Tea Talk: Everything you think you don’t need to know (but you do)

I’ve always enjoyed high tea more than a regular cup at home. At first read, that isn’t a particularly surprising statement. High tea means picking a pot of your own tea from dozens of exotic choices. That special tea is then served to you in the prettiest china (usually in an equally beautiful venue). High tea is also comes with an array of aesthetically-and-palate-pleasing sandwiches, petite pastries, and perfect scones (with clotted cream and jams). The combination of food, tea, and finery makes the experience an entirely civilized way to spend an afternoon.

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high tea time at the Rittenhouse

                                       Cheesing for high tea, and all the trimmings, at the Rittenhouse Hotel, Philadelphia

However, tea is so much more than a special occasion outing or a cup bland sympathy when you’re feeling under the weather. A little knowledge can help replicate the decadence of high tea at home or on the go, boiled down to the basics: the tea itself.

Tea tradition spans cultures, continents, and centuries: ranging from the Shang dynasty in the third century to modern day drinkers worldwide. From China to Portugal, Great Britain to India, tea remains a stalwart standby for medicinal uses and social gatherings alike.

Tea Travels

Tea originated, unsurprisingly, in China as a medicinal drink. Portugese priests and merchants were introduced to the beverage in the 16th century while on trading trips and missionaries. After its introduction to Europe, tea soared to popularity in Britain by the 17th century. As the British Empire began to encircle the globe, tea became part of colonization. The Brits introduced tea into India while colonizing the country, and the product eventually gained converts throughout Persia and the Middle East via the Silk Road. The combination of trade and colonization brought tea to the world as a whole, with each culture adapting and engaging with the beverage in a unique way. The result is an impressive variety of tea cultures, specific to each population that reflects its peoples’ history and customs.

Tea Science

Tea, from plant to drink, is a long process. It takes about three years for a tea plant to mature enough to harvest. The best quality tea plants are cultivated at high elevations because studies show the leaves acquire a better flavor while grown at a slower pace. There are, naturally, many strains of plants grown for different teas, but the size of the leaf is the basic criterion for classification (small, medium, and large). After the leaves are picked, they are wilted and oxidized or immediately dried. An enzymatic oxidation caused by the plant’s enzymes makes the tea darker in color. This process is halted at a particular stage (depending on what tea) by heating the leaves to deactivate the enzymes.

Nearly all tea (in bags and loose leaf tea) is a blend of some type. Teas are mixed with other teas to obtain a better taste and also, a higher price.

There’s more to tea than just taste though, and there is a reason tea’s history began with medicinal intent. Tea contains catechins, or Flavan-3-ols. Catechins reduce the risk of stroke, heart failure, cancer, and diabetes. Catechins combined with habitual exercise also delay some forms of aging, reduce cancerous biomarkers, keep arteries flexible, increase small vesssel circulation, and reduce blood pressure. Additionally, tea contains vitamin, flavonoids and caffeine. Ample evidence suggests that green and black teas protect against cancer and help manage weight by boosting metabolic rates.

Green and white teas have the highest concentration of catechins thanks to their particular oxidative preparations. Tea also contains the amino acid L-theanine, which modulates caffeine’s psychoactive effects and creates the “umami” taste many associate with tea.

Healthful Tea Options: 

There’s already plenty of evidence that states black and green teas are exceptionally good for you (and great for cutting down the coffee drinking…) but there are more than just the basics when it comes to picking a healthy tea option. Just like reaching into a medicine cabinet to find the right fix for a head or stomach ache, knowing which tea does what can help relieve some common problems.

  • Peppermint tea: relieves bloating, muscle spasms, and nausea. Not ideal for people suffering from heartburn.
  • Ginger tea: a digestive aid proven to curb nausea, vomitting, or upset stomach due to motion sickness. Boost any tea by adding a piece of simmered ginger (on the stove for 10 minutes or so to soften) to your strainer after brewing.
  • Chamomile tea: a calming and sedative tea that is helpful for insomnia and post-meal digestion. This tea also helps with coughs, bronchitis, a cold, and fevers.
  • Rooibos tea: high in vitamin C and minerals, it can help with aging and is super high in antioxidants. As an added bonus, it helps with common skin concerns.
  • Rosehip tea: rosehips are one of the best plant sources of vitamin C making this tea great for your immune system, skin, and overall tissue health.
  • White tea: the least processed tea, named for the fine white fuzz present on the young tea leaf buds when picked, it has a similar, if not greater, antioxidant content as green tea making it a good option for overall health.
  • Oolong Tea: Similar to black tea but with a richer taste thanks to a shorter fermentation period, it may aid in weight loss and increasing metabolic rates.

Making Tea

There are six basic types of tea: white, yellow, green, oolong, black, and post-fermented. Regardless of what type you choose to brew, realize that you’re indulging in the second-most consumed beverage on Earth, after water.

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The color variation is a result of different fermentation processes. From left to right: green, yellow, oolong, and black.

At first glance, you might think that brewing tea is just a simple process of adding hot water to tea, waiting, and adding any sweetners. But like anything else in life, anything worth doing is worth doing right.

Behold: tea brewing beyond the basics

The strength of tea should be varied by changing the amount of tea leaves used, not by changing the steeping time. The amount of tea, the temperature, and the steep time vary from tea to tea. Teas that have little or no oxidation period, like green and white teas, are best brewed at lower temperatures while teas with longer oxidation periods should be brewed at higher temps. The higher tempreatures are required to extract the large, complex, and flavorful phenolic molecules found in fermented tea. Boiling also reduces the dissolved oxygen content of water which reacts with phenolic molecules to turn them brown and reduce the potency of antioxidants.

Type                     Water Temperature                     Steep Time

White Tea              65-70°C 149-158°F                      1-2 min

Yellow Tea             70-75°C/158-167°F                      1-2 min

Green Tea             75-80°C/167-176°F                       1-2min

Oolong tea             80-85°C/176-185°F                       2-3 min

Black Tea               99°C/210°F                                   2-3 min

Pu’er Tea                95-100°C/203-212°F                     Any

After you’ve brewed your tea, according to the directions, there are options for what you might add to enhance the flavor and/or health benefits of your tea.

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Additives

Different cultures add different things to their tea.  For example,adding milk to tea started in Europe around 1680 and some cultures, where dairy products are consumed, still add milk to their tea today.

  • The Indian masala chai and some British blends suggest adding milk. These are hearty black teas that can still be tasted clearly though the milk, which is added to neutralize any remaining tannins and reduce the acidity.
    • Some insist that milk needs to be added after brewing the tea, so that the correct temperature is maintained to sufficiently steep the leaves and dissolve the sugar (if using) as well.
    • Fun fact: Historically, the order of tea-preparation was indicative of class because only the wealthy could afford high-quality porcelain that would be able to survive the high heat of brewing tea without milk to reduce the temperature.
  • Some teas in Italy, Russia, Poland, and Hungary, are served with lemon juice

Tea cultures globally are more creative than just lemon juice and milk though…you can and should consider adding the following:

  • Chinese jasmine tea includes jasmine oil and/or flowers.
  • Indian masala includes spices like star anise, ginger, green cardamom pods, cinnamon, fennel, nutmeg and cloves.
  • Sometimes chilli, coriander and rose petals are included.
  • The British standard, Earl Grey, includes bergamot oil to achieve its taste.
  • In eastern India, lemon tea is immensely popular and is simply lemon juice, hot water and sugar. Masala lemon tea is cumin, seed powder, lemon juice, black salt, and sugar creating a tangy and slightly spicy taste.
  • Adding ginger when brewing tea is a popular technique in Sri Lanka, where cinnamon is also added to sweeten the aroma.
  • The options are essentially limitless, with additives like sugar, liquid or solid honey, agave nectar, fruit jams, mint, herbs, and spices. Additionally, some alcohols are added to tea including whisky, brandy, and apertifs.
  • Complicating matters further, high-altitude pouring is a practice from North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, and Libya) where pouring from different heights can result in different degrees of aeration and thus different flavors. More likely though, this technique cools the beverage so it can be immediately consumed.

The Great Debate: Bag vs. Loose

Up until recently, tea was always loose. It wasn’t until the 20th century that tea leaves came packed into small envelopes. This style of manufacturing/brewing became extremely popular during WWII, when rationing tea was made easier by the use of tea bags. The ease and convenience  makes bagged tea consistently popular today.

However, there are significant drawbacks that come with convenience, as is often the case.

  • The tea used in bags is usually “fannings” or the dust of tea: the waste product produced from sorting the higher-quality loose leaf tea. However, some high-quality specialty teas are available in bag form.
  • Tea aficionados insist that tea bags provide an inferior taste and experience. The paper from the bag may also be tasted, detracting the tea’s own flavor.
  • Dried tea loses its flavor quickly when exposed to air. Since most bagged teas contain leaves broken into smaller pieces, there’s a greater surface area-to-volume ratio on the leaves which means more exposure to air and staler tea.
  • Conversely, loose leaf tea is almost always left in larger pieces, if not entirely intact.
  • Breaking up the leaves for bags extracts and removes flavored oils.
  • The small size of the bag doesn’t allow the leaves to diffuse and steep properly because the tea can’t expand during the brewing process.

Verdict: Loose leaf tea is what brings the decadence of high tea home, and with a few adjustments, can be as easy as using bagged tea.

Now that I’ve sufficiently scratched the surface of tea’s history, production, and preparation, it’s high time to talk accessories and purchasing.

Loose leaf tea is widely available (perks of being the #2 beverage worldwide). If you’re starting the hunt for it though, larger companies like the Republic of Tea and Teavana offer good loose leaf varieties internationally. For a more personal, informative, special, and quaint experience though, seek out smaller and independently owned stores near you.

Tea Time!
                         

As you make the upgrade from bagged to loose leaf, you’ll need a strainer to effectively brew all those loose leaves of tea! The choices above range from whimsy (a literal leaf, a robot, a mini tea-pot, and a shark fin) to practical: the floatea and the mesh travel one. I own both the floatea and mesh options because they make it easy to take tea on the go! Additionally….teapots and cups come in a never-ending supply of shapes, styles, colors, prints, sizes, and materials!

So enjoy the stretches between high tea with your own loose leaf tea at home, on the road, or at work. The best cup of tea still tastes amazing regardless what cup you use and it still does the body good.

Get Fit: The Big 3

I’ve dabbled in my fair share of fitness options: I like to run, I find yoga relaxing and challenging, using the row machine, stair master, and bike is always a good use of my time, and trying to be active is never a bad idea. However, I used to be genuinely intimidated by the free weights section of the gym, especially at the on-base facilities. However, curiosity tends to get the better of me so a few months ago I coaxed Jordan into teaching me some weight-lifting basics, and with the input of our very dedicated weight-lifting friends, I’ve learned at least enough to say that I’m sorry I didn’t start sooner. So why weight-lift?weights

  1. Strength training increases your physical capacity to complete daily activities with increased efficiency and performance. By this I mean, you’ll be able to do a lot more, for a lot longer, with better results. Have a friend who’s moving in soon and needs a hand? You’re going to prove a lot more useful without the strain it would normally cause you. In general, the sometimes exhausting tasks you face on a daily basis will definitely become easier.
  2. Weight lifting improves bone density. This is especially important because as we age, we lose bone density, which is why we get bombarded with ads about osteoporosis during the evening news. This means more broken and brittle bones, greater overall frailty, and a higher risk of injury when we’re old. At any age, weight bearing and lifting exercises actually slow the rate of bone loss and improve bone density by stimulating bone formulation. The same logic applied to muscle growth also works with bone growth: place more demands, reap more rewards. The best part is, you don’t have to be lifting an absurd amount of weight to see results. Simple exercises help generate bone health.
  3. When people want to lose weight, they often turn to cardio. However, while cardio is important and effective, weight training is  another valuable option for effectively burning fat calories and creating muscle. Cardio may burn more calories during an hour-long work out, compared to the calories burned during an hour-long weight lifting workout.  However, weight training boosts your metabolism for the following 24 hours which means you actually burn more calories throughout the day after weight training than from cardio. Also, where you lose is important. Sometimes cardio means losing weight, but not in a meaningful visual way. Weight lifting helps you lose in places that you might actually like to improve.
  4. Weight training also helps improve muscle, tissue, and tendon functions which means an overall lower rate of injury, and better performance.
  5. Improved quality of life. While this reasoning may seem heavy on the bull and low on substance, weight lifting has been a proven source of effective weight management, helping individuals feel better about their body, while improving their overall health with lowering their risk of injury.

There are an endless supply of ways to get started but the most important lessons I’ve learned as a novice lifter are:

  1. Start small: there’s no need to get competitive with other lifters in the gym–it’s important to respect your limits and lift what’s appropriate for your abilities.
  2. Form, form, form, form and form: The best way to get hurt is to lift too much and lift incorrectly. By using a reasonable amount of weight to get started, you are able to focus controlling your form so you do the exercise effectively.
  3. Rest: It’s important to isolate muscle groups and give them a rest in-between workouts. That’s why you always hear lifters talk about backs, chests, shoulders, arms, or legs. Rotating these muscle groups helps them recover from the workout, build muscle, and get ready to do it again.
  4. Ask questions from people who know more than you: how many reps should you do? how many sets? how much weight? can you spot me? Odds are, you have a wealth of valuable information at your disposal in the gym  from your friends and other weight lifters. While it’s rude to interrupt someone’s workout, it never hurts to ask a question when someone is resting between sets, or from an on-site personal trainer.

Now that you’re ready to lift, you’re going to quickly realize there are a lot of exercises to choose from and memorize. It’s always a good idea to start small, but there are undoubtedly three main exercises to learn and incorporate into your routine for great results. Known to most weight lifters as ‘the big 3’ the following exercises make up the three canonical powerlifting exercises.images

The Deadlift

  • The deadlift at its most basic involves lifting a loaded barbell off the ground, to the hips, and back down. It’s called a deadlift because the weight is ‘dead’ from the start, or lacks momentum because it’s on the ground.
  • The deadlift involves a compound movement which engages a variety of muscles including: abdominals, the back, quadriceps, hamstrings, hips, glutes, and forearms.
  • Grip: you can hold the bar with either an overhand grip, or a mixed grip with one hand overhand and one hand underhand to help evenly disperse the weight.
  • Position: You want to stand with your legs shoulder-width apart, and grasp the bar with your hands just outside your knees. Keep your head slightly up and drive upwards through your heels while pulling your shoulders, hips, and back forwards. When you lower the back reverse the motion, keeping your back straight and pushing your weight through your glutes and heels.
  • When you get the bar to your knees don’t pull with your back, instead jut you hips forwards to lift the bar.
  • This video gives you an easy to follow and understandable look at how to do deadlifts properly.

squat

The Squat

  • Another example of a compound exercise, the squat strengthens your glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, and hips while also engaging your arms, abs, and back too.
  • Squats are versatile: you can do them with your body weight, dumbbells, a barbell, a medicine ball, kettleballs, etc. The options are limitless.
  • Form (with barbell): Stand with your legs shoulder width apart, your chest out and your head slightly up. Step up to the bar so your back is in front of the bar in the cage. Ideally, the bar will rest below your neck, centered, with your hands holding it a bit wider than shoulder width. After you unrack and back up just slightly to clear the rack, you want to make sure your stance is back to where you were (shoulder width or slightly wider) with your feet pointing out about 45 degrees. When you descend, act as if you are sitting down in a chair behind you–your knees should not go past your toes, your back straight but moving at an angle, not directly down. Make sure you contract your abs while descending, until your thighs are parallel with the floor. Do not let your knees bow inwards. Once you’ve gotten parallel, or as close to parallel as you’re able, move upwards to your start position immediately.
  • To see a squat in action, click here.

The Bench Press

  • This exercise is exceedingly popular, and works your chest and arms, but when performed correctly it engages your core, shoulders, back and even legs.
  • Form: lie down on the bench and make sure your head, shoulders, back, and butt all have good contact with the pad. You want your neck in a neutral position. Place your feet firmly on the ground on either side of the bench, at a comfortable and neutral position. Your feet should not leave the ground because you’re going to use your legs to help drive the bar up with your body. You can grip the bar neutrally, about shoulder width apart, with your hands also in a neutral position–not strained back or forward. Your four finger knuckles should be behind the bar, not under it. As you get ready to lift, squeeze your shoulder blades together a little, along with your core, glutes and hamstrings. Unrack the bar while staying tight and engaged to lift.
  • Lower the bar to roughly your mid-chest, keeping your elbows in  and never letting them flare out perpendicular to your body. When the bar is lowered, your forearms should be perpendicular to the floor. Be sure to keep your head on the bench the entire time to not strain your neck. Right before the bar touches you, begin to drive upwards, engaging your core,  and legs as discussed before. Keep pressing forwards until your arms are once again straight and keep your shoulder-blades tucked behind you.
  • For a video look, try this one.

Once you get started you’ll realize it’s much easier than it sounds, and much more rewarding than you imagined. Plus, you’ll officially be entitled to quote videos like this (endlessly popular amongst our lifiting friends):

So enjoy being a genetic beast lobster–if that’s your thing–or at the very least, embrace a healthier and stronger you!

Let’s Eat: More Colors

Warm weather is just around the corner, and with it comes bathing suits, dresses, shorts, and that urge to look great when you’re not bundled up. While hitting the gym and exercising is the obvious choice now to help you look better later, it’s pretty important that you also feel great for summer and all seasons. Plus, it’s entirely true that ‘abs are made in the kitchen.’ With that in mind, I don’t personally think there’s one cure-all diet program that can solve everything for everyone, so I try to balance my food choices. One simple and effective way of making sure you’re getting the vitamins and nutrients your body does need to feel and look better, is to fill your plate, bowl, or drink with a variety of color.

This really only applies to fruits and veggies: we know beef is red but that doesn’t mean it’s full of phtyo-nutrients. However, odds are you’re not getting enough of either kind of produce. Color makes food more appealing in my opinion–a creative salad certainly looks more appetizing than just a pile of sad, pale, iceberg lettuce, and brown oatmeal is nutritious sure, but wouldn’t it look even better loaded with berries and bananas too? I’m not advocating for a vegan, vegetarian, or any particular lifestyle, merely an easy trick to keep in mind when making food choices! Besides, I’m not a doctor, I just play one on the internet today.

The guide below is of my own creation and is not meant to be all encompassing, just an intro on why different colored foods can benefit your overall health. I picked some staples–tomatoes and bananas–and threw in passionfruit to keep things interesting. Most information in the guide was sourced from searches on nutrition.gov and other nutrition data websites. If you’re looking for even more, this blog is filled to the brim with nutritious recipes and nutrition information.

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There are two final pieces of information I’d offer. First off is, that if you’re dieting for weight loss it is important to keep in mind that fruits are high in sugar. Second, some of the nutrients in foods like tomatoes and sweet potatoes are best absorbed when eaten with a small dose of a healthy fat. So putting a small serving of olive oil on your tomatoes can actually help your body reap the benefits. Otherwise, enjoy eating your colors!