One of my favourite days so far on this road trip was spent in Banff National Park. It was one of the first sunshiney days we had so we did our best to take advantage of it. We laced up our hiking boots and set off to spend the better part of the day exploring the area surrounding Lake Louise. We followed a well-marked trail heading up to the Plain of Six Glaciers. We kept a steady pace as we rounded the lake and headed past the creek feeding into Lake Louise. We chatted loudly and kept our ears and eyes open for signs of Grizzly bears. The terrain soon turned rocky, with trees and bushes dotting the mountainside. I had to rein in Tal from taking too many photographs because I was on a mission to reach a special treat at the summit that I had read about. We eventually walked along a small ridge and finally switched back and forth to reach the peak. We were sweaty, happy to have the sun shining on our faces, and best of all, we found the teahouse perched at the top of the mountain!
I should preface this by saying that two of my favourite things in the world are hiking and drinking tea. So, to have tea served on the top a mountain is literally the ultimate combination! We scarfed down our homemade sandwiches and mangoes, headed another 1.6 km to the lookout and then raced back to enjoy a cuppa. I don’t want to downplay how spectacular the lookout was; I mean it was one of the most impressive views I have ever experienced. It was a short hike along a ridge with crumbled rock sloping down on either side of us until we hit the base of Victoria Glacier. We were surrounded by glaciers on three sides and witnessed small avalanches as the spring sun continued to melt the ice. Having said that, I was in Lisa heaven when we reached the teahouse just in time for last call. We enjoyed homemade biscuits with butter and jam, dipped in a steaming cup of Earl Grey. I didn’t even mind the powdered milk that I’ve been forced to use during our weeks without a fridge. Oh and what a view! We lingered way too long, but eventually we had to pick ourselves up from the wooden porch and make our way down the mountain.
I don’t know what it is about a warm cup of tea, but it sure hits the spot for me. Sitting up there it occurred to me that for something I enjoy on a regular basis, I really don’t know much about where it comes from or how it gets to my cup. I preach the philosophy of knowing where our food is grown and what we’re putting in our bodies, yet I know very little about my favourite beverage. So off I went on a hunt to learn all things tea.
Turns out that tea plants are native to East Asia, where the leaves were originally brewed for medicinal purposes. It was not until the 16th century that tea was introduced to the Western world and eventually became fashionable among the British during the following century. Until this point, tea plants were only produced on a large scale in China. However, as the demand for tea increased in England, commercial production took off in India. Today, the largest producers of tea are China, India, Kenya, Sri Lanka, and Turkey, mainly due to their favourable climates. Most of this tea is intended for large-scale commercial businesses, however several small plantations exist, which produce premium teas that are highly sought after.
Tea is the second most consumed drink in the world, trailing only behind water. Tea is grouped into six different categories, differentiated mainly by their length of exposure to oxygen.
White – made from the youngest buds and leaves, similar to green
Yellow – process where the leaves are left to yellow, similar to green
Green – light in colour, short processing time (e.g. Sencha, Matcha)
Oolong – partially oxidized tea, tastes like a mixture of green and black tea (e.g. Black Dragon)
Black – longest processing time, most popular in North America (e.g. Earl Grey, English Breakfast)
Post-fermented – green tea that has been allowed to ferment, commonly pressed into bricks or cakes
NOTE: Herbal teas do not come from the tea plant (Camillia sinensis). They are made from the roots, barks, leaves, seeds, or flowers of other plants (e.g. chamomile, Rooibos)
When consumed without additives like milk or sugar, tea does not contain significant amounts of any essential nutrients. As most of you know, tea does contain caffeine though. Per one cup (250 mL), tea contains between 25 – 110 mg of caffeine, depending on the type of tea, the brand used, the brew time, and the temperature. To put this number into perspective, there is about 80 – 179 mg of caffeine in one measured cup of drip coffee. This may not be significant when consumed once a day, but it can certainly add up for an Irishman who consumes an average of 4 cups of black tea every day!
Green tea has certainly grown in popularity in North America recently in light of its potential health benefits. But is there any real basis to these claims? Turns out that all tea contains the disease-fighting polyphenols, which act as antioxidants in the body. Antioxidants help the body by preventing cell damage, and ultimately preventing chronic illnesses such as cancer and heart disease. Polyphenols are found in higher concentrations in teas that are less processed, which is why green tea has been given a good reputation in recent years. As for herbal teas, they do not have the same antioxidants that are seen in green or black tea because they are not made from the tea plant. However, so far researchers have not found any convincing evidence that drinking tea helps lower our risk of developing chronic diseases.
When it comes to iced teas and other tea-flavoured beverages, you’re not likely to find any health benefits. Like most processed drinks, they can be high in added sugar and overall contain very little polyphenols. When choosing these commercial drinks, whether you’re at a grocery store, a coffee shop, or a restaurant, be sure to read the labels and ingredients list carefully, and choose those that are literally the iced version of the hot brew. When it comes to buying dried tea to make at home, choose organic and fair trade teas if possible; this helps reduce the pesticide exposure for you and for the workers who harvest these products, as well as supports humane working conditions and wages.
Today, tea remains essential to many cultural activities and celebrations, as well as a focal point for social gatherings around the world. Tea varieties have vastly different flavour profiles, which offer a large range of tastes to meet the preferences of most individuals. Although tea may not have all of the health benefits we had hoped for, we can still feel good about sitting back and enjoying a hot cup of tea to relax, de-stress, and rejuvenate.