yellow, green, oolong, black and puerh (pronounced pooh-air), each having their own specific qualities. Herbal teas, or tisanes, are not actually “tea” and are not made from the camellia Sinensis plant. They consist of other roots, flowers, leaves and seeds.

White tea, named after the tiny white hairs that cover the buds, are plucked, dried in the sun and are the least-processed of all teas. They are champagne-colored teas with a soft, delicate flavor.

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Yellow teas are among China’s rarest teas, named after the yellow hue from the special type of paper the tea was wrapped in.

Green tea (unoxidized) involves a short period of withering the leaves, steaming or pan-firing to stop the oxidation and a series of rollings and firing to shape and dry the leaf. It provides a clean, grassy cup of golden infusion.

Oolong tea (partially oxidized) are pale, amber-colored teas with soft, fruity characteristics. Taiwan is best known for their exquisite Oolongs.

Black tea (fully oxidized leaves) delivers a full-bodied, copper-colored infusion. The leaves are put through a special rolling machine that presses and twists them, breaking down the cells and releasing natural juices and chemicals that will advance the oxidation process.

Puerh tea, exclusively in China for centuries, is an aged, fermented black tea with an earthy, mature character, rich and woody. Most Puerh yield 5-8 infusions. Puerh tea has the unique quality of improving with age.

Brewing styles and equipment vary. The general technique to brew a satisfying cup of tea is to bring fresh, clean water to a boil, measure the desired amount of tea (1-2 tsp. per cup) and add to an infuser. Pour water over the leaves and steep.

A few brewing tips to keep in mind: Never pour boiling water over green tea (they prefer cooler water, 165-185 degrees) and only steep 1-2 minutes. Typically, the darker the tea the more robust flavor and greater amount of caffeine. Black, puerh, and oolong teas can steep 3-5 minutes and can withstand the hotter temperatures.

There are important differences in the way our body absorbs caffeine in coffee and caffeine in tea. Coffee caffeine goes instantly into our circulatory system, jolting us into wakefulness, causing our heart to beat faster and blood to pump more vigorously. Caffeine in tea is released much more slowly and takes 15-20 minutes to absorb. It goes gently into our central nervous system, helps heighten our senses and gives greater mental alertness. The effects of tea caffeine tapers off slower over a longer period of time than coffee caffeine.

Ever since Shen Nong discovered the stimulating and detoxifying properties of tea some 4,000 years ago, people have been interested in its medicinal properties. Although some of the health properties of tea were recognized by Chinese medicine a very long time ago, it is only recently that modern science has confirmed these benefits. It is sparking a lot of interest, particularly in the areas of cancer prevention and the treatment of degenerative and cardiovascular disease.

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Recent studies around the world have given evidence that tea has tangible health benefits. Tea contributes to longevity, stimulating heart function, strengthening the immune system and preventing cell mutations. Consuming tea on a daily basis may help increase concentration, mental sharpness, aid digestion, eliminate fatigue and many other everyday ailments.

Because of the different processing methods, each tea has different benefits. Green teas are the highest in antioxidants and can help protect against certain age-related diseases. Puerh and Oolong are helpful in reducing blood cholesterol and weight loss while black tea is more effective as a physical stimulant.

As we become more familiar and appreciate the individual nuances of tea, the intimate relationship between us and nature grows. The art of tea releases its beauty in every harmonious cup.

Lori Foster is a spice purveyor and owns Spice of Life in downtown Paso Robles. Exploring spices, herbs and teas has been a long time passion. Please feel free to e-mail her (lifeofspice@charter.net) and let her know if there is a particular spice you would like to her to feature.

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