Tea 101

One of the best things about learning about tea, is learning about tea. Fact: Tea is the most common beverage consumed in the world, second only to water Any leaf, root, fruit or flower that does not come from the Camellia sinensis shrub is considered a herbal tea or Tisanes (a french word of “Herbal Infusion”). Pronounced: tih-ZANN. “True tea” comes from the Camellia sinensis plant, which has more varietals in China than there are wine grape varietals in all of France, tea dazzles us with its diversity. One plant, many dimensions.

Background

The history of tea is long and complex, spreading across multiple cultures over the span of thousands of years and is thought to have originated in southwest China during the Shang dynasty as a medicinal drink. An early credible record of tea drinking dates to the 3rd century AD, in a medical text written by Hua Tuo. Tea was first introduced to Portuguese priests and merchants in China during the 16th century, becoming popular in Britain during the 17th century. The British introduced tea production, as well as tea consumption, to India, in order to compete with the Chinese monopoly on tea.

The tea plant

The tea plant, C. Sinensis, is a flowering evergreen shrub that produces small white flowers, grows in tropical and subtropical climates. When under good management the plants can be harvested on a small scale in 3-4 years after planting. In 5 years, it can reach a big annual output and then remain at it for above 30 years. China’s Yunnan province is considered to be the original home of the Camellia Sinensis plant species. In fact, 260 of the world’s 380+ varieties can be found in Yunnan. China, Japan, India and Sri Lanka are the traditional tea growing countries. In recent years, new tea producing countries have emerged, most notably Bangladesh, Vietnam and Kenya. Although certain regions are well known for one style or another of tea, each origin can produce any of the five styles of tea. “Tea is art; something created with imagination and skill; something beautiful; something that expresses an important idea or feeling” For a worldwide beverage, Teas culture is also very local. Most tea drinkers in Darjeeling, India have never had (or even heard of) a Taiwanese Pouchong. Most people in china do not drink black tea and the centuries old Japanese tea ceremony uses a rare powdered tea, Matcha. Sri lanka loves black tea and have never tasted Matcha.

What makes each tea different?

If all teas come from the same plant …why are they so different? Terroir, Cultivar and processing methods account for the differences between the tea styles.

Terroir

If all teas come from the same plant …why are they so different? Terroir, Cultivar and processing methods account for the differences between the tea styles.

 

Cultivar

A cultivar is simply a cultivated variety, meaning that someone has recognised variations in a plant and has cultivated it to maintain these variations. In the tea world, cultivars are created from one of the main varieties or hybrids between the three main varieties of C. sinensis: sinensis, assamica and to a lesser extent, parvifolia. Not all cultivars of C. sinensis are suitable for making a specific style of tea. The world of tea has put together a great database of the different cultivar of teas. https://worldoftea.org/cultivar-database/Cultivar does not necessarily determine the type of tea you’ll end up with. However some cultivars suit certain styles of tea, different cultivars boast a variety of flavour profiles and unique characteristics. Whether your tea is green, white, black, or an oolong is a question of processing. Tea in the City have a great article on the 10 most common cultivars. https://teainthecity.com/blogs/news/what-is-a-tea-cultivar The two principal varieties of the C. Sinensis tea plant which most teas are produced from are: Camellia Sinensis Sinensis and Camellia Sinensis Assamica C.Sinensis Sinensis is a smaller leafed variety native to China that is typically used to make green and white teas. Having a high tolerance for cold and thriving in mountainous regions it has evolved as a shrub that grows in sunny regions with drier and cooler climates. C.Sinensis Assamica is a larger leafed variety that was discovered in the Assam district of India and is typically used to produce strong black teas. It is prolific in subtropical forests with its leaves growing large in the warm and moist climates

Processing methods

The styles of tea are produced by altering the shape and chemistry of the leaf, unromantically called “processing” or “manufacture”. Terroir and cultivar significantly influence the taste and appearance of a tea style, it is the processing method followed that truly defines a tea style. For each style of tea, different leaves are used, once the shrubs are ready, processing begins. The 5 main steps for manufacturing tea are:

  1. Plucking
  2. Withering (allowing the leaves to wilt and soften)
  3. Rolling (to shape the leaves and wring out the juices)
  4. Oxidising
  5. Firing (drying)

Some style of teas don’t utilize all the steps and others repeat some steps several times.

Plucking

Plucking is the start of tea production and requires a defined bud leaf configuration, called a plucking standard. The most familiar plucking standard is two leaves and a bud, this is the original plucking standard for quality green tea and dates back to the Tang dynasty. Each style of tea has its own plucking standard. Quality plucking is a skilled process that requires good hand eye coordination, dexterity, accuracy, focus and speed. For each kilogram of finished tea there are tens of thousands of pluckings. The correct technique for plucking requires a “pluck” motion rather than a cut. This breaks the cell walls of the stem with a snap which influences the flavor of the leaf more favorably than cutting. Fact: It takes around 2000 tiny leaves to make just one pound of finished tea. Another item to consider when plucking is the uniformity of the leaf. Quality teas should have leaves of uniform length, this guarantees a consistency of character. Plucking is not a straightforward process. Tea grows fast and irregularly throughout the tea garden and there are narrow plucking windows to meet certain standards. With the skill of an experienced garden manager and (almost always) remarkable women, artisanal tea as the chance to reach its highest potential.

Oxidation

Oxidation, is another crucial step and helps to define the style of a tea. It changes the teas color, flavor and gives it more body. Oxidation occurs when the enzymes in the tea leaf interact with oxygen. It is a natural process that changes the color and flavor of the leaf.Selectively exposing tea leaves to oxygen, tea producers are able to bring out certain flavors and aromas. In this way the oxidation process determines many of the tea’s flavor characteristics as well as whether the tea will be categorized as white, green, oolong or black. Black tea is fully oxidized, oolong is partially oxidized and green and white teas are unoxidised. In general, the less a tea is oxidized, the lighter it will be in both taste and aroma. Heavily oxidized teas will yield a dark, rich, reddish-brown infusion while less oxidized teas will yield a light, yellow-green liquor. Oxidation is a natural process that is similar to the ripening of fruit. After the leaves have been oxidized to the desired level, they are fired to “seal” and dry the leaf, preventing any further changes. This is called Fixation

What is in tea?

Brewed tea (liquor) has three primary components, these are:

  1. Essential oils – providing the teas delicious aromas and flavors
  2. Polyphenols -The components that also carry most of the teas health benefits they also provide the astringency or “briskness” in the mouth
  3. Caffeine – found naturally in coffee, chocolate, tea and Yerba Mate, caffeine provides teas natural energy boost

Caffeine and tea

While the caffeine in tea and coffee are, technically, identical, the experience is different due to three key factors:

  1. There is significantly less caffeine in the average cup of tea – especially when including green and white teas brewed at shorter times and cooler temperatures.
  2. L-theanine, an amino acid found only in tea, reduces stress and promotes relaxation. It works with caffeine in a synergistic way to calm the body without reducing caffeine alertness.
  3. The high levels of antioxidants found in tea slow the absorption of caffeine – this results in a gentler increase of the chemical in the system and a longer period of alertness with no crash at the end