Red, white, green, or black — tea is universal

Glass teapots display the different varieties of tea.  (credit: Courtney Wittekind) Glass teapots display the different varieties of tea. (credit: Courtney Wittekind) Participants get to sample some perfectly brewed red tea. Participants get to sample some perfectly brewed red tea. Margaret’s boasts a wise list of teas. (credit: Courtney Whittekind) Margaret’s boasts a wise list of teas. (credit: Courtney Whittekind)

Last Wednesday, a group of people gathered in the front of Margaret’s Fine Imports in Squirrel Hill — young and old, male and female, tea connoisseurs, and newcomers to the art of brewing the world’s second-most consumed beverage — to learn about tea from a master. At 7 p.m., Margaret Harris, the owner of the shop, stood behind the register, which served as a teacher’s desk, in an apron bearing the phrase: “Many have eaten here; few have died,” and began class.

Harris’ own story is as unique and vivid as the tea that she sells. Harris left her homeland, Poland, in 1985, while it was still under Communist rule. In Poland, Harris had a medical degree and was a registered nurse, but since her arrival in North America, she has opened a number of craft, candle, and — most recently — tea stores. Harris has been in the tea business for seven years and has taught others about tea for three years. By the end of October, she plans to offer gourmet deli meats and cheeses in her store as well, with some products coming all the way from Hungary and Poland. Because of her history in medicine, Harris has an extensive knowledge about the health benefits of each tea, which she includes in her classes.

Types of tea

The lecture began with introductions, and everyone voiced their favorite type of tea. Preferences ranged from Earl Grey — Harris’ favorite — to chai, and Harris’ informational lecture mentioned them all.

There are four types of tea: white, green, oolong, and black. Green tea is made solely of tea leaves, and since tea has eight to 10 times more antioxidants than any other plant, green tea is extremely good for one’s health. Green tea leaves undergo very little oxidation — the process that causes autumn leaves to turn dry and brittle after they have fallen. White tea is a form of green tea, but it is made up of only the buds and first leaves of the plant. Oolong is a traditionally Chinese or Taiwanese tea, and there are many kinds of it with various levels of oxidation. Black tea is a common Western tea that undergoes the most oxidation among the types of tea.
A type of tea that doesn’t contain parts of the tea plant is a tisane. Tisane is an herbal tea that originates from both China and the Middle East. It can be made from dried flowers, like chamomile, or seeds and roots. Another type of herbal tea is rooibos tea, which is made from a red tea bush in Africa.

Making the perfect cup of tea

During class, Harris also outlined the steps in making a good cup of tea:

Step one involves choosing a tea leaf. Leaves are always better and more natural than the ground up contents of tea bags.

Step two concerns the tea water. Tap water or filtered water is fine for tea brewing, but distilled water is definitely not. Using distilled water will cause tea to taste flat.

Step three is about temperature. For regular tea, steep at 210°C, and for green tea, at 180–185°C. All tisanes should be steeped in boiling water.

Step four is all about the timing. Black tea should be steeped for three to four minutes, while green tea should be steeped for only two.

Tracing the roots of tea

Harris also briefly described the history of tea. Most tea comes from the tea bush plant, or Camellia sinesis. One legend says that Emperor Shen Nung of China was resting in his garden one afternoon when a sudden gust of wind blew several leaves from a tree into a pot of hot water nearby. When the emperor drank the resulting mixture out of curiosity, he found that he enjoyed the drink.

Tea was first brought to England by the Portuguese, although the Dutch were also major distributors. Contrary to popular belief, tea did not become popular in England until the 18th century, when Queen Anne chose tea over beer for her breakfast — yes, downing a beer for breakfast was actually common back then. Another common misconception is that “high tea” refers to the famous British tea served in the afternoon with delicious cakes and sweets. Actually, the correct name for this famous tea, understandably enough, is “afternoon tea,” and it was invented by the Duchess of Bedford, who thought that the gap between lunch and dinner was unbearably long. High tea refers to the tea that workers would take with their dinner at the end of the day, at their “high” dinner table — as opposed to the low tea tables of that time.

A cup a day keeps the doctor away

Tea has a special importance in Harris’ life. “I think I had my first cup of tea when I was one day old. It was probably fennel tea, which they give to babies to relieve colic,” she revealed to her audience at the beginning of class. Tea has been scientifically proven to be an anti-bacterial substance and contains fluoride, so it is actually good for your teeth. Women who drink tea often have a higher bone density, and tea also speeds up the metabolic process: Oolong tea increases the speed of metabolism by 10 percent, so it actually helps people lose weight.

But aside from health benefits, Harris sees tea as a way of creating friendships and understanding other cultures. “Knowing tea helps you to know people,” she told her class as she poured out samples at the end of class, including oolong and red tea brewed to perfection.

Through her class, Harris explained how tea influences many fields: geography, history, politics, medicine, and especially friendship. Her store, as well as her life, are testaments to this statement.