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Tea and relaxation

Keep calm and have a spot of tea

Thanks to Fanciful Ink for the image!

If you’re looking for a whole afternoon of spirited discussion, ask an herbalist, a tea expert, and a doctor about the relaxing properties of tea. Any such discussion is immensely complicated by the dizzying variety of tea available, the thousands of herbal blends (“tisanes”) that herbalists call tea, and the dearth of comparative scientific studies.

My wife and I attended several sessions at World Tea Expo this month that discussed caffeine and health benefits of tea, and (since our tea bar is in our bookstore) I’ve read quite a bit on the subject. I think I know less now than I did when I started, but let me pass on a little of what I’ve learned.

All generalizations are wrong (including this one)

Virtually all of the comforting over-generalizations we pick up from Oprah or Dr. Oz are wrong. Green tea has no caffeine? Yes, it does. In fact, matcha (powdered Japanese green tea) had the highest caffeine content of any tea tested in the study presented at World Tea Expo 2012. White tea has the most antioxidants? Again, not necessarily. Oolong is just black tea that wasn’t allowed to ferment all the way? Wrong on two counts! Black tea isn’t fermented (it’s oxidized — pu-erh tea is fermented), and oolong uses a completely different process from black tea.

I have a different take on the subject, though. When I’m thoroughly stressed out and I fix a cup of tea, I don’t attribute the calming effects of the tea on chemical content, antioxidants, caffeine levels, or mystical magical herbal properties. I believe there are three factors at play: ritual, scent/taste memory, interruption, and expectation.


Even before I have my first sip of the completed beverage, I can feel the stress slipping away just by going through the ritual of getting out my favorite cup, heating the water, measuring the leaves, and steeping the tea. Ritual is comforting and familiar; it is the basis of techniques like yoga.

When I got sick as a little boy, the ritual was always the same: my mother would tuck me in to bed and make me a hot cup of tea and a couple of pieces of toast. Then, it was just cheap teabags and white toast. Today, it would be Huang Jin Gui oolong and rye toast. But either way, the ritual has a soothing effect all its own.

This is one of the advantages to brewing a fresh cup of tea instead of pouring some iced tea from a pitcher or popping the top off of a can or bottle.

Scent/Taste Memory

Much has been written about the power of scent memory. A whiff of rose and I’m transported back 25 years, walking through a rose garden in San Jose, California with my wife. One sniff of skunk and I’m in junior high school with my best friend, Brian, rubbing tomato juice into his dog’s fur. A hint of rum and … well, let’s not go there.

If tea is a part of your relaxation ritual and you make a point of relaxing with a cup of tea, then the aroma and taste of tea will have a calming effect, whether your tea of choice is a strong malty Assam, a delicate silver needle, or a rich shu pu-erh. Slurping down a bottle of RTD (ready-to-drink) tea just isn’t the same as savoring the aroma of a fresh-brewed cup of tea and swirling that first taste around your mouth.


Never underestimate the power of interruption. My father always told me when I got frustrated or angry I should take a break and do something else. When I hit a roadblock in my writing, I can often get past it by stepping away from the keyboard for a little while. Again, this is why it works to prepare a cup of tea. The whole time you’re putting the water on to steep and browsing the cabinet for the right tea to drink, you are focused on something other than the problems of the day. Take a deep breath, take your time, and you’ll feel the soothing effects of the tea before you even drink the tea.


If you think something will calm you down, it will. Doctors call this the placebo effect, and it really does work — it’s the entire basis of homeopathy, for example, where they give you very expensive water and it actually has an effect on some people because they believe it will work. Since the word “placebo” carries negative connotations, I will just refer to the power of expectation.

This works with no appeal to authority at all, but it works better when someone you trust makes the suggestion. If a shady-looking huckster on a street corner sells you some tea that’s “guaranteed to mellow you out,” it probably won’t help you. If a doctor (or herbalist, or your mother) gives you the exact same tea and says it will calm and relax you, it probably will.

If you put all of these elements together, you realize that there’s no magic to the relaxing properties of tea. It works, and it works for a lot of reasons. In fact, it worked very well for me earlier today. So grab a spot of tea, keep calm, and stay relaxed!

Free tea! It doesn’t get better than that

Bag of Chinese tea

The mysterious bag of Chinese tea.

A friend of mine stopped by the tea bar the other day. Unlike most tea bar visits from friends, Wanda brought tea in with her. It was a bag of tea from China that a friend had given her. She didn’t know what it was, and she’d had it for five years, so she asked if I’d like to have it.

I cut the bag open and poured out a bit of the tea. It was full rolled leaves; not rolled tightly into balls like Dragon Tears or gunpowder tea, but pretty dense nonetheless. The leaves were hard; dropping them into bowl made a pinging sound. The color was a bit darker than a typical green tea, and the smell reminded me of the Huang Jin Gui oolong we carry at the tea bar.

I brewed a cup — using a bit more tea than I usually would because of the age — and decided it was definitely a oolong, but I couldn’t quite identify it. Good packaging, by the way. Five years old, and it still tasted good.

Here’s where Facebook comes in handy. I took a picture of the large print on the top of the bag (the photo that’s now on this page), posted it on Facebook, and asked if anyone could identify it. Within about 20 minutes, I had my answer: Iron Goddess of Mercy, a lightly oxidized oolong with a unique aroma. After enjoying it for a few days, I started hunting for a good one to carry at the tea bar, and I’m excited to have a fresh batch coming in next week. Given how good the five-year-old stuff at home is, I have a feeling I’m really going to love the fresh tea.

Iron Goddess of Mercy (called “Tae Guan Yin” in Chinese) originated in Anxi, in the Fujian province of China. Today, it is produced in quite a few other areas of China and Taiway. The one we sell at our tea bar is a medium-roasted variety from Nantou, Taiwan. I’ve used the leaves for three infusions without loss of flavor, and I’ve been told they’re good for as many as seven.

The processing of Tae Guan Yin is complex. Traditionally, it follows these steps:

  1. Picking – usually done early in the day when it is sunny
  2. Sun drying (“withering”) – Done  before sunset the same day as the picking
  3. Cooling (“cool green”) – Done overnight, along with the tossing
  4. Tossing (“shake green”)
  5. Withering/partial oxidation – Done the day after picking
  6. Fixing
  7. Rolling/kneading
  8. Drying
  9. Roasting

There are several conflicting legends regarding the origin of Iron Goddess of Mercy, all recounted on the Chinese Tea Culture site. Personally, I much prefer the Wei Yin legend. I don’t know that it has any more veracity, but it’s a better story.

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