Bring Me My Tea

By / Wine + Drinks / February 17th, 2008 / 1

Tea is an amazing beverage. A water-based infusion of leaves (and sometimes flowers, dried fruit, spices and other flavouring agents), it’s one of those rare items that’s both delicious and healthful. Stained pottery remains suggest that people have been drinking tea since the Stone Age, before such things could be written about. Chinese emperor Shen Nung did write about it in Pen ts’ao, one of the world’s first medical texts (2,737 BC). Buddhist monks brought it to Japan in 805 AD. The first tea shipment to Canada arrived in 1716. Clearly, this drink was loved all over the world — while hot chocolate, cola and coffee were still just a gleam in some Inca’s eye.

Various cultures have regarded tea highly enough to construct elaborate rituals around drinking it. Japan’s Cha No Yu ceremony, which dates back to the 1600s, involves thirty seven steps — ranging from how the cups are washed and the tea prepared to the food which accompanies the drink and how it is presented. Like many Japanese cultural traditions, Cha No Yu is a refinement of a 500-year-older Chinese text, the Ch’a Ching, dedicated to the proper preparation of tea.

This ancient brew came into my life with Alice in Wonderland and the Mad Hatter’s tea party. It wasn’t long until my little friends and I started having make-believe parties. (Half the fun was getting the other girls’ brothers to participate!) Most Canadian women were introduced to tea equally early in life. This has left us (and some of those little brothers) with a deep personal attachment to this brewed beverage. Unlike coffee, which is often hastily drunk, tea is for sipping in solitary meditation or with your friends. Zen masters would approve.

So, apparently, do Canadian consumers. From 1991 to 2003, our annual per capita consumption just about doubled (from 42 to 81 litres). We’re drinking it for breakfast, during the day, at dinner, and — well, just sitting around. While we enjoy the taste, we’re also increasingly aware that tea is a healthy drink. It’s relatively low in caffeine, contains no calories, is free of additives and preservatives and is naturally rich in antioxidants. The latter are chemicals that remove vessel-shredding free oxygen radicals from the body and reduce our risk of cancer and heart disease. (For you chemists out there, black tea is rich in theaflavins and thearubigens, while the green varieties are chock full of catechins. These are pretty much the same type of molecules as wine’s resveratrol.)

Most of the world’s tea is harvested from the camellia sinensis plant grown extensively in India, Kenya, China, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Countless tea varieties exist, each with its own distinctive flavour and aromas. There are five basic types, however: green, black, white, oolong, and blended.

Green tea consists of unfermented leaves which are steamed and fired (dried) immediately after picking. The best-known unblended varieties are Chun Mee, Dragon Well, Gunpowder, Gyokuru, Pingsuey, Young Hyson and Yunan Tipped.

Black tea is allowed to wither and brown before firing. This family includes Assam, Ceylon, Ching Wo, Darjeeling, Flowery and ordinary Orange Pekoe, Kenya, Lapsang Souchong, Russian and Yunnan.

White tea is made from new growth buds or young leaves. It is steamed and dried immediately after harvesting. It is a specialty of the Chinese province Fujian. Silver Needle and White Peony are two of the highest grades sold in Canada.

Oolong tea is semi-fermented, with such well-known examples as Black Dragon, Formosa Oolong, and Mainland Oolong.

Blended teas are perhaps the best known type in Canada. Familiar varieties include Chinese restaurant teas, Dragonmoon, English Breakfast, Lady Londonderry, Prince of Wales and Irish Breakfast.

Whichever type of tea you plan to drink, prepare it correctly. Start with fresh cold water. Bring it to a rolling boil in the kettle. Then heat your teapot with fresh hot water. Empty it out and add the tea (one rounded teaspoonful per cup and “one for the pot” if you’re making six cups or more) in an infuser or tea ball. Tea bags will do in a pinch, but measuring is more difficult. Pour on the boiling water and allow the brew to steep for three minutes. Then remove the infuser (or, if you poured the water directly over the loose tea, transfer the tea to another pot) to prevent over-steeping.

Nowadays, as with coffee, a number of devices and systems are available for even simpler brewing.

Cuisinart Cordless Automatic Electric Kettle ($99.50)

  • 1500 watts for quick heating
  • ergonomic handle for comfort
  • 1 3/4 quart (1.7 litre) capacity
  • concealed heating element prevents calcium build up
  • automatic shutoff feature
  • stainless-steel mirror-finish exterior
  • limited three-year warranty

Keurig Single-Cup Brewer (B50) & K Cups ($159)

  • 1500 watt gourmet single-cup home-brewing system
  • one-touch brewing system
  • uses convenient nitrogen flavour-sealed K-cups
  • works in conjunction with tea or coffee K-cups
  • (can be ordered online at

My Lian Teapot and Warmer by Ritzenhoff ($110) and My Lian Tea Bowls and Saucers ($75)

  • beautifully designed wafer-thin bone china
  • features graphic and figurative interpretations of Far Eastern flair
  • four different teapot designs
  • space in the little bowl for the tea strainer to hold loose tea — simply put the cup, bowl and strainer into one another
  • dishwasher safe

Bodum Assam 32 oz Tea Press ($36.95)

  • patented press system completely stops the brewing process
  • heat-resistant borosilicate glass
  • drip-less spout
  • durable stainless-steel Filter
  • dishwasher safe

Bodum Ceylon Ice Tea Maker with Infuser ($19.50)

  • All-in-one tea brewing system
  • removable infuser stops the brewing process
  • can be used to make infused drinks (e.g. sangria)
  • durable acrylic, safe for outdoor use
  • filter lid locks in flavour and keeps out refrigerator odours
  • space-saving oval shape, will fit in most fridge-door shelves

Sheila Swerling Puritt is a recognized judge at national and international wine, spirit and food competitions. She has maintained an ongoing love affair with the industry dating back to university and has taught in Sommelier programs. She was also President of the Wine Writers Circle of Canada.

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