It's odd to think of a nearly 5,000-year-old beverage as trendy, but in America tea is becoming exactly that. With annual sales growing from an estimated $1.84 billion to more than $6 billion since 1990, it's crossed over from the Birkenstock set to the rest of us. That's good news for anyone with the adventure bug, because traditional tea, as opposed to herbals like chamomile, can provide an all-natural boost that's a lot easier on you than coffee or, worse, energy drinks.
Traditional tea comes from Camellia sinensis, an evergreen plant native to China's tropical Yunnan province. It shares coffee's pick-me-up appeal but has an amino acid, L-theanine, that causes its naturally occurring caffeine to have a milder, steadier effect that peaks after 60 minutes or so and falls to half strength over the next four to six hours. Tea expert Paul Holmgren describes the effect as a "more friendly, approachable boost" than coffee's.
Tea's powerful antioxidants, called catechins, may be able to repair certain types of cellular damage that can lead to cancer. And observational studies in Asia, where folks drink as many as five cups a day, point to a possible connection between green tea and reduced cardiovascular disease. Now, traditional tea is gaining traction with the endurance set, as marathoners carry diluted bottles on long runs. "Recent animal studies suggest that green tea's combination of caffeine and a polyphenol [a healing antioxidant] called EGCG has the potential to improve endurance," says University of Miami sports nutritionist Lisa Dorfman.
How to brew tea
From the way you store it to the temperature of the water you use, proper handling and preparation will help you get the biggest punch of nutrients and flavor out of your tea.
Store it right.
Remove leaves from package and put them in a tightly sealed opaque container to keep light or any nearby spices from affecting the flavor.
Not too hot.
Ideal water temp for brewing descends gradually from black tea leaves (boiling) to white (steaming). Hotter water can ruin more delicate teas.
Control the caffeine.
The first brew is the most caffeinated, so toss it and resteep for less of a jolt. Asian drinkers reuse their tea leaves up to four times a day.
Drink it fresh.
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Down your iced tea within 24 hours, before it loses most of its mojo. Long-term storage diminishes its antioxidants and flavor.