According to ancient legend, tea was first introduced to society when the great Indian master and traditional founder of the Zen school of Buddhism, Bodhidharma, came to China in 519 A.D. bearing tea from India. Tea leaves simply and miraculously blew into a pot of water Bodhidharma had boiling.
Skeptics say this seems very unlikely. However, another story claims he was growing weary after staying awake for seven years, so he plucked off his eyelids, threw them to the ground and in their place sprang two tea trees that had the power to keep him awake and alert.
Tea drinkers no longer have to worry about taking such extreme measures to find a tea leaf. Most Americans live a short distance from cafes, markets and grocery stores that amply supply a wide assortment of tea brands and flavors already plucked, pulverized and packaged.
“Most Americans think of tea bags, which is a really inferior way to drink tea,” said Vinh Tran, owner of Fusion Brew, at 808 E. Broadway. “Most other countries think of loose leaves.”
The concept of drinking tea has been around for more than 5,000 years, but the world of tea is still very much uncharted. There are five main types of tea: black, green, red, white and herbal. Chai and bubble tea were recently introduced into mainstream cafe culture, although they are not yet as popular as the other varieties. Bubble tea is sweet and often served over tapioca pudding, giving it that bubble texture. Chai is more of a spiced tea and one of the few examples of tea that is just as flavorful served cold as hot.
Under each category there are hundreds of flavors. Lakota Coffee Company, at 29 S. Ninth St., offers 26 different flavors. According to Karen Truckey, a Lakota supervisor, Mango Ceylon and Ginger Peach are two of the more popular black tea blends. Ginseng Peppermint is a popular herbal blend, and Jasmine Jazz is the most popular of the green teas.
“But my personal favorite is Spring Cherry,” Truckey said.
“White tea is kind of a new thing we have in the hot tea department,” Truckey said. “Pineapple Guava is the most asked for. You only brew (white tea) for a minute, so it is much better hot than cold.”
Cherry Street Artisan, 111 S. Ninth St., offers only seven tea bag varieties and alternates two different iced tea blends, but employees have still noticed the popularity of tea drinking.
“Both peppermint teas are popular this summer, even served hot,” said Beth Ruder, a Cherry Street Artisan shift supervisor. “But blackberry jasmine (an iced tea) is the hit this summer.”
Clover’s Natural Food Market, 2100 Chapel Market Court, has a whole room devoted to tea, including free taste testers and books and pamphlets on tea, as well as different brands and flavors. In the main section of the store there are eight shelves of green tea alone. Green tea soda by a company called Steap is also available.
“Green tea is more mainstream now. It’s not some weird herbal thing people aren’t familiar with,” said Martha Echols, a Clover’s employee and tea drinker.
Tran said he enjoys both the taste and the health benefits of green tea. According to Nurulain Zavari, a doctor for the Stanford Research Institute International, green tea can also be considered as water intake because it basically replaces water. By comparison, coffee, which has a diuretic effect, provides a negative overall water intake.
Her study also noted that green tea has been associated with decreased risks of breast, pancreatic, colon, esophageal and lung cancers. However, she said it takes seven to eight cups of green tea a day in order to feel its chemo-preventive benefit.
New research from the Arthritis Research Campaign has found that it doesn’t necessarily take a dozen cups of tea a day to reap the benefits, though it does take a decade or so of regular tea drinking. The researchers concluded that green tea might also play a part in preventing the development of osteoarthritis.
Panera Bread Co. offers green tea bags and, new to the menu, Iced Green Tea — an iced drink infused with passion fruit and papaya. Anne Altorfer, a Panera employee, said she enjoys both green tea products. Altorfer also admits to trying another rumored use of green tea bags — using brewed bags to achieve a lightly bronzed look by applying them directly to her skin.
“I wouldn’t do it again. It didn’t work very well,” she said.
Using tea bags as a natural tanning solution is just one of the alternatives listed on the Web site of the Oregon-based Stash Tea Company (www.stashtea.com), which offers nearly 1,000 uses for tea besides drinking it.
Others include using tea to cure pinkeye and to de-puff baggy eyes. It can be used to dye rope, paper and hair as well as condition it. Tea can also act as a sunburn remedy.
The International Tea Council also proclaims the benefits of tea. The non-profit company, funded by contributions from tea-producing countries and the United Kingdom Tea Trade, was founded in 1967 and continues to thrive today, setting high standards for tea across the world.
“Tea keeps you in balance, naturally,” said Fay Palmer, a member of the council.