In the south of South America, somewhere between the River of the Painted Birds and the largest tropical wetlands in the world, ie. the Uruguay and Paraguay rivers respectively, the Guarani (pronounced “war-an-i”) were greeted by Pa’ i Shume. Among other things, the god revealed to the tribe the secret of the medicinal Yerba Mate (pronounced “ma-tay”) tree. In Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, the bitter-sweet-grassy tasting tea brewed from the leaves of the Yerba Mate remains revered for its immunity-boosting, detoxifying, and stimulating effects. The beverage of choice for many, “Mate tea has become almost pathologically ritualized in a manner reminiscent of coffee and tea abuse in Western and Eastern countries.”
The traditional method of making Yerba Mate involves soaking dried, ground tree leaves and stems in a gourd filled with cold water, before steeping them in hot water for a long enough time to extract the health and energy provoking qualities of the subtropical plant. The infusion is then sipped through a wooden or metal straw with a sieve—the entire apparatus of which is called a bombilla—in order to filter out the leafy material. Nowadays, mate, which can also be served as a cold beverage, is increasingly available in tea bags or powdered form for those of us who eschew tradition, shame on me. That’s about to change, though. In the meantime, I’m currently drinking Guayaki brand because it’s organic and dedicated to free trade. The company started out as a class project for enterprising students at California Polytechnic State University and has developed into a nice business model.
For many, “Mate is more than just good for the body; it’s good for the soul. Drinking it can be a form of meditation or reflection—allowing the goodness to infuse into the body while stimulating and resting the mind.” I drink a few cups every work day.
I also drink other teas and am currently on a white kick, ironic ain’t it. Delicate and subtle white tea has the least amount of caffeine of all the non-herbal teas and is high in Vitamin C. Though green tea gets all the hype, white tea actually has more antioxidant properties than its rival. I’m not knocking the grassy flavors of green tea, which was the first to be drank in China (Tang Dynasty 618-907), where many if not most of the finest teas originate. Sweet, black tea (think Lipton, Earl Grey, English Breakfast etc.) is the sort with which most non-connoisseurs tend to be familiar. Black tea is, in fact, the most common tea in the world and is also the basis of the beloved chai, but my ultimate favorites are the oolongs and the puh-erhs. If green tea and black tea were to marry and have a baby—or even if they had it out of wedlock, oolong would be the result:
Oolongs provide an eye-opening experience and offer a wide variety of flavors that range from subtle to intense, with each infusion unfolding new and different subtleties. These teas are semi-oxidized and roasted teas with medium levels of caffeine. The vast majority of oolong teas are produced in Fujian province in China, or Taiwan. Chinese oolongs generally tend to have a darker roast and fruitier nature than Taiwanese oolongs, which are generally greener, with a more floral aroma.
As far as I’m concerned though, the mysterious puh-erh is the king and queen of tea.
“Pu-erh tea is the only tea to improve with age. A truly full bodied, robust and yet incredibly smooth taste, pu-erh can be brewed hotter and longer than other teas. From the Yunnan province in China, this tea has been in production since the sixth century BC, traded along the Silk Road. The ageing process takes place in caves, underground, in bamboo stalks, in fruit rinds and many other ways. Pu-erh comes in square cakes, large round patties, compressed balls, or loose leaf. Also known as Pou Nei or Bo Lei in China, this tea is aged from 1 to 100 (or more!) years. Pu-erh has been known to lower cholesterol and triglycerides, cleanse the blood, help digestion, and even alleviate hangovers.”
Or get you through a day at the office, though not near quitting time. Drink enough of these fermented tea, and you won’t be fit to drive.
Then you’ve got your herbals or flower teas, my favorites of which include the red South African rooibos (fantastic plain or with sweetened condensed milk if you wanna drink it S. African style) , hibiscus, osthmanthus, Samovar’s “chill out blend” and the Celestial Seasoings offerings. Bite my tongue, but it’s true. Can’t be highfalutin’ all the time. Plus I’ve been on the Celestial Seasonings factory tour in Denver twice; that’s how cool it is.
For more on the delights of tea, check out the websites for Samovar Tea Lounge and DynasTea, two of my favorite tea houses in San Francisco, the latter thanks to Soyboy. Wisconsin’s Rishi Tea also has a nice thing going on.
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