Brew-tea-ful green tea! Okay, that’s the last of the brew puns… maybe.
What’s not to love about history? Grab yourself a cuppa and settle in.
It seems that back in 2737 BCE, the Chinese Emperor Shennong accidentally drank some water that had a dead leaf in it – the water had been boiled, for cleanliness presumably. He liked the taste, thank heavens, and the practice of boiling leaves in water become the done thing in the upper echelons of Chinese society.
The particular leaves were from a bush that we now know as Camellia sinensis, though it wasn’t called that back then. It used to be known as a Thea, but was renamed in 1753 to recognise the botanical achievements of Rev Georg Kamel, a Moravian-born Jesuit Brother, pharmacist, and missionary to the Philippines; Camellia being the Latin form of his name. Yes, really! To continue the whole Latin thing, sinensis is also Latin, meaning from China.
The whole boil those leaves in water, it’s really cool thing took off like crazy, and here at Kettlehead, we’re very glad it did.
Let’s get back to tea. In all of its various forms, tea is made from the Camellia sinensis plant – that’s green tea, yellow tea, white tea, black tea, and oolong. Oolong?? Did they run out of colours? Actually, oolong was originally Wu-lung, meaning black dragon in English, and it referred to the black twisted shape of the leaves at the end of the rather complex processing procedure. Other theories about the origin of oolong abound and are left for another time.
The differences between these various teas relate only to the method and degree of processing.
Green tea has little processing. The leaves are heated to prevent oxidation and drying them out, thus retaining most of the green colour. Chinese green tea then transitions to the cooking and curling phase by pan or wok roasting. The Japanese method is to deep steam the tea leaves, giving them a brighter green colour. The last step is to roll, curl or twist the leaves. There are many other nuances in the processing phase to create individual styles, but the essence is that green tea, in whatever persuasion, has had little or no oxidation.
Yellow, white, and oolong teas are made with subtle variations of the process, but all share one thing in common with green tea – oxidation is minimalised.
Black tea differs from all of the others in that the oxidation process is allowed to continue, giving the leaves, and the resulting tea, its traditional black appearance. It is thought that this was initially done around the 17th century to improve the storage life of the leaves.
Essentially, green tea is processed to prevent oxidation, whereas black tea is processed in a manner that promotes it, and in so doing, alters the state of some of the beneficial catechin components.
Green tea is a powerhouse of polyphenols – natural compounds that have many health benefits, including reducing inflammation. It also contains a catechin called epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCC) – a natural antioxidant that helps prevent the formation of cell-damaging free radicals. The tea contains small amounts of caffeine, and in conjunction with the amino acid L-theanine, increases the activity of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA, which has anti-anxiety effects.
Studies at test tube and animal level show that the catechins in green tea can have protective effects on neurons. Whether these effects translate to the human condition are not yet proven, but if so, the potential benefits in brain related diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s are huge.
Green tea has long been credited with a range of health benefits, most of which stem from its well-established credentials in providing ingredients that reduce inflammation and cell damage. These effects alone are well worth pursuing.
So, there you have it … and there’s you thinking green tea was boring! The next time someone at a dinner party says, ‘What do you know about green tea then?’, well, hey, won’t they get a surprise!