Expert-teas: Q&A with Soon-To-Be Tea Sommelier Gina McCormick

Not too long ago I made a huge career and life change, and because of that, my little world has expanded. Almost every day I'm blessed with the good fortune of encountering interesting, passionate and talented people. As a new entrepreneur myself, I'm incredibly inspired by those who have transformed their talent or passion into a business that contributes to good health and wellness. As time goes on, I hope to feature more and more amazing businesses owners, based in Ottawa and beyond, and invite them to share their stories and expertise with me (and you!).

As the first of many, I'm excited to post my interview with the lovely Gina McCormick, founder of Tea By G, a small local specialty tea company. She has studied both teas and nutrition extensively and was kind enough to answer some of my questions about tea and the many associated health benefits.  If you are a tea lover, healthy living enthusiast, or an inquiring mind, I think you'll find this very interesting. 

Gina showcasing some of her tea blends. 

Gina showcasing some of her tea blends. 

Amy: How did you become a tea expert?
Gina: I started my journey by becoming a nutritionist through the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition in 2006.  I was very interested in how food affected the human body, and how it could be used to prevent disease and support wellness.  Years later, I felt the need to be back in a classroom setting, sponging knowledge off of someone who knew more than me.  I wanted to expand my knowledge base of all things that are healthy for the body.  That’s when I stumbled upon the Tea Sommelier program at Algonquin College. 

Tea had always been somewhat of a mystery to me.  I knew there were thousands of variations out there, but was virtually in the dark about its origins and manufacturing processes.  So I dove in, and signed up for ‘Introduction to Tea’.  Well, didn’t that change my world!  I loved what I was learning!  For instance, did you know there are thousands of different teas out there, and they all come from one shrub?  That’s right – all tea is made from the fresh leaf of the Camellia sinensis bush.  There are a few varieties of the bush, and many cultivars, but tea all stems (pun intended) back to the one bush! 

No two teas are the same.  The differences between teas, are a sum of the type of bush, the manufacturing process – how long the leaf is allowed to oxidize (or not), age old techniques, geographical location of the country, as well as region, weather patterns, soil conditions, high or low grown, etc. So to get back to your question, I’m mostly a student of tea, rather than an expert on tea.  I’m now on my 8th and final course before taking the certification exam to become a Tea Sommelier.  It’s a blast!

A: We are currently experiencing a never ending winter here in Ottawa, with sudden bursts of Spring, and then it’s winter all over again.  Being in between seasons tends to lead to colds and flus.  Do you have any suggestions for immune boosting teas?
G: As a nutritionist, I recommend the most important step you can take to care for your immune system, is to eat a diet of whole, natural foods.  The ones Mother Nature put on this earth, not the processed foodstuffs that come in a box.  Good quality protein will help build healthy white blood cells, which produce antibodies. 

Short of that, drinking tea can support a healthy diet by providing nutrients specific to boosting the immune system.  Green and white teas in themselves, have been extensively studied, and are known to be a powerhouse of antioxidants with great health benefits.  

All tea in general, is a healthy option.  You really can’t go wrong, but this is where herbs come into play.  You can find different tea bases, such as white, green, black, which have added herbs, or you can simply use straight up herbal blends (tisanes).

Look for herbs such as astragulus (Huang Qi), which may help restore natural defences by revitalizing white blood cells (your army against viruses and bacteria).  Ginger root is antibacterial and it’s also very warming for cold days!  Peppermint aids congestion.  Tulsi (Holy Basil), known to stimulate the immune system and support the adrenals (our stress response), contains essential oils believed to be antiseptic, antibacterial and high in antioxidants.  Cinnamon is warming, and is also known to be antiseptic and antibacterial.  It can help fight bacteria and viruses.  Rosehips are very high in vitamin C – as much as 20x more than oranges!  Lemongrass is antiviral and antibacterial. Chamomile may increase the body’s production of white blood cells, which destroy pathogens.  And of course, if you need to sweeten your tea, you can always add raw honey, which again is antibacterial and antimicrobial.  

Rooibos tea (actually a bush grown in South Africa) is known to contain many vitamins and minerals. It’s caffeine-free, and is a base for many blends.  Studies show that rooibos may improve immune function.

You may have heard of Kombucha.  It is wildly popular these days.  Kombucha ‘tea’ is fermented, so it contains probiotics (friendly gut bacteria).  It is said that 70% of the immune system resides in the gut, and thus immunity is directly proportional to the state of the gut!

A: In my practice, I always stress the importance of good digestion.  Do you have any suggestions?
G: Pu-erh is China’s famous fermented tea, which improves over time due to the host of bacteria, molds and fungi that are found in the moist, tropical weather of the Xishuangbanna region of the Yunnan Province.  Much like fine wines and scotches, raw Pu-erh is collected by avid connoisseurs and could fetch thousands of dollars (the older, the more desirable).  Not all Pu-erh is expensive though, and it can be found in specialty teashops.  It is the fact that it is fermented, and anything fermented will help with digestion by increasing the friendly bacteria within the gut, which help breakdown food.

If Pu-erh isn’t available, there are certainly herbs (again, herbs to the rescue) that support good digestion.  Look for blends with peppermint/spearmint, which are antispasmodic (suppresses muscle spasms), great for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), and very soothing.  Ginger also is antispasmodic, and is known to relieve digestive pain and nausea.  Both aniseed and fennel relieve gas and bloating.  Chamomile is calming, and eases digestion, as will lemon balm, which is also helpful for a ‘nervous’ stomach.

A: Getting enough sleep, or falling asleep, is something my clients struggle with.  Can you suggest a tea or teas that support better sleep?
G: Absolutely! Start with a decaffeinated base.  Rooibos or herbal blends are best.  Herbs to look for would include valerian root, which quiets and soothes the mind and nervous system.  It is only ever used in small amounts as part of a blend.  You may also use valerian in a bath!  It is said to ease pain, tension, muscle spasms, and has a general relaxing effect. 

Chamomile calms, cools and tranquilizes smooth muscle tissue, including the digestive tract.  Lemon balm and lemongrass (lemon verbena) are both known as a ‘nervine’, and help to relieve stress and anxiety.  Lavender is well known for its calming effects and is also said to be good for insomnia. Tea By G will be carrying a blend, which supports both healthy digestion and a good night’s sleep, the perfect evening tea.

A: Even though it doesn't feel like it, Spring will arrive eventually. Can you recommend any teas that would be perfect as part of a Spring cleanse or detoxification program?
G: Yes!  Spring can’t come fast enough for me! Springtime is the body’s natural cycle to detoxify.  By enjoying a bounty of new spring shoots, baby greens and a whole foods diet, your liver (the ‘master’ organ of detoxification) will love you!

Teas that support detoxification go hand in hand with teas that also support the immune system.  White, green and rooibos (high in vitamins and minerals) are very high in antioxidants, and pair well with the following herbs and roots: burdock and red clover (both blood purifiers, which may also stimulate and protect the liver), dandelion leaf  & root (liver support), lemongrass, and yellow dock (liver support).

A: Is there a feature of tea that you find particularly interesting?
G: I like to focus on the people - the people picking your tea.  Every cup of tea has a story, and it is important to appreciate that someone (usually a woman), is out there plucking two leaves and a bud and tossing it in her basket, to be brought in and weighed, and ready for processing.  The aspect of ‘bush to cup’ is my favourite feature of tea. We must respect the working conditions of the pickers, and the elders, who have rolling techniques that will likely die with them because their offspring are heading into the cities to live, as well as everyone who has a roll to play in bringing that bush to your cup. Tea making is complex and all senses are on board in the manufacturing process.  A cup of tea is truly a wonderful thing!

A: Where do you source your teas?  
G: My teas come from all over the world!  The beauty of tea is you can travel the world cup by cup.  There are over 40 tea-producing countries.  China, for instance, produces all 6 types of tea (white, green, oolong, yellow, black &  Pu-erh).  Tea was discovered about 5000 years ago in China, which holds some of the most interesting and time-honoured tea manufacturing traditions of any country.

Sri Lanka, geographically, has some of the best weather patterns for tea growing, with trade winds coming from both the East and West.  India provides black teas from Assam, which are bold, malty and brisk.  Within India, Nilgiri produces leaves that are known to be fragrant, smooth, and not bitter.  And of course, Darjeeling 1st and 2nd flush (first pick of the season, and second), are highly anticipated and coveted each year.  Tea from Kenya is known to be dark and bold, whereas Japan produces green tea, which through their steaming and firing techniques produces a delicate cup with vegetal and sweet notes, which you can sip all day.   Taiwan produces oolong tea, which is the most complex of all tea. The flavour profile of oolong is decided by how long the leaves are left to oxidize, and this can be anywhere from 20% (tending it more toward a green tea) to 80% (tending it more toward a black tea).  There are many more tea producing countries, but we’ll leave that for another time.

At this point, I don’t personally travel to these countries (yet!) to source my tea. The suppliers I choose make it their business to travel to the various tea gardens in different countries, and need to demonstrate that quality standards are adhered to.  Tea needs to be as fresh as possible to yield a tasty liquor (tea talk), with heady aromas and a clean finish.  These standards also apply to pesticides, which is another huge, complex and multifaceted topic to cover.  I do try to source organically grown tea whenever possible, and when I can’t, I feel comfortable knowing there are standards in place.

A: What is your favourite tea of all time, and why?
G: Any avid tea drinker, or anyone new to the world of tea, would agree there is not one favourite tea.  One’s journey through tea naturally brings them from one tea to another.  It can’t be helped.  Exploring tea types and countries of origin, a person can quickly find themselves obsessed.  They generally won’t speak of their obsession until they run in to a fellow tea-geek, then look out!

I know many people who start with liking blends, and eventually want to explore unflavoured tea, then single-estate teas! At one time, my favourite was jasmine pearls.  Jasmine flower blossoms are collected, and spread over green tea leaves numerous times over the course of several days.  The scent transfers to the leaf, and then it is rolled tightly to hold the scent until it magically unfurls in your cup.  

Regardless of where you are in your tea journey, one thing is for certain – you can explore the world through a cup of tea!  It’s crazy fun!

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