Google the word “caffeine” and this is probably what comes up: Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant of the methylxanthine class. It is mainly used recreationally, as a eugeroic or as a mild cognitive enhancer to increase alertness and attentional performance.
Even if we are unfamiliar with the words methylxanthine and eugeroic, I’m guessing, for most of us, this description sounds about right.
Now that we agree that caffeine is a stimulant, listing the caffeine content in the most popular beverages (source: mayoclinic.org) we find some familiar friends:
Beverage Caffeine Content
Energy drink 72
There is disagreement on the Internet whether coffee or tea is worldwide the most consumed beverage. However, whatever, everyone agrees that it’s a lot. Coffee, of the two, is more controversial- yes there are health benefits/but there are also negative effects. Coffee helps the body process glucose/increases heart rate; coffee avoids colon cancer/raises blood pressure; coffee lowers chances of Parkinson’s/causes anxiety, …
Of the two, tea is less ambiguous. Its benefits include cardiovascular health, reduced diabetes risk, lowering blood pressure, lowering blood sugar, increasing brain function, etc., etc., etc., without the downsides. Also, there is a lot more scientific literature on the benefits of tea drinking although, in fairness, there are ample, and persuasive, arguments from that realm for each.
The commodity that we think of when we think of coffee comes from the roasted coffee bean, a hardy plant that thrives in moist ground, like that found in Brazil, or Central American, or Southeast Asia or Hawaii. The coffee bean is not technically a bean, but a seed from a cherry-like fruit. Tea, on the other hand, is the residue emitted by pouring hot water over the leaves of a certain shrub- the Camellia sinensis.
We’re going to leave a deeper exploration of the coffee world for another time, but only after we honor the most popular forms of the beverage in order of their popularity as found at the ubiquitous Starbucks (source: Querysprout.com).
Pumpkin Spice Latte (seasonal)
We love coffee–always have–but we are really here to talk about tea.
For starters, making a cup of tea is so damn simple. You pour hot water over the leaves and drink the juice. Depending on your mood that day, may call it a medicine or a stimulant. People have been drinking tea for thousands of years but, for some reason, almost exclusively in east Asian cultures. That is, until the 17th Century, when the British Navy occupied India, explored China and Japan, and brought the beverage back to the home island where it became a sensation.
Today the best-selling brand in the United States is Lipton Tea. Founded by Thomas Lipton, a grocer in Glasgow in the 1880’s looking for new products, he branded sold his produce as Lipton Tea (source; Wikipedia). In England, the best-selling brand is Twinings (per thegrocer.co.uk), founded by Thomas Twining, operator of Britain’s first tearoom, way back in 1706.
The definitive rules for tea-making are found in an essay by George Orwell (check it out at orwellfoundation.com). In it, he lists his eleven rules for making a proper tea, including what kind to buy, how to properly pour tea, how it should be drunk, what type of cup to use, and how hot it should be when served.
Honoring Orwell’s rigid opinions, we choose to brew only loose tea when at home, no tea bags. We find it takes the same time and effort and yields a superior product. There are plenty of places that sell fresh tea leaves and, if that’s a problem, the Internet offers all kinds of choices of product and quantity.
Our personal favorite is gunpowder green- so-named because it is apparently shaped like miniature gunpowder balls (until water is applied and it opens into its natural leaf shape.) We prefer to drink green tea, which comes from the younger bud, because we find it more flavorful, but others like black tea (from the mature leaf), white tea (highly regarded by the experts), and oolong. Since herbals do not come from the camellia sinensis plant, they are not considered actual teas.
A porcelain cup, as per Mr. Orwell, is the proper vessel. We drink it plain, no sweeteners.
If not the pleasure the drink gives, then the health benefits provide reason enough to make tea drinking worthwhile habit. Lower risk of heart disease, lower risk of diabetes, weight management, brain function, stress reduction and bone strength (source: AARP.com) are some of those reasons.
Our goal is to someday participate in a Japanese Tea Ceremony, a cultural activity that draws heavily on its Zen Buddhist origins. Often conducted in specially built rooms or houses, guests dress in kimonos.
The ceremony may vary, but sometimes goes like this: On their arrival the guests purify themselves through a ritualized washing and only then, after removing their footwear, enter the house to be seated. A meal is served and, after, the guests are excused while the room is re-cleansed and the tea is prepared. The utensils are purified according to special rules and placed at each seat in an exact manner.
When seated, after formal speeches each guest, in turn, is invited to drink the tea as it is passed around the table from a special bowl. Only then is each guest served their cup of tea. This, to me, sounds like the ultimate ritualized, civilized, spiritualized experience. Maybe someday.
To your health.
Wren is a contributing editor to HeadMagazine.com