I was nourished into being by the sweet, robust rooibos tea sipped by my mother during her pregnancy. “So much rooibos,” she would say that even a whiff of it could catapult her back into birthing baby me. It is no wonder I am, and always have been, a tea person. Knowing that this warm, sweet brew was once enjoyed by the descendants of the very first Homo sapiens, the indigenous San tribes, warms my heart. What a privilege to grow up in the majestic Cape Floral Kingdom with all its healing herbs that we now enjoy as delicious teas. Knowing where tea comes from, who drank it, how it was traditionally prepared and what the benefits are has deepened my appreciation and love of tea, and I hope it will do the same for you!
Oh beloved tea, where to begin? Tea for tummy ache, tea for heartbreak, tea for afternoon cake, tea for morning wake, tea for evening sleep, tea for midnight weep… there is never not a good time to enjoy a comforting ‘cuppa.’ When people ask me what my favourite tea is I laugh knowing that it would be absurd to have a single favourite for I have a favourite tea for every different time of day, mood, season, cycle. Green to wake up, Nettle for lunch, Earl Grey with cake, Rooibos to wind down… Should I make an experimental brew of buchu? Or raspberry leaf to calm the cramps. Need a boost of energy… yerba mate anyone?
But where did it all begin? ‘This aromatic beverage of hot water over cured leaves.’ This cult-like adoration of a practice that is so diverse and so far reaching. One story goes that in 2737 BC (a very, very long time ago) the Chinese Emperor, Shen Nung was sitting beneath a tree about to sip his boiling water when suddenly some leaves from a nearby shrub blew into his cup. Known as the ‘Divine Healer,’ the emperor decided to taste this accidental brew and was pleasantly surprised by its flavor. The leaves were those of Camellia sinensis, our most common source of tea leaves today. The history of tea is long and complex spreading across multiple cultures over thousands of years, all with a common thread that sees tea as a pleasurable break in the mundanity of our everyday existence, a medicinal drink good for the body and good for the soul.
Tea has always been considered a “healthy” choice, confirmed by Emperor Shen Nung all those years ago when he added Camellia sinensis to the fifty fundamental herbs in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Whether it be the warming, soothing sensation as it slips down your throat or the grounding ritual that comes with preparation, or perhaps it is the magical properties of the plant itself… let’s look at some of our most popular teas and their benefits.
Camellia sinensis is our most common tea source whose leaves and leaf buds make up white tea, yellow tea, green tea, oolong, black and pu-erh tea. The two strains of Camellia,native to South East Asia and the Indian Subcontinent, are processed with varying levels of oxidation to create our most common tea types. Green tea has the highest amount of antioxidants (polyphenols) and is generally considered the ‘healthiest’ of the group. These polyphenols are what cause the anti-inflammatory, analgesic and anti-cancer health benefits. Catechins are an example of one of the beneficial polyphenols found in varying yields depending on the type of green tea. The chalky delicious powder that is matcha has one of the highest yields of catechins due to the entire leaf being ingested. These antioxidants are said to be anti-cancerous and can prevent further growth of tumours by inhibiting the oxidation of molecules and reducing free radical cell damage.
Some teas are said to help with headaches depending on their levels of caffeine. Green tea is considered ‘healthier’ as it has a lower caffeine content compared to black tea or coffee. Small amounts of caffeine can help soothe headaches as it is believed that the “vasoconstrictive” properties of caffeine cause a restriction of blood flow, aiding in head pain relief. The opposite is also true whereby too much caffeine can cause addiction and withdrawal symptoms can show up as strong headaches. This is why one should be sensible in their caffeine intake and break up their choices with herbal non-caffeinated teas too.
Tannins give tea their bitter astringent quality which aid in digestive issues such as leaky gut or IBS. Our gut health (the microbiome) contributes to our overall immune system health and is proving to be a big determiner in our overall mental health. The tannins in tea tone and tighten gaps in the gut lining, and the bitter flavour encourages liver secretions and enzymatic productions, improving overall digestion and elimination. There are also certain brewable plants containing other compounds, which help specifically with digestions and soothing of the gut, such as peppermint, ginger and fennel.
What better way to unwind from our over-stimulating society than with the subtle charm of a calming cup of tea? As we have seen teas can be invigorating, teas can be digestive, but teas can also be relieving. Chamomile, with its sweet smelling blossoms, is said to induce relaxation by binding to GABA receptors in the brain. Similarly, valerian root has hypnotic and sedative effects with natural muscle relaxants, great for those suffering from insomnia or overwork. An ancient ayurvedic herb which is another wonderful anxiety ally is ashwagandha. This Indian adaptogen helps the body manage stress by reducing cortisollevels and balancing the bodies stress responses.
How we consume tea is dependent on the type of tea being drunk and the customs and rituals of the culture it came from. Some drink their tea plain, others with milk and sugar, sometimes there are special tea-holding vessels other times just a big mug. Victorian England distinguished those who had a “proper” upbringing by the way in which they drank their tea. For me, tea is a ritual, a practice of being present with a process, a kind of meditation where I get to appreciate and savour the complete tea drinking experience.
The seeping of tea is an art and can get tea drinkers in quite a debate over what timing is best. For black tea I would suggest two to three minutes, as the darker blends tend to have higher levels of tannins, and whilst tannins have benefits, too much can cause bitterness. Earl Grey, black tea infused with bergamot, allows for a tangy yet malty flavour that is quintessentially British (but actually originates from China.) This tea was traditionally drunk by the royals, the rich and the elite often served during political meetings – a great tea to bring out during family feuds.
Green tea is all about temperature. If the water is boiling it will destroy some of the delicate aromas and release too many tannins (that dreaded bitterness). Tannins dissolve at 80°C whilst amino acids, which give the tea its aromas and sweetness, dissolve at 60°C, therefore, a temperature between those two is generally ideal. To achieve this one can let boiling water sit for 2-5 minutes before adding tea leaves. Steeping green tea depends on the type of green you are drinking but around 1-3 minutes is generally okay.
And what about our beloved rooibos, or ‘red bush’ as they call it in London? Traditional red rooibos is harvested and meticulously oxidized to produce its delicious flavor profile of rich floral and sometimes smoky, sweet caramel notes. Because rooibos has no tannins and is a hardy blend with twigs included, a generous seeping time is encouraged to ensure a full flavour profile. Rooibos can be seeped for up to twelve minutes, most commonly done for five to six minutes, but for me I let it brew overnight, creating more of a nourishing herbal infusion.
So why the overnight soak you may ask? Well, when it comes to non-caffeinated herbal teas such as rooibos, nettle, oat straw, buchu (another native South African tea) or hibiscus one can be generous with their brewing time (and the amount of dry leaf matter) because the longer the leaves soak, the greater the yield of proteins, minerals, phytoestrogens and special fats. Our tea has now become a powerhouse of nourishment and energy far outweighing any supplemental vitamin or mineral. A low calorie, nutrient-dense ‘meal’ in a cup at a lower cost than your average green juice and far easier to digest? Yes please. Drinking ‘nourishing herbal infusions’ every day will reward you great health benefits. Of course, a shorter brewing time for a quick herbal tea works too.
Yerba mate, a South American medicinal tea, is one of my favourites because of the ritualistic way in which it is drunk. Mate is made from the leaves and twigs of the Ilex paraguariensis plant and was traditionally drunk by the indigenous Guarani in an emptied calabash gourd and sipped through a silver straw, called a bombilla. There is a standing etiquette to sharing mate whereby the gourd is passed around to show signs of friendship and bonding. Mate is highly nutritious and because of its hardy nature, and the use of the bombilla, it can be kept in the gourd to seep for extended amounts of time and refilled with boiling water when needed.
When it comes to choosing our tea we must turn to the soil. Where and how tea is grown determines its nutritional and medicinal properties. Soil that has been stripped of nutrients due to mass monocropping and pesticide contamination lowers concentrations of micro-nutrients causing your tea to have an overall lower level of health benefits. Wild harvested, organically grown is my first choice. But sometimes a common ‘weed’ such as nettle grown in a forest nearby or a backyard that has been undisturbed can bring greater yields of micronutrients than one would expect.
Some teas decide soil for themselves, such as rooibos, who is a picky bush and only wants to grow in the perfectly balanced hot and dry climate of the Western Province region of South Africa - and nowhere else - despite efforts to reproduce her. Whilst this is great for our local farmers, the risks of climate change have disrupted the unique ecosystem components which rooibos needs in order to grow.
It is no wonder tea is the most popular beverage in the world consumed by almost every country with its great diversity of health benefits. It is comforting to know that ancient rituals of tea drinking are still being preserved and passed down today. Being mindful of where our tea comes from and how this may affect its overall health benefits is an important consideration when choosing tea. My hope is that even in our fast-paced world of instant gratification, we may seize the opportunitea,to slow down, take a pause and savour a delicious cup of freshly brewed tea.