Why the populari-tea?

Like many students, Angel He, a pre-medical science major and gerontology minor, needed a potent jolt to get through her busy school days. Black coffee was her drug of choice – that is, until she unexpectedly fell in love with tea.

“It just happened so gradually, so naturally,” she said. “I didn’t really even think about it. I (went from) going to Starbucks every single day of the week to coming (to Kaleisia Tea Lounge) and studying – you don’t even think about going to Starbucks anymore.”

She was won over after having a cup of tea at Kaleisia, where she now brews tea for hundreds of students every month. Unlike coffee and soda, she said, tea has a subtle taste, great health benefits and a pleasant aftertaste.

At first, she found the variety of tea the lounge offers overwhelming.

“I didn’t even pick my own tea,” she said. “I was among one of those many people who come in and just say, ‘Pick something for me’ … (Before that) I drank tea, but I didn’t take tea seriously. I drank it out of the bottle – the Lipton, the Brisk … and that was it.”

Lan Ha, a USF alumna and co-owner of Kaleisia, is familiar with this mindset.

“We have customers who really have no idea what tea really is besides, you know, the image that people think of tea,” said Ha, who graduated from USF in 2004 with a bachelor’s in business management. “Immediately, it’s either the Lipton iced cold tea that you can get just going to a regular restaurant or just hot green tea. So here, we kind of open their eyes to many different varieties and actually come to understand tea a little bit.”

Ha, along with cousin and co-owner Kim Pham, thought the USF area could use a place that would make a cup of tea as accessible as a cup of coffee.

“We thought the public would love it as much as we did,” Ha said.

Ha and Pham, who has traveled to Vietnam, the border of Cambodia, Korea, China and Japan to study tea in the fields and in the homes of those who have ceremoniously embraced it for centuries, search far and wide to find the best quality teas for their lounge. USF students, faculty members and alumni make up about 80 percent of Kaleisia’s clientele, Pham said. Thus, Kaleisia, which is located only a mile or two from campus on the corner of Fletcher ave. and 15th st., may be the university area’s main portal to tea beyond the norm.

Pham and Ha both said the wide variety of flavors is a major factor in why the tea is so appealing.

“(The flavors) really are infinite and it doesn’t overpower water the same way coffee does, so you can have a wonderful dance between the two, depending on the quality of the water (and) the type of loose tea that you use,” Pham said.

There are about six types of tea, which differ in flavor, mode of process, and caffeine and antioxidant content: maté, black, green, red, oolong and white tea, in addition to herbal teas, one of which is called rooibos (pronounced ROY-bose). Ha and Pham then flavor the teas by infusing them naturally with dried spices, flowers and fruit, among others. Their flavors range from Indian chai and Japanese Sencha to lychee fruit and peach apricot.

Pham thinks those who are not yet tea drinkers are hesitant because the most plentiful and popular teas, found largely in supermarkets and restaurants, misrepresent the true qualities of tea.

“Many people are turned off by it from their idea of what tea is, and their idea came from something false that was created from Celestial Seasonings tea bags, from having really bad tea at supermarkets or at restaurants (made from) the plain iced tea makers that are watered down or (made of) powder,” she said.

Another way for students to access such a variety is through The Republic of Tea (TRoT), a company that has made its way to university campus bookstores all over the country beginning in 1992. The Barnes & Noble café on campus just started selling more rare teas, such as red and white teas, as well as teapots with infusers. Cathy Hackett, former café manager, said they are all selling quite well.

According to Marideth Post, the minister of enlightenment of media relations for TRoT, tea drinking among college students has grown exponentially in the past three to five years. She thinks a variety of flavors and health benefits contribute most to the rise. She said some of the best-selling flavors are reflective of tea trends at large, such as TRoT’s Ginger Peach black tea and Pomegranate Green Tea, which are long-time favorites. Others, such as white, red and maté, are gaining more popularity.

“Before TRoT started in the early ’90s, all you would typically find anywhere was sort of a plain, black tea, that you might need to douse with milk or sugar just to sort of get it down, like it’s what grandma used to serve at her house. I think a variety of really delicious and innovative flavors are an important factor,” Post said. “I think college students at large, despite perceptions or what have you, we find a lot have a real interest in living a healthy lifestyle and consuming healthy products and minding their own personal health.”

Pham and Ha agree that the many health benefits are a major attractive quality.

“Nowadays, people are much more health conscious,” Ha said. “Before it was like eat whatever, drink whatever, but now people are more into the organic and vegan (products), they actually want to exercise and are much more health conscious. I think that’s why people are getting into tea.”

Studies on the health benefits of green tea are abundant. A Google Scholar search of “green tea study” found 63,900 results. Drinking tea, particularly green tea due to its high anti-oxidant content, has been linked to a reduction in the risk of cancer, but studies have yet to be conclusive on humans.

However, a study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association on Sept. 13 found a connection between consuming green tea and living a longer life. In the study, 40,530 men in Japan were tracked for up to 11 years. Those who drank five cups of tea a day had lower mortality rates from all causes other than cancer.

Dr. Kathryn Allen, a registered dietician at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center, shared some information in August about the effects of tea on cancer cells at a presentation called “Deconstructing the Tea Leaf,” organized and sponsored by the Museum of Science and Industry and Kaleisia. She explained how the polyphenols and antioxidants found in tea have cancer-fighting qualities.

“Oxidants are unstable molecules that are produced by the body. Just by breathing oxygen, your body is producing free radicals,” Allen said. “It’s the way our bodies function. So you have those unstable molecules, and those oxidants steal electrons from other molecules, and along with that, they steal genetic matter, including protein. The cells are then more vulnerable. … We want to make it more stable, because the destruction of DNA is what actually leads to cancer. … Anti-oxidants actually steal those oxidants. … The anti-oxidants can also help repair the damage that is caused by those free radicals. So those anti-oxidants are like little rescuers.”

None of the studies showed that tea reduces cancer risk. But there are many more being done.

Milton Schiffenbauer, a professor and microbiologist at Pace University (N.Y.), is one of the few in the United States who has been studying the antimicrobial effects of tea. Since 2000, he and his students have found that teas have a number of positive effects. They know green and white teas kill bacteria, viruses and fungi in Petri dishes. Now, they are trying to find a way to incorporate the findings so they may benefit the human body.

“Many, many infections occur through the oral cavity, the mouth, and we’ve done quite a bit of work with trying to upgrade oral agents, like toothpaste and mouthwash and mouth rinse,” Schiffenbauer said. “We found that most toothpastes do not destroy virus or bacteria. Even though they say they do, they don’t, and we found that by adding tea to the toothpaste, for example, Colgate, Crest, Oral B, Tom’s of Maine, we found that when we add tea to the toothpaste, we increase the antimicrobial effects.

“What’s great about it is that tea is natural,” he said. “We’re not adding anything to it. It’s just plain, natural, wholesome tea. … I think people will begin to realize that one of the ways of helping your health is through natural products. I’m a believer of that now, based on what I see.”

Although Schiffenbauer’s research was initiated in the lab, his independent research has garnered attention outside the medical field. One company interested in his work is Tom’s of Maine, an all-natural hygiene products company. In fact, Schiffenbauer is aiding in what may be their latest product: a tea-infused toothpaste.

Many of the tea drinkers interviewed had developed a relationship with tea that keeps them drinking day after day, but Pham may have expressed that love most eloquently. It was a response to a friend she made while in Japan.

“He asked what tea meant to me, and I said tea is my best friend,” Pham said. “When I’m down, it will pick me up. When I’m sick, it will make me feel better. When I’m tired, it will wake me up, or cheer me up. I’m someone who gets tired of things easily, and I always need change, I always need challenges, and I always need growth. So tea is that kind of friend. We laughed about it, but it was true. Tea was the same way for him.”