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The Kashrus of Tea - With No Strings Attached!
Rabbi Boruch Beyer, Star-K Kashrus Administrator

Americans generally do not drink as much tea as the rest of the world.  This may have something to do with a certain party they had in Boston a while back.  That being the case, you might be surprised to learn that tea is second only to water in worldwide beverage consumption.  In fact, some estimates place tea consumption in the billions of cups daily. That’s a lot of tea.  However, with recent health benefits being ascribed to tea, its popularity in this country is definitely on the rise.  In this article, we will explore the world of tea vis-à-vis kashrus and halacha.  First, a little background is in order.

BACKGROUND

Tea is a processed leaf.  It is grown on a tea tree which, if allowed to grow wild, would reach 30 or more feet in height.  On tea plantations, the main trunk of the seedlings is cut to produce a plant that grows more like a bush than a tree, to enable an easier harvest.

Tea is grown in temperate to tropical areas around the world, the majority coming from India, China, Sri Lanka and, of course, Japan.  The early Chinese are credited with the discovery of pouring hot water over these leaves to make tea.  Legend has it that the emperor, Shen Nung, would drink water only after it was boiled.  He was sitting under a tea tree one day, while his servant was boiling up some water.  Some leaves from the tree fell into the kettle and, as they say, the rest is history.  The name ‘tea’ comes from the Chinese words Tchai, Cha, and Tay that are used to describe the drink as well as the plant. The botanical name for tea reflects its origins, Camellia Sinensis, roughly translated as Chinese camellia; Camellia is the plant family to which tea belongs.

PROCESSING

Tea production begins on the plantation, where leaves are still harvested by hand in the traditional way.  There are some areas of the world where the harvesting is mechanized.  However, because most teas are grown in difficult high altitude terrain, in addition to various other reasons, machines are not practical for most plantations.

Tea bushes are carefully pruned for three years.  This produces a nice growth of “flush”. “Flush” is the term used to describe the tender new leaves that are used to make tea.  The plant continues to be pruned throughout its lifetime to ensure a steady growth of usable flush.  Depending upon the climate, tea is harvested two or three times a year – and sometimes year-round.

Once the leaves arrive at the factory, most will go through a four stage process.  The first stage is known as withering.  The leaves are spread out to wither or dry, in order to remove as much moisture as possible from the leaves to make them more pliable.  In most factories, this is accomplished by spreading the leaves out in the sun or in large trays made of netting or fine wire mesh, called withering racks.  They are dried either in an open air shed by natural breezes or by forced cool air.  This stage can take eighteen to twenty-four hours.

From the withering racks, the now softened green leaves move into the rolling machines. These machines break and twist the leaves, breaking up their cell walls, allowing the juices to be exposed to the air, and cutting the leaves into marketable sizes.  This is the beginning of the oxidation (or fermenting) of the tea, and the first important chemical change to occur. This step leads to the development of the essential oils that give the tea its flavor.

This chemical change continues and matures in the oxidation room.  The tea leaves are spread out on a flat surface, usually on a tile or cement floor, in a cool damp room.  As a result of increased oxidation, after two to three hours, the leaves will turn the color of a bright new penny.

In the fourth and final stage, the tea progresses to the driers.  Here it is dried by hot air to arrest the oxidation process and seal in the tea flavor.  Almost all the remaining moisture is removed during the drying, which also serves to preserve the tea and keep it from getting moldy.  At this point, the tea has assumed its characteristic black-brown color.

The above steps are typical for the production of black tea.  This is the type of tea that most Americans drink.  Green tea is made from the same leaves used in black tea; however, green tea skips the withering step and is instead immediately steamed.  This keeps the leaves from oxidizing so they remain green.  Oolong tea represents a compromise between black and green.  In oolong, the leaves are allowed to oxidize only partially, turning a brownish-green color.  Another type of popular tea is white tea, which is oxidized even less than green tea.

After drying, the tea must be graded.  Tea grades are based on size, not quality.  The leaves pass through sifters of various sizes to determine the grade.  If the leaf is too large to fit through any of the sifters, it is sent back for additional rolling.  It is interesting to note that the designation “Orange Pekoe” (pronounced peck-oh) seen on many packages of tea, is actually nothing more than the basic grade for black tea.  Pekoe is a Chinese term used to describe the tea buds.  One explanation for the “orange” in the name is that it refers to the House of Orange from the Netherlands, a major player in the tea trade in the old days.

After grading and sorting, the tea is packed in crates and shipped worldwide to wholesalers and distributors.  High end tea will be sold loose or by the box.  The mid and lower end tea is made into tea bags or instant tea.

Tea VariEtiEs

Scented Teas:  Genuine scented teas, such as Jasmine or Rose Congou, are made by forcing hot air over jasmine or rose blossoms that have been layered on top of the finished tea.  This imparts the scent of the flowers to the tea, which also influences the taste.  The dried out petals are then mixed in with the tea for visual effect.  This scenting process does not present us with any kashrus problems.  Other teas of this type are Magnolia and Orchid.

One of the most famous scented teas is Earl Grey.  The second Earl Grey of England picked up the original formula for this tea while on a diplomatic mission to China, back in the early 19th century.  True Earl Grey employs bergamot oil sprayed onto the finished tea to achieve its unique flavor.  Bergamot is a pear-shaped citrus fruit grown in southern Europe.  Bergamot oil is a member of that group of fruit oils known as essential oils, which are derived from the fruits through pressing and distillation.   Based on broad experience and knowledge of industry practices, oils of this type are considered kosher even when not certified as such.  Other oils in this category, used widely in the food industry, include orange, lemon, and lime oil.  Earl Grey tea that lists bergamot oil as an ingredient, with no additional flavors, would be acceptable even without a kosher certification.

Flavored Teas:  Flavored teas, both regular and herbal, are processed in the same way.  After placing the leaves in a rotating drum, the liquid flavor is sprayed directly onto the product.  The procedure is done at room temperature, so there are usually no equipment problems from the perspective of kashrus.  The one equipment issue that does occasionally arise is that the company may be using non-kosher flavors for non-certified teas on the same equipment.  As long as the flavors are not compatible with the kosher flavors being used, this is not a problem.  This is because the company has no interest in having divergent flavors mixed with each other, and they are careful to clean in between runs.  As previously mentioned, because the process is cold, a cleanout is sufficient to prepare the flavor drum for kosher production.  The major question we are faced with is the kashrus of the flavorings.

Food flavor chemicals represent one of the most challenging areas in kashrus.  Since ingredients for flavors are derived from a myriad of sources, any product containing either natural or artificial flavorings requires certification.  Flavored teas are no exception.  STAR-K certification requires its mashgichim to make frequent unannounced visits to check on the kashrus of all flavored teas.

Dairy Tea:  One important issue to keep in mind when purchasing flavored teas is to make sure to check if the product is certified Pareve or Dairy.  There are several flavored teas on the market now that are reliably certified, but they are dairy.  Since many people typically think of tea as a pareve beverage, they have become accustomed to drinking it with dairy or meat.  Obviously, a dairy tea mistakenly consumed as a pareve tea can present several problems:  the kosher status of one’s dishes, drinking it with or after a meat meal, and issues pertaining to cholov Yisroel.

Tea Bags:  Traditionally, tea was brewed loose. In the early twentieth century, Mr. Thomas Sullivan of New York began selling coffee and tea in small silk bags that customers would place directly into boiling water.  Eventually, paper replaced the silk.  Today, after the tea is flavored in the factory (or in the case of non-flavored tea, after removal from the packing crates) it is placed in tea bags or smaller boxes for retail sale.  There are no kashrus concerns regarding unflavored tea bags.

Herbal and Medicinal Teas:  Popular herbal teas include Chamomile and Mint teas. Echinacea tea is a well known medicinal.  Generally made from dried herbs, leaves, and roots, they are intrinsically kosher and do not need to be certified.  Herbs are typically dried on dedicated equipment in dedicated processing facilities, by having warm air blown over them.

The above is true for herbals and medicinals that are simply dried herbs.  However, if additional ingredients such as flavors have been added, they would need to be reliably certified.  One of the most popular brands of teas, “Celestial Seasonings,” has many herbals and regular teas that have been certified by STAR-K since the mid-1980s.

Iced Tea:  Most historians credit American tea plantation owner Richard Blechynden for inventing iced tea at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.  Trying to get fair goers to sample his hot tea on one of the hottest days of the year was no easy feat for Mr. Blechynden. Consequently, the enterprising businessman dumped a load of ice in the tea and became the father of one of the biggest innovations in tea.

It is estimated by the tea industry that 85% of the tea consumed in the U.S. is iced tea. Available today in ready-to-drink varieties, the standard procedure for iced tea production is very similar to that of other soft drinks.

The basic ingredient is concentrated syrup, developed by the soft drink company or specialty manufacturers.  It is composed mainly of the flavor and color used in the drink.1 This item must be kosher certified.  The concentrate is sent to the bottler, where the other ingredients including water, sweeteners, and preservatives are added, and the drink is made.  Based on knowledge of the soft drink industry, we can say that the processing and additional ingredients employed at the bottlers do not present any kashrus issues. Therefore, if it is known that the concentrate is kosher certified by a reputable kashrus source, the finished product is also treated as kosher.  This is true, even if the product does not bear a kosher symbol on the label.

This also applies to most soft drinks.  Iced tea, however, and some fruit juice drinks display a few wrinkles in their production that change the rules.  The issue revolves around the producer’s desire to sometimes market a more premium product – in this case, one which is preservative-free – that can be sold for a higher price.  Many people will pay more for a product that is not made with chemical preservatives, such as those found in iced tea, e.g. citric acid, potassium benzoate, phosphoric acid, and sodium citrate.

The most prevalent method employed in avoiding the use of preservatives is to pasteurize the product, as is done with milk.  This kills the bacteria that the preservatives would normally control.  This is a hot process and is a kashrus issue if the plant produces both certified and non-certified products.  Therefore, when purchasing iced tea without preservatives, one should make sure that it has a reliable certification symbol on the label.

Instant Tea:  A relative newcomer to the tea world, instant tea has been around only since 1953. Although the idea behind instant tea is a simple one, the technology employed to produce it is complex.  The basic process begins by boiling strong tea that is put through various stages of evaporation, which continually concentrates the tea flavor.  The tea essence is then extracted and filtered.  This step could be repeated several times before the tea is vacuum-concentrated and sterilized.  Finally, the product is spray dried.

Since this process employs high heat at several stages, and it is not uncommon for equipment of this sort to be used for non-kosher applications, it would normally be assumed that all instant teas need to be reliably certified.  However, this is not the case. This is because the collective experience of reputable kashrus authorities has shown that the companies that manufacture these products are dedicated to tea.  We have no fear of the equipment being used for other potentially non-kosher foods.  This holds true only for unflavored teas, however.  Instants that have flavors and other added ingredients require kosher certification.

Pesach

Although one might think that plain, unflavored tea would not require a special Kosher for Passover certification, technology and manufacturing practices sometimes change from week to week.  Therefore, we recommend purchasing only those teas that are kosher certified for Passover.  This is certainly the case with flavored teas and decaffeinated teas, where there are actual known ingredient issues that are potentially problematic for Pesach.

Another issue with potential Passover ramifications has recently come to light.  While inspecting a large tea manufacturer in New England, a reliable mashgiach discovered that some batches of green and white teas were contaminated with gluten. This was especially true of teas grown and imported from China.  Investigations revealed that the Chinese manufacturers were either adding gluten to the tea leaves to help arrest the oxidation process during the drying stage of production, or possibly producing the tea on equipment that was also used for gluten. In either case, a surprise source of chometz problems for Pesach had been identified, not to mention a potential health issue for those who suffer from celiac disease.

Extensive testing of several nationally known brands of green tea was conducted, and half the samples tested positive for the presence of gluten. Admittedly, the amounts detected were quite small and would be botul according to halacha.  Even so, these findings raise a red flag indicating re-examination of our previous assumptions about the permissibility of certain innocuous products, such as unflavored tea. STAR-K policy regarding this issue has been to maintain our previous requirement that all tea bear a Kosher for Passover certification.

Shabbos

Since many people enjoy their tea mainly on Shabbos, it would be appropriate to briefly mention the do’s and don’ts of tea preparation on Shabbos.  One should not use tea/herbal bags or loose teas on Shabbos.  This is because tea is part of that group of foods known as kaley habishul, or easily cooked foods.  These foods are considered so sensitive to heat that they will cook at temperatures that other foods will not.

Therefore, the only way to enjoy tea on Shabbos is to prepare tea essence before Shabbos.  The common practice is to make a very strong cup of tea prior to Shabbos by using several bags and pouring boiling water over them.  It is preferable to also remove the bags before Shabbos.  This essence can now be added to a cup of hot water (kli sheini) on Shabbos.  The preferred method, however, according to Rabbi Moshe Heinemann, shlita, Rabbinic Administrator of the STAR-K, is to place several bags into a pot of water and actually boil them up on the fire prior to Shabbos.2 This essence, minus the bags, can be stored in a cup and added to hot water.3

Alternatively, you may want to use instant tea on Shabbos.  When using instant tea, or coffee, the preferred method is to add the tea to the hot water (kli sheini), and not vice versa.

We can say that, for the most part, tea remains one of life’s simple pleasures that can be enjoyed comfortably by the kosher consumer.  But remember, tea is no different than many other foods – from a kosher perspective, the simpler the better.  Once you venture out into the world of more complex tea products, proceed with caution… to avoid ending up in hot water!



[1] See Kashrus Kurrents article, “The Drinks of a New Generation.”

[2] ואע"ג דיש מקום לחלק בין בישול עלי הטייא שנשארים העלים בתמצית ונותנים העלים בשבת בכלי שני, ובין היכא שכבר הסירו העלים מאתמול, שאז אין הנידון כי אם על המים שנצטננו, ובהמים אין בישול בכלי שני כמו שכתוב במ"ב שם ס"ק פ"א.  אבל לפענ"ד הא ליכא, דגם טעם הנפלט מן העלים ג"כ יש לו ממשות.  כמו שאנו רואים בחוש בה"אינסטנט טייא," שזהו התמצית מן העלים ונמס לגמרי כשנותנים אותו במים.  וכמו שמצינו במלח ששייך בו בישול אע"ג דנמס, כמש"כ הרמ"א שם בסעיף ט', ה"ה בתמצית הטייא.  ואם אינו מבשל אותו ממש ע"ג האש מלפני שבת, יש חשש שלא היה מבושל כל צרכו.  וכל שכן , אם רק עירה עליו מים רותחים מלפני השבת כמש"כ בשער הציון שם אות ס"ג.  ובע"כ על התמצית המ"ב מדבר כשאמר דלערות על עלי הטייא יש בזה בודאי חשש אב מלאכה.  דעל בישול העלים הוא מלאכה שאין צריך לגופה דפטור עליה כמש"כ המ"ב בסי' שט"ז ס"ק כ"ח.  וממה שנפלט הטעם מן העלים אין ראיה, שכבר נתבשל, דגם בצונן מפליט טעמו וחזותו וע' מ"ב סי' שי"ח ס"ק ס"ז.

[3]עי' מ"ב שי"ח סי' ד', ס"ק ל"ט



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