The beginner’s guide to Chinese tea for health
For thousands of years tea has been an integral part of Asian diets and cultures. Long renowned for their calming, ritual and healing properties, Chinese tea is a mainstay in the life of millions. Multitudes of studies have been carried out on different types of tea and herbal tea preparations, but understanding the differences between them can be daunting. But with a little guidance and effort you can find a tea suited for just about any health issue you may need to relieve.
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is one of the oldest healing traditions on the planet. It dates back at least 5,000 years. One of the main components of TCM is herbal medicine, and boiling herbs to drink as “teas” is among their common uses.
I previously wrote about the power of green tea to help prevent and treat rheumatoid arthritis here and about Chinese teas for health here. Today, I’d like to summarize for you the more popular TCM medicinal teas and their benefits.
Popular TCM medicinal teas
Medicinal herbal teas in TCM do not usually contain actual tea. Rather, they are a combination of different herbs, plants, roots and so on that is processed in specific ways and boiled together to make a “tea.”
Bojenmi Tea promotes weight loss as a healthful side effect. It helps you lose weight by strengthening the organs; detoxifying the liver, kidneys and intestines; moving stagnant energy; drying interior dampness and breaking up phlegm; and promoting urination to remove toxins.
Shen Tea is a traditional herbal tea containing over six different herbs that when combined help to nurture the heart and mind, ease stress, calm the spirit, soothe the liver, improve eye and heart health, calm the nerves, balance the emotions, reduce irritability and anxiety, and improve sleep.
Yin Yang Classic Tea is used to nourish the blood and boost energy. It is made by combining reishi mushroom, ginseng and licorice to help boost the immune system through its antioxidant and adaptogenic properties.
Panta Tea is made from the herb jiao gu lan, whose effectiveness and use is similar to ginseng, which means it helps boost energy, move body fluids, remove toxins from the body and it also helps lower cholesterol, alleviate symptoms of stress, lower blood pressure and even do wonders for bronchitis.
In addition to these TCM herbal teas, there are many more types of benefits of tea. I recently had a conversation about Chinese tea with Robert James Coons, a passionate tea merchant near Toronto, Canada, about the various aspects of Chinese tea. I’d like to share some of that conversation with you here.
What are the main categories of Chinese tea?
Chinese tea has six main categories: 1) green, 2) red, 3) oolong, 4) black, 5) flower, and 6) white. There are also sub-categories which may be considered as different cultivars or production practices for individual teas.
What are the main teas for health and wellness?
I think that white teas such as Bai Mu Dan and Shou Mei (longevity eyebrow), are commonly considered to be highest in anti-oxidant content. Typically, lightly processed teas such as green tea contain the highest levels of vitamins and minerals, but some aged teas such as Pu’er are considered almost to have magical medicinal properties related to their cleaning of the stomach, and fine tuning other aspects of the system.
What are some of the main characteristics of green tea?
Green tea typically tastes fresh, light, and carries sweetness in the aftertaste. Green tea also tastes naturally more bitter than other types of tea, and it also usually doesn’t carry other background flavors, as is that case with oolong. The most popular Chinese green teas are Dragon Well, biluochun, maofeng, and maojian. Green tea is most commonly enjoyed in the spring and summer as it is believed that it lowers body temperature.
What are some of the main characteristics of black tea?
Black tea, as it is understood in the west, is known as red tea in China. This type of tea is considered to be best for drinking in winter time, as it is commonly believed that it raises body temperature slightly. Black tea usually has a stronger taste than green tea, and has typically a very dark red liquor. Red tea is also often more comfortable during the cold months, as it seems to trigger a stronger release of “happy hormones,” such as endorphine, oxytocin, and so on.
What can you tell us about Oolong tea?
Oolong tea is usually much more strongly oxidized than green tea, but less oxidized than red tea. Oolong has multiple styles of production and as such has flavors varying from quite green and vegetal to very dark and carbon like. Oolong tea is also typically grown in very high elevations and as such often has a strong taste of minerals. Like other teas, it carries similar health benefits of being high in antioxidants, being good for relaxation purposes as well as focusing the mind. Oolong tea is also less acidic than green tea for the most part, so people with stomach problems may be able to drink Oolong, even though they can’t drink green tea. Typically, Oolong tea is associated with what we normally refer to as “Chinese tea ceremony,” or the practice of serving tea using small tea pots and cups.
What can you tell us about pu’er tea?
Pu’er tea comes in three styles: 1) raw, 2) fermented, and 3) aged—each with a different characteristic. Raw Pu’er is typically quite strong tasting and very acidic and bitter. This tea is often kept back to age for several years before drinking, as it can irritate the stomach.
Fermented pu’er is a quickly aged tea which tends to taste earthy and soupy. Fermented pu’er comes in many different quality levels, with the best ones being similar to very old aged teas, and the worst smelling like a room full of rotting fish. Fermented pu’er is considered to be excellent for women’s digestion and to be very easy on the digestive system.
Aged pu’er is the most beneficial and enjoyable of all pu’er tea products. If a tea is aged for more than a decade, it will begin to take on subtle characteristics, lose its original bitterness and acidity, and be very easy on the stomach. After a tea has been aged more than 20 years, the caffeine content of the tea disappears and the tea becomes probiotic. Very old pu’er tea is often given to children and the elderly when they become ill. It can also be enjoyed in the morning or evening without fear of adverse effects of caffeine. Aged pu’er is believed to have many medicinal qualities and is a favorite of older tea drinkers all over China.
What are the best quality teas?
Teas come in many types, but typically the best tea is made with whole leaves (as opposed to broken leaves). Whether you buy tea in loose leaf, brick, or balled form is mostly dependent on the variety of tea you are drinking. It is more common for Pu’er and other fermented teas to come in brick form, while green tea is normally in loose leaf form.
The best tea will balance five elements:
1) Look: does the tea look healthy, are the colors natural, is the leaf intact?
2) Smell: does the tea give off a strong, but balanced perfume?
3) Taste: does the tea taste balanced, or is one aspect such as perfume, acidity, of bitterness too strong?
4) Mouth feel: does the tea feel good in the mouth? Does it feel healthy when you drink it? Is there any pain or burning associated with the tea on the lips or in the throat? The tea should be very comfortable to drink, and very high quality teas inevitably cause a rush of “positive hormones” to go everywhere in the body, just as if receiving a hug from a loved one.
5) Aftertaste/sweetness: does the tea have a long and pleasant aftertaste? Is it sweet as it rises up the throat and into the sinus cavity?
In all cases, the tea should taste balanced. There should not be an overabundance of perfume, sourness, bitterness, or astringency. Swish the tea around a bit in your mouth in order to let some oxygen in and to hit every part of your mouth. Notice how it tastes and try to find out any places where it might be overly sour or bitter. If the tea tastes generally balanced and is quite comfortable, then this tea is good enough to drink often.
Tea should never make you feel dizzy or sick, and if it does, usually this is related to farm chemical usage problems. You should discontinue drinking such teas.