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Tea Time

What if we dumped all the tea in the world into the Great Lakes? A reader of the webcomic XKCD posed this question for a weekly column. How strong, compared to a regular cup of tea, would the lake tea be? The answer: pretty weak—the equivalent of two drops of tea in a bathtub. So, what size body of water would make a nice, strong cup of lake tea? And what about the problem of heating it, assuming you wanted hot tea? The author suggests that Frying Pan Lake in New Zealand—the world’s largest hot lake—would be a good candidate. New Zealanders consume 2,700 tons of tea per year. If this were all submerged in Frying Pan Lake at one time, they could brew their entire year’s tea supply in minutes. Seems like a reasonable plan to me.

If a lake’s worth of tea sounds a bit more than what you’re seeking, how about we explore some smaller ways to incorporate tea into our everyday lives? Plenty of people do it: on any given day, over half of the population of the United States drinks tea. Personally, as a tea drinker who feels like she’s surrounded by coffee culture, this statistic surprised me—until I learned that over 80% of tea consumed in the U.S. is iced. Of course! Americans are crazy for iced tea, but did you know that it began as a vehicle for alcohol? “Tea punch” was popularized in the early 19th century, and was first made with green tea.

The tea plant, Camellia sinensis, is native to Eastern and South Asia. In China, it was originally used medicinally, and was first consumed as a beverage during the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD). In Western culture, we also associate tea with the British, but it was not popularized in England until the 18th century. Prior to that, coffee was the ubiquitous beverage in England; there were 2,000 coffee houses in London by the early 1700s. However, coffee was seen as a man’s drink, whereas tea was considered socially acceptable for everyone to drink. Thomas Twining opened the first tea house in England in 1717, although tea didn’t become accessible as an everyday beverage for all classes in Britishsociety until the end of the 19th century.

Though the tea plant is native to India, it was the British who turned tea growing into an industry in India, as an attempt to compete with Chinese tea production. Tea became popular as a beverage (as opposed to a medicine) amongst Indians in the 1950s, after an advertising campaign from the India Tea Board.

China and India remain the two top tea producers worldwide, in terms of quantity, although tea is produced in over 40 countries.

So what’s with all the different types of tea?
First things first: a lot of beverages we call tea aren’t technically tea. Rooibos, yerba mate, chamomile, and anything marked “herbal,” all come from various plants that aren’t actually the tea plant. But green, black, white, yellow, oolong, pu-erh—all of these come from Camellia sinensis. So if they’re all the same plant, why do these types of tea differ from each other in flavor and appearance? Here’s a summary:

  • White tea consists of very young leaves and buds, and are lightly oxidized (left to sit out in the air before cooking)
  • Green tea is cooked immediately to prevent oxidation
  • Yellow tea is lightly oxidized, with a slower drying phase than green tea, which imparts the yellow color to the leaves
  • Oolong tea is partially oxidized (and the leaves are bruised before being left to sit out)
  • Black tea is fully oxidized (bruised, and left out longer than oolong)
  • Pu-erh tea can be processed either as green or black tea, but after processing, is dampened and allowed to ferment. It is then often pressed into cakes, which was traditionally done for easier transportation. Pu-erh can continue to ferment while it’s stored, sometimes for decades!

In some places, you might see oxidation in oolong and black teas referred to as fermentation. This is incorrect, since there is no bacterial or yeast action in the process of oxidizing oolong and black teas. Pu-erh is the only tea that is actually fermented.

Green tea is often touted as healthy, thanks to antioxidants called catechins present in the tea plant. Green teas typically have higher levels of catechins than oolong or black teas, since oxidation converts catechins into other substances. (White teas also have high levels of catechins since younger leaves generally have more.) Some of the health benefits from green tea are summarized as follows by the Book of Green Tea: “[S]tudies suggest that green tea may help lower the risk of cancer, inhibit aging, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, help lower blood sugar levels, fight viral infections, and even prevent cavities, bad breath, and gum disease.”

Matcha, which is powdered green tea, offers a concentration of health benefits, since the entire tea leaf is consumed.

Kombucha is a preparation of tea that has many of its own health claims. Kombucha is a fermented beverage, often effervescent, made from sweetened black tea with the addition of a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast). Advocates promote benefits to the immune system, anti-aging effects, and more. Several brands of kombucha are available at Willy Street Co-op, along with kits for brewing your own.

Remember that tea in any form is not a miracle cure, and should not be used to the exclusion of other healthful lifestyle choices and proper medical care.

All tea from the tea plant naturally contains caffeine, in varying amounts. (Tea marked as decaf has had the caffeine removed, but still contains small amounts.) It’s a common misconception that black tea has the highest levels of caffeine, followed by green tea, with white tea having the lowest. White tea actually has fairly high levels of caffeine, because it typically contains more buds, which have more caffeine than leaves do. As for green and black teas, caffeine levels vary from tea to tea. Some brands report the caffeine levels in their tea, but brewingtime is also a factor; the longer the leaves steeps, the higher the caffeine in the finished brew. Water temperature has a similar effect; hotter water releases more caffeine from the leaves. Smaller leaves also result in a higher level of caffeine in the final brew—so, tea that you brew from a tea bag filled with dust will result in a more caffeinated brew than tea made from whole leaves. Tea grown in shady areas is also higher in caffeine. Additionally, powdered teas that are consumed whole, such as matcha, offer all of their caffeine to the consumer rather than just part of it. These myriad factors mean it’s unrealistic to say that green tea always has less caffeine than black.

If tea makes you feel differently than coffee, it might be due to the L-theanine. This is an amino acid found in tea that boosts the effect of caffeine, which is why the amount of caffeine in tea may seem to have a greater effect than a similar amount of caffeine from another source. Also, L-theanine is thought to induce states of relaxation, which is why some people experience fewer jitters from tea than from coffee.

It’s another common misconception that you can naturally decaffeinate tea by steeping it briefly and throwing out the original water before re-steeping. A 1996 study showed that only 9% of caffeine is extracted in the first 30 seconds of steeping. After 3 minutes, 50% of the caffeine is removed, but it takes 15 minutes to remove 96% of the caffeine. In most cases, you aren’t going to be interested in tea brewed from leaves that have already been steeped longer than 15 minutes; what’s more, most of the beneficial antioxidants in tea actually do get released very early in steeping, so if you throw out the original infusion in hopes of decaffeinating, you will actually end up with fewer antioxidants but a very similar caffeine level to what you’d get by just steeping and drinking normally.

Global concerns
Harvesting tea is hard manual labor. It involves working in heat, at high altitude, for long hours. Tea pickers are often underpaid for their work; workers and even owners of tea plantations can end up living in poverty as tea companies profit. As consumers, if we are concerned about fair pay for the people lower down on the supply chain, we can focus our attention on certified Fair Trade producers and traders. For an overview of Fair Trade tea, check out This website highlights Rishi Tea as a leader in fair trade tea; as a bonus, it’s also a Wisconsin company. Check out Rishi Tea at Willy Street Co-op along with other brands that have fair trade offerings, including Equal Exchange, Tea Tibet, and Numi.

Recently, reports of lead contamination in Chinese-grown tea have been in the news. Industrial pollution in soil has the potential to seep up into plants. did an independent test of several green teas, finding that “...there can be significant amounts of lead contamination in some green tea sold in the U.S.… The good news is that most of this lead stays within the leaves and doesn’t get into the tea… Be sure to use a tea bag or other filter for your tea and don’t eat the tea leaves unless you know for sure they aren’t contaminated.” Most likely, the risk is not significant for the average consumer, but pregnant people may wish to take greater precautions.


When brewing loose-leaf tea, make sure you use a large enough brewing basket or tea ball; if using a ball, the tea should fill it no more than halfway, to give the leaves room to expand. Don’t use an egg with small holes, as this doesn’t allow water to flow easily enough. You can also steep leaves directly in the water, and then strain them out afterwards.

If the tea packaging doesn’t include instructions on how long to brew or at what temperature, refer to the chart below from

Opinions vary on whether you should heat the water to a full boil before cooling it to the proper temperature. Some experts claim that it is good to boil off excess oxygen in the water to maintain antioxidant potency in the tea.

As summer seems like a slightly less distant possibility, your mind might be turning away from hot tea in anticipation of cooler refreshment. Sun tea—iced tea that’s brewed in a sunny spot, without boiling the water first—is a traditional method, but is now known to be risky since the temperature is perfect for breeding harmful bacteria. Instead, brew similarly to as you would for hot tea, and then cool the tea; or try brewing in the refrigerator.

Hot method: Brew exactly as for hot tea, but use double the amount of tea for the volume of water. Don’t brew longer, as that results in a bitter brew. Refrigerate the finished tea until chilled.

Cold method: Use about 1.5 times as much tea as you would for hot tea. Chill water with tea for 4-12 hours, then remove tea bags or tea infuser. Voila! As Samovar Tea Lounge notes, “One caveat for cold brewing: pu-erh and non-tea ‘teas’ or tea-blend ingredients, like dried flowers, fruit or herbs, need a quick rinse of boiling water before you brew. Herbal blends are not typically heated during processing (thus they may harbor bacteria) and aged pu-erhs may have collected some dust over the years.”

Cooking with tea
NPR predicted at the beginning of this year that eating tea leaves would be a big trend in 2014—in entrées, desserts, and cocktails.

When I lived in northern California, one of my favorite restaurants served Burmese tea leaf salad. Although I’ve yet to see this in a Madison restaurant, I found some recipes online. This garlicky, nutty salad is different than what Americans typically think of as salad—it’s substantial and savory. The flavor and texture combinations are spectacular.

For a straightforward version without fermented tea leaves, check out

For a version that guides you through fermenting tea leaves over the course of several days, check out

If you’d like to use tea as a condiment instead of a focal point of a meal, try Long Jing tea sprinkled on top of a seafood salad, or Gyokuro tea with fresh fruit or pastries, as suggested by The Book of Green Tea. Tea leaves can also be used as an alternative to grape leaves in homemade pickles to encourage crispness.

Lapsang souchong, which is a smoked black tea made from older leaves, is great for adding to anything that you want to lend a smoky flavor to. Try Madison blogger Weekend Chef’s lapsang souchong poached salmon:

In the dessert category, you can mix matcha into vanilla ice cream (or incorporate it when making ice cream from scratch). Matcha can be added to countless baked goods for a lovely color and flavor.

Matcha Shortbread Cookies
Try this recipe for matcha shortbread cookies (adapted from
2 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp. salt
1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into pieces
2 Tbs. matcha powder
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 c. granulated sugar
Directions: Combine flour and salt in a small bowl. Using a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, beat butter on medium-high speed until creamy. Add matcha and vanilla extract, and beat until mixture is well-combined and a uniform color. Add sugar, and continue mixing on high speed until light and fluffy. Add flour and mix on low speed. You will need to scrape the sides of the bowl several times before a dough will start to form. It will be crumbly, but when it’s ready, will come together if you squeeze it with your fingers. Form dough into a ball while it’s still in the mixer. Turn out dough onto a piece of floured parchment paper on your counter. Place another piece of parchment on top, and roll out dough to 1/4-inch. Peel off top parchment and cut out as many cookies as you can using the cookie cutter of your choosing. Refrigerate dough for at least 1 hour. Preheat oven to 325ºF. Move parchment and cookies onto baking sheets. Baking time will vary depending on the size of your cookies. Check them starting at 17 minutes, though they may take up to 25. Rotate pans approximately halfway through baking. Cookies are finished when they are are dry and firm to the touch, and you can pick them up without them deforming. There’s no need for them to get brown on the edges, unless you prefer a crispier cookie. These will keep for up to two weeks in an airtight container. If desired, turn these into sandwich cookies by adding a filling; another similar recipe suggests white chocolate ganache, and several Willy Street Co-op staff at the Production Kitchen brainstormed flavor pairing ideas such as rose water, lemon, and ginger.

For some other sweet treats, you can make cupcakes with a variety of teas, such as the following:
•    Oolong lavender cupcakes:
•    Vegan chai cupcakes:
•    Earl Grey cupcakes with lemon buttercream:
And if you want to get in on the trend of tea-based cocktails, try infusing spirits with tea, as in this recipe for black tea vodka:

Really, when it comes to cooking and baking with tea, the sky’s the limit...or should I say the bottom of the Great Lakes?

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