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Hong Wu and her husband, Daquan Yao, owners of Dream About Tea, 1011 Davis St., came to Chicago from China in 1999 to earn their MBAs from North Park College. While doing research for a class project, they were surprised to learn Chicago had no authentic Chinese tea shops.
“We were young and we just thought, why not?” said Ms. Wu.
In 2003, Dream About Tea opened its doors. Decorated with red Chinese lanterns, shelves of clay tea pots and rows and rows of glass jars filled with the tiny dried leaves that make up more than 160 blends of tea, the store feels as authentic as the couple had hoped it would.
“We get a lot of regulars,” said Ms. Wu. “Most of our customers are well educated and health-conscious.”
The shop has attracted more and more health-minded individuals over the years as research continues to show the benefits of drinking tea.
While many things may be called “tea,” the term actually applies only to the Camellia sinensis plant, which has more than 180 varieties. The flowering shrub was believed to have been discovered during the Shang Dynasty during the second millennium B.C., where tea was highly regarded for its medicinal properties. Today studies are confirming the healthful benefits of tea that the ancients already knew.
The Camellia sinensis plant contains powerful antioxidants that neutralize free radicals that damage the body’s cells. Studies suggest that the daily consumption of 3-5 cups of tea could prevent numerous types of cancer from developing. Other studies have found that tea’s antioxidant polyphenols may help prevent blood clotting and lower cholesterol levels, reducing the risk of stroke and heart disease.
Drinking tea, specifically green tea, may also help ward off the flu. Studies have found that drinking green tea may improve immune response as it has the highest levels of catechins, a powerful antioxidant with antiviral properties.
The leaves from the Camellia sinensis plant are used to produce white, green and black teas. Different processing of the leaves after harvest produce other types of teas such as partially oxidized oolongs and fermented pu-erhs.
The term “herbal tea,” also known as “tisane,” refers to a beverage with herbs or any plant material such as flowers, fruits, roots or twigs infused in hot water and is quite different from traditional tea. For example, beverages brewed from chamomile flowers and peppermint leaves are considered herbal tea, as they do not come from the traditional tea plant.
The more processing the tea leaves undergo, the darker they become. White tea and green tea are the least processed teas, as the leaves are steamed shortly after they are harvested. Oolong, black and pu-erh teas are dried and fermented, resulting in a richer, more mature taste. The fermentation process also adds beneficial bacteria to the tea.
“Drinking fermented tea is very good for gut health,” said Ms. Wu. “It’s like eating a high-quality yogurt.”
Ms. Wu and Mr. Yao serve all types of tea in their shop: green, black, oolong and pu-erh as well as herbal tisanes. All of their tea is imported directly from China.
Ms. Wu expressed concern over the amount of coffee Americans consume each year. She says she believes tea is a better alternative. “Coffee is a tough habit to break,” she said. “The caffeine in coffee typically gives people a quick spike in energy, but then they crash. Tea does have some caffeine, but green tea and oolong tea in particular have low levels of it, and the caffeine is released gradually. There is no spike and no crash.”
Ms. Wu said growing up in China her mother always had a pot of hot water on for tea.
“We would drink it like it was water,” she said. “I’d come in from playing outside and have a cup. We knew it was good for our health.”