Health,  Tea Culture

Bitter Tea, a Happy Mind, and a Healthy Heart

Aristotle is thought to have said, “Patience is bitter but its fruit is sweet.” This is an interesting quote as it relates to tea. Tea can be one of the most beneficial drinks for our body. Often times, tea can taste bitter, yet the “fruit” of drinking such tea can be quite sweet. Many cultures have come to appreciate this bitter drink.

Aristotle, Greek philosopher (Source)

Compared to other Asian countries, the history of Greek tea culture is relatively short. They have a culture of drinking other herbs but Camellia sinensis not such much. However, about 9,405 kilometers from Greece is the country of Japan. The Japanese has developed a rich culture of around tea.

The Japanese Rediscover Their Love of Tea

It was not always this way, though. A Buddhist monk by the name of Eisai traveled to China to further his studies. While he was there, he was exposed to how the monks used tea and, once he finished his studies, he traveled back to Japan and took some tea seeds with him.

Tea had already been introduced to the Japanese people, but this was actually in a different form than we might know of sencha or matcha today. It was in the form of brick tea (we have talked about this type of tea in a previous post). In Japan, tea culture was synonymous with Chinese culture. When appreciation for Chinese culture began to die out in Japan, so did the popularity of tea. The popularity of tea in Japan was revived by Eisai after his return to Japan.

Myoan Eisai

Eisai was surly a tea enjoyer. He wrote a text about the virtues of tea drinking called Drinking Tea and Prolonging Life (喫茶養生記, Kissa yōjōki). He is even quoted to have said that, “Tea is the finest medicine for nourishing one’s health; it is the secret of a long life.”1 How, though, does this relate to benefits of consuming bitter tea?

Becoming a Certified Bitter Tea Enjoyer

Eisai was very much influenced by Traditional Chinese Medicine. In TCM, the “bitter” flavor is actually one of five flavors and has a special role in our body. The bitter taste in TCM is known to clear heat from the body.2 When someone has excess heat, the body will show symptoms such as heart palpitations, anxiety, insomnia just to name a few.3

These are probably symptoms that Eisai witnessed for himself in his interactions with Japanese people at the time. It was Eisai’s belief that, since tea’s bitterness coincides with the heart’s taste for bitterness, tea can be beneficial for the heart.

The five elements of Traditional Chinese Medicine. (Source)

He thought that, if people could drink more tea, this could bring harmony to elements of their body and restore balance, leading to a healthier heart4 In his Kissa yōjōki, he focuses more on the health effects of tea than on the sensual pleasure of it.5

Bitterness in Japanese Tea

So, we can assume that the bitter flavor is pretty important. What are some classically bitter Japanese green teas? Bancha is generally known to be a bit bitter. The reason why is because this tea made of the lower part of the tea plant. These leaves get more sun exposure as the top leaves are usually used for sencha. While the upper leaves are picked, the lower leaves hang out in the sun for a bit longer.

Bitter Bancha
A strong cup of bancha. Its bitter flavor can pair quite well with rice dishes.

When tea leaves stay in the sun, photosynthesis in the leaves converts the amino acid L-theanine into catechins.6 Catechins impart a bitter flavor and we talked about this in another blog post we did. Generally speaking, the more sunlight that tea leaves are exposed to, the more catechins will be developed. The caffeine in tea can also impart a bitter flavor. For most Japanese green teas, the longer and hotter you steep them, the more bitter they will become. The is because, the longer you steep our tea in hot water, the more catechins and caffeine are pulled out of the leaves.

Conclusion

Suffice it to say, we should not be afraid of bitter tea. It is nice when a tea has strong umami notes and a delicate sweetness. However, drinking a hardy cup of bitter tea can also be beneficial for us. Perhaps it highlights the importance of having and facing challenges in life. While we might not like the bitter flavored things, the catechins in tea that produce such a flavor have been observed to greatly improve our health. It might be worth it endure some bitter tea. You might even like it.

Are you a fan of bitter tea? What is your favorite classically bitter tea? Let us know by DMing us on instagram or tiktok. You can also subscribe to our newsletter by entering your email address in the designated box at the bottom of any page of our website.

  1. Wikipedia contributors. (2024b, June 5). Tea Culture in Japan. Wikipedia. Retrieved July 3, 2024, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tea_culture_in_Japan
    See, “Eisai and the rise in popularity of tea” ↩︎
  2. Bartrop, J. (2022, March 4). The five flavours of food according to traditional Chinese medicine. – Renew Health & Acupuncture Clinic. Renew Health & Acupuncture Clinic. Retrieved July 5, 2024, from https://renewacupunctureclinic.com.au/five-flavours-food-according-traditional-chinese-medicine/
    See the section “Heart and bitter“. ↩︎
  3. Ibid. ↩︎
  4. Wikipedia contributors. (2024b, May 29). Eisai: Way of the Tea. Wikipedia. Retrieved July 5, 2024, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eisai#Way_of_the_Tea
    See the last sentence of the last paragraph of this section. ↩︎
  5. Wikipedia (n1) ↩︎
  6. Wei, F., Nian, Q., Zhao, M., Wen, Y., Yang, Y., Wang, J., He, Z., Chen, X., Yin, X., Wang, J., Ma, X., Chen, Y., Feng, P., & Zeng, J. (2023b). Natural products and mitochondrial allies in colorectal cancer therapy. Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy, 167, 115473. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopha.2023.115473
    See the included article, “Neuroprotective attributes of L-theanine, a bioactive amino acid of tea, and its potential role in Parkinson’s disease therapeutics” ↩︎