Updated: Jan 24, 2019
Even before the advent of the herbal tea, the story of the origin of teas is a complex and mythical one. Some attribute it to Emperor Shennong, in China, in 2000 B.C.E. A herbalist himself, Shennong researched and studied an accidental drink created by a leaf (from a nearby tea plant) falling into a pot of boiling water. This resulting drink was so soothing and relaxing that this was adopted by him as a medicinal drink providing natural remedies for common ailments. Others say that tea was created because Bodhidharma, the founder of Chan Buddhism, cut his eyelids out of disgust of falling asleep during a long session of meditation lasting nine years! The eyelids are said to have sprouted into tea bushes when they fell to the ground.
Throughout the centuries, more and more people started devoting their time and effort into making and studying the different varieties of teas, including herbal teas, to discover their medicinal properties. As herbal teas are considered a branch or derivative of the traditional tea, let’s start with the main types the traditional teas are categorized by - green tea, black tea, oolong tea and white tea. All tea comes from the same plant; the specific variety of tea plant and the way the leaves are processed after harvesting determine the type of tea that is created.
Black tea: Black teas, are also known as red tea due to their deep red color. The traditional method of processing black teas comprises of withering, rolling, oxidizing, and drying. First the leaves are spread out on racks of bamboo or woven straw to be wilted until soft enough to be rolled without damaging the leaf. The withered leaf is then is rolled to release the chemicals that contributes to the tea's color and flavor. Next, the rolled leaves are spread out in cool and humid rooms and exposed to the air for several hours, which causes chemical changes in the leaves and turns them from green to coppery red. Finally, the completely oxidized leaves are dried to stop oxidation in traditionally woks or baked in hot ovens.
Green Tea: Green teas preserve the healthy and natural elements of the tea leaves. The traditional method of processing green teas involves withering, heating, rolling and drying. After picking, the fresh leaves are spread out on bamboo trays and exposed to sunlight or warm air for one to two hours. Then the leaves are heated to prevent oxidation and preserve freshness. Finally, the leaves are rolled into various shapes and then dried. The rolling also helps regulate the release of natural oils and flavor during steeping. Green teas are often pan fired in very large woks and then hand-rolled into various styles: twisted, flat, curly or balled.
Oolong Tea: Oolong teas are partially oxidized teas. Processed to be full-bodied teas, the leaves for oolong tea are picked just when they reach their peak and processed immediately. The leaves are first withered in direct sunlight and then shaken gently in bamboo baskets to lightly bruise the edges of the leaves. Next the leaves are air-dried in the shade until the surface of the leaf turns slightly yellow. The process of shaking and drying the leaves is repeated several times. The oxidation period for oolong teas is less than that for black teas and depends on the type of oolong. This can vary from about 20% for a green oolong to 60% for a classic Formosa oolong. After the desired oxidation level is reached, the leaves are pan fired at high temperatures to prevent further oxidation. Due to the higher firing temperatures, oolong teas contain less moisture and have a longer shelf life than green teas.
White Tea: White tea is produced mainly in Fujian province in China. White tea is made entirely from leaf buds that are covered with whitish hairs. The new buds are plucked before they open in early spring, then withered and dried slowly at low temperatures. Unlike other tea processing methods, the leaf buds are not rolled and only slightly oxidized. The result of this processing is a tea with a mild flavor and natural sweetness, with little of the grassy undertones sometimes associated with green teas.
The benefits of consuming tea have been widely documented ever since that first sip. For example, green tea has been linked with less disability among the elderly. And green, black, oolong and white teas have shown to rev up the immune system and may protect against certain diseases, including arthritis. Many more benefits are being discovered on a daily basis.
A new trend taking over tea is its herbal counterpart the herbal tea. The infusion or addition of fruits, spices, roots, or other plant materials for their medicinal properties or flavors makes for an herbal tea, also known as tisane. Even through an herbal tea does not have as involved a process as making traditional teas, the manufacture and type of the various ingredients is what distinguishes herbal teas from each other. These ingredients come in powdered form (cinnamon, ginseng), as a paste (date paste), as dried varieties (hibiscus flower, guava leaf) or as extracts (liquorice, mint, mulberry, guava). The infusion of the leaves from the rooibos plant is one type of herbal tea. Some herbal teas contain some form of traditional teas as the “base” of the tea, and add fruits, roots, spicies, or flower ingredients, to make unique combinations of herbal teas. Ivory Natural’s Hibiscus tea, with dried hibiscus flower, holy basil (Tulsi) and cinnamon with green tea as the base is one popular type of herbal tea.
The reason herbal teas, or tisane, is gaining popularity is for their health benefits. Sometimes it is a single flower, fruit, root, or spices, that provides the sought-after benefit, while other times it is a combination of these that people look for. The polyphenols in herbal teas load them up with antioxidants that benefit the body in several ways. Antioxidants help maintain a healthy lifestyle and provides the energy boost needed, and herbal teas provide that needed comfort to get through a busy day.
Popular roots such as ginger and ginseng are highly sought after for their natural healing properties. In herbal tea form, these are easier to consume, calming and healing both the mind and body. Ginger herbal tea helps relieve nausea, reduce inflammation, and improve blood circulation. Herbal tea with ginseng is used to improve immunity, lower blood sugar levels, and fight against cancer. Cinnamon, another popular spice known for boosting the immune system and improving digestive health is often used for cooking, and is commonly infused in herbal teas. Used as a vegetable in Indian cooking, moringa, knows as horse-radish, is being discovered for its many medicinal properties. In tea form and when mixed with mint, Moringa Mintea, provided all the benefits in a delicious drink. Mulberry, known to control blood sugar levels, is easier to consume and enjoy its natural healing properties in herbal tea form. Herbal teas with two or more ingredients is also common, such as hibiscus-cinnamon tea, and moringa-mint teas.
Sipping hot cup of tea on a cold morning is a relaxing start to a busy day, be it green tea, black tea, or your favorite herbal tea infused with cinnamon, mint, or moringa. Here’s to your improved health, one cup of tea at a time!