Gav Martell: He’s in the Kitchen


Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Tea

Put your pinky finger down when you pick up your cup

With its recent resurgence, the tea-craze is in full swing in North America. Specialty tea shops are popping up in malls with retailers offering dozens of niche flavours and tea paraphernalia. As a foodie I get a lot of questions online and from friends about how to make sense of this whole tea-volution. What are the different types of tea? How should they be prepared at home?

To help find the answers to these and other pressing concerns of the tea-cup wielding public, I asked for help from the Fairmont Royal York Hotel and Metropolitan Tea, who both certainly know the ins and outs of the tea industry and have perfected tea drinking to an art-form. and Fairmont Royal York co-hosted a tweet-up so our writers and readers could learn more about what goes into the art of a great cup of tea. Al Cardenas of Metropolitan Tea took us through a tasting of some of their exclusive Fairmont flavoured teas and gave us a brief history lesson of the tea leaf. To get a few things out of the way up-front—tea is to be sipped pinky finger down, and there's to be no clanging of the spoons if you don't mind. 

 Tea making has a vast 5000-year history and true tea leaves (genus Camelia sinensis) can only grow in tropical regions. The first tea discovered was black tea in China (Camelia sinensis sinensis). Many moons later the British Empire took the Chinese tea bush and tried to grow it in other places without much success. Soon they discovered a second genus (Camelia sinensis assamica) from which Indian tea is made. Both are similar but have subtle differences in size and flavour. All true tea comes from these two genus (i.e. the same plants) and has been cultivated all around the world. People used to think tea had medicinal properties. They didn't know why—they just drank it. Today we find a lot of people reverting back to tea for its health benefits. For example, people are looking for antioxidants, soothing, to ease digestion, to help them turn down in the evening. Clearly the health and wellness effect of tea is trending.  The only difference between green and back teas is that green teas are not fired in an oven while black teas are. Oolong tea refers to a semi-fermented tea that falls somewhere between green and black tea. There tends to be a lot more variety with oolong because there are less stringent rules around its production.  Herbal tea can be anything that is not from a true tea leaf. For example, Rooibos is a South Africa drink and is not really a tea at all. It's produced from a red pine tree. There are many different types of Rooibos blends—and it continues to increase in popularity. In Argentina a drink called Mate is a cultural staple. It's made from dried leaves of the yerba mate and is served with a metal straw from a shared hollow calabash gourd.   Caffeine is the same in all true teas (black and green). Green tea isn't steeped as long and the water usually isn't quite as hot so there tends to be a bit less caffeine in a brewed cup of green tea. However, this difference is quite minimal and the leaves themselves contain the exact same amounts of caffeine. Tea bags were invented in New York by Thomas Sullivan at the start of the 1900s. They were originally made from silk and were used to send samples to clients around the world. While the loose tea was intended to be removed from the bags, people found it very useful to prepare the tea in the tea bag. Over time due to competition on store shelves, to drive down prices bagged tea kept driving down quality. However, today there are good quality tea bags but not quite as good as what you can get in loose leaf variety.  Lastly, while many people mistake the term Orange Pekoe for a flavour of tea it actually refers to the quality of the leaf. It can refer to any black tea of medium grade consisting of many whole leaves of a specific size.