Tea: A Story of Serendipity

Tea: A Story of Serendipity

As legend has it, one day in 2737 B.C. the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung was boiling drinking water over an open fire, believing that those who drank boiled water were healthier. Some leaves from a nearby Camellia sinensis plant floated into the pot. The emperor drank the mixture and declared it gave one "vigor of body, contentment of mind, and determination of purpose."

Perhaps as testament to the emperor's assessment, tea--the potion he unwittingly brewed that day--today is second only to water in worldwide consumption. The U.S. population is drinking its fair share of the brew; in 1994, Americans drank 2.25 billion gallons of tea in one form or another--hot, iced, spiced, flavored, with or without sugar, honey, milk, cream, or lemon.

A serving of tea generally contains about 40 milligrams of caffeine (less than half as much caffeine as in coffee), but the actual levels vary depending on the specific blend and the strength of the brew. Decaffeinated tea is also available.

Many tea drinkers find the beverage soothing, and folk medicine has long valued it as a remedy for sore throats and unsettled stomachs. Recent studies have shown that certain chemicals in tea called polyphenols may help reduce the risk of far more serious illnesses, including atherosclerosis and some cancers, although the data are not conclusive. (See "Tonic in a Teapot?")

Black, Green and Oolong

Two leaves and a bud at a time--This is the secret of fine tea picking. The work is done chiefly by women, who carry light bamboo baskets strapped to their backs.

Tea comes in black, green and oolong varieties, all produced from the leaves of Camellia sinensis, a white-flowered evergreen. The method of processing the leaf distinguishes the three types. (Herbal teas are made from leaves of other plants. FDA requires that herbal tea labels carry the name of the plant the product derives from, such as chamomile. For more on herbal teas, see "Herbal Teas and Toxicity" in the May 1991 FDA Consumer.)

The traditional method of producing black tea begins with withering. The plucked leaves are placed on shelves called withering racks, where excess moisture is removed. They are then rolled in special machines that release the leaves' enzymes and juices, which give tea its aroma and taste. Next, the leaves ferment in a room with controlled temperature and humidity; finally they are dried in ovens. More recently some processors have forsaken the traditional method to speed production by using machines that finely chop the leaves, thereby cutting the time for withering and fermenting.

Green tea is made by steaming or otherwise heating the leaves immediately after plucking to prevent the fermentation that makes black tea. Then the leaves are rolled and dried.

Oolong tea is fermented only partially--to a point between black and green. While the leaves wilt naturally, enzymes begin to ferment them. Processors interrupt the fermentation by stirring the leaves in heated pans, then rolling and drying them.

Different varieties of Camellia sinensis grow in different geographic areas and produce leaves that vary from a very small China leaf, perhaps one-half to three-quarters of an inch long, to the Assam leaf, which may be 3 or 4 inches long. Certain varieties are better suited than others for a particular processing method. For example, the China leaf from China and Formosa produces the best oolongs.

Scented and spiced teas are made from black tea. "Scented teas look just like any other tea," says FDA chemist and tea expert Robert Dick, "because the scent is more or less sprayed on. They're flavored with just about anything--peach, vanilla, cherry. The spiced teas, on the other hand, usually contain pieces of spices--cinnamon or nutmeg or orange or lemon peel--so you can see there's something in there."

What about orange pekoe? Orange pekoe refers to the size of the tea leaf. Processed tea leaves are sorted into sizes by passing them over screens with different size holes. The largest leaves are orange pekoe, pekoe, and pekoe souchong. The smaller or broken leaves are classified as broken orange pekoe, broken pekoe souchong, broken orange pekoe fannings, and fines (also called "dust").

In brewing, flavor and color come out of the larger leaves more slowly than out of the broken and fine grades. The broken grades, which make up about 80 percent of the total black tea crop, produce a stronger, darker tea. The grades have nothing to do with the quality or flavor of tea; they simply refer to leaf size.

"Technically, except for fannings and fines, the terms should apply only to black, or fermented, tea," Dick says, "but nowadays I often see oolongs labeled "orange pekoe," and even some green teas are labeled pekoe or flowery pekoe."

Tea tastes vary, and one aficionado who squirts lemon in his cup may cringe at the sight of another pouring milk or honey. But no matter how the tea may be doctored, in the United States the odds are overwhelming that it starts out black. Nearly 95 percent of all tea consumed here is black, according to the New York City-based Tea Council of the U.S.A.; 4 percent is green, 1 percent oolong, and 1 percent flavored.

That wasn't always the case, and our proclivity for drinking black tea over green or oolong may have been influenced by events in history. Sixty years ago and more, the amount of black and green tea Americans drank was split fairly evenly--each accounting for about 40 percent of the market--with oolong constituting the rest. During World War II, however, the major sources of green tea--China and Japan--were cut off from the United States, leaving us with tea almost exclusively from British-controlled India, which produces black tea. Americans came out of the war drinking nearly 99 percent black tea.

With the Korean War in the 1950s, uncertainties about tea supplies resurfaced, and the United States began to look for other suppliers.

"Argentina filled the bill," Dick says, "because tea could grow very fast there. Although the country didn't produce an outstanding tea, it produced a good average tea."

Today, most of our tea comes from Argentina, China (which got back into the U.S. market in 1978), and Java. Thirty years ago most of it came from India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Argentine black tea is the kind most used for iced tea, and that's another reason black tea dominates the U.S. market.