For 24 years of my life, I have always thought of tea as oddly flavored hot water, most definitely not worth the hype nor investment. Reluctantly using it as cold/flu therapy, or as a way to get my antioxidants, I never ever truly enjoyed tea until I met my boyfriend. So here is everything you want to know about tea.
To call my boyfriend a tea connoisseur would be a gross understatement, as he is so invested in his love for tea, I wouldn’t be surprised if our next vacation was spent in the tea fields of China, hand picking and drying our own tea (which actually might be pretty awesome). While some people invest in aged and fine wines, he invests in tea. Our cabinet is so packed, that every time you open it, tea falls out. And I am not talking about the Lipton or Celestial Seasonings kind, I am talking about the kind that goes for $35 a pound. So in my attempt to appreciate a practice that is such an integral part of who he is, I gave tea another chance.
After the first sip of his perfectly steeped cup of tea, I had the following realization: All the teas I had tasted were complete junk! It was like I was eating at Jack in the Box, while he was eating at Lawry’s Steak House. So from there I was completely hooked, and in a typical ME fashion, I delved into the world of tea head first. What I found was an amazing world full of history, artisanry, craftsmanship, and a beautiful expression of nature.
The Legends of its Creation
Legend has it that tea was discovered roughly 5,000 years ago by Chinese Emperor Shen Nung when a single leaf blew into the emperor’s pot of boiling water. He found that not only did the leaf improve the taste of the water, but it seemed to have a stimulative effect on the body. The rest, as they say, is the history of the world’s favorite beverage.
The second tea story comes as the Indian answer to the Ancient Chinese legend of Shen Nung’s discovery of tea. According to this Indian tale, tea was a divine creation of the Buddha himself. During a pilgrimage to China, the Buddha was said to have taken a vow to meditate without rest for nine years. But, after some time, he dozed off. Upon awakening, he was said to have torn off his eyelids and thrown them to the ground out of frustration. Supposedly, the eyelids took root and germinated into plants that sprouted leaves with an eyelid shape. He then chewed the leaves of this plant, and his fatigue vanished. The plant, of course, was said to be the first tea plant, which he carried with him to China.
Did you Know All Tea Comes from the Same Plant?
I certainly did not! The truth is that all teas come from the Camellia sinensis plant, the differences stem from how they are processed. While there are many “teas” out there, the only true TEAS are Black, Green, Oolong, White and Pu-erh (which is a fermented black tea). Herbal, Yerba Mate, Honeybush and Rooibos tea, are actually not teas, as they do not come from the Camellia and are therefore referred to as Tisanes.
How the leaves are processed will determine their final classification as black, green, and oolong teas. The main difference between the many tea varieties is how much oxygen the leaves are allowed to absorb during processing. Much oxygen produces dark-colored black teas. Little oxygen results in green tea. Unprocessed leaves are called white tea.
How is the Tea Grown?
The tea plant, which grows naturally in the wild throughout much of Asia, is cultivated in a variety of settings from small family gardens to giant estates covering thousands of acres. The best tea is usually grown at elevation, and often, on steep slopes. The terrain requires these premium teas to be hand-plucked, and it takes around 2,000 tiny leaves to make just one pound of finished tea. If that sounds crazy, keep in mind these methods have been around for several millennia.
Where does Tea Come From?
Tea is produced in over thirty countries around the world, though the finest comes from just five: India, Sri Lanka, China, Taiwan and Japan. Tea originated in China, and was the only place to cultivate the tea leaves until it was found that a strain (Assamica) of the plant could be grown in India. From there, India has now become the largest growers of tea worldwide. Each area produces different types of tea, Green Tea coming primarily from China, Assam and Darjeeling from India, Matcha, Sencha and Genmaicha from Japan, Ceylon from Sri Lanka, and Formasa/ Oolongs from Taiwan.
How is Tea Processed or Made?
Tea processing is five basic steps; some teas don’t utilize all of these steps, while other teas repeat them several times. Basic processing is Plucking, Withering/Sun drying (allowing the leaves to wilt and soften), Rolling (to shape the leaves and wring out the juices), Oxidizing (see below) and Firing (ie: Drying).
The most crucial part, what defines the categories of tea, is Oxidizing or Fermenting. Oxidation occurs when the enzymes in the tea leaf interact with oxygen, after the cell walls are broken apart. This can happen quickly, through rolling, cutting or crushing, or more slowly through the natural decomposition of the leaf.
Is there a Difference between Traditional Tea Production and Commercial?
Teas which are processed in the traditional fashion are called Orthodox teas. Orthodox teas generally contain only the top two tender leaves and an unopened leaf bud, which are plucked carefully by hand and then processed using five basic steps, creating the thousands of varieties of tea we know and love today. Most Orthodox tea production these days involves a unique combination of age-old methods, such as bamboo trays to allow the leaves to wither on, and modern, innovative machinery, like leaf rollers carefully calibrated to mimic motions originally done by hand. A true art form, the tea is handled by artisans with years (often, generations) of training from the moment of plucking to when the tea is finished. For some teas, one batch can take several days of work.
The other way of making tea is the Unorthodox method, of which the most common type is CTC (crush-tear-curl). This much faster style of production was specifically created for black tea. These teas may or may not be plucked by hand. For commercial production, large machine harvesters are used to “mow” the top of the bushes to get the new leaves, rather than hand-pluck. CTC production uses a leaf shredder which macerates the leaves (crushing, tearing and curling them, hence the name) into fine pieces, then rolls them into little balls.CTC is usually used primarily in the tea bag industry, as well as in India to create Masala Chai blends (due to their strength and color).
How Each Tea is Born
White Tea: this tea is essentially unprocessed tea as it is simply plucked and left to sun dry. Minimal oxidation occurs, as it usually only takes 1- 2 days to dry.
Green Tea: green tea is plucked, sun dried and then either steamed or pan-fried. During this process, the leaves are hand rolled and heated as to stop the oxidation process from occurring. This process can create all different kinds of shapes, depending on how you roll them, each one taking on a different taste.
Oolong Tea: This is one of the most time-consuming teas to create and therefore known to be where an artist can truly show his craft. It utilizes all of the five basic steps, with rolling and oxidizing done repeatedly. These teas are anywhere from 8% oxidized to 80% making them between a black and green. The leaves are rolled, then allowed to rest and oxidize for a while. Then they’ll be rolled again, then oxidized, over and over. Often, gentle heat is applied to slow the enzymes down a bit. Over the course of many hours (sometimes days), what is created is a beautiful layering or “painting” of aroma and flavor.
Black Tea: This tea is made using the five basic steps, but is allowed to oxidize more completely. Also, the steps are followed in a very linear form; they are generally not repeated on a single batch. The tea is completely made within a day.
Pu’erh Tea: is a completely different art. It first undergoes a process similar to Green tea, but before the leaf is dried, it’s aged either as loose-leaf tea or pressed into dense cakes and decorative shapes. Pu’erh is a fermented tea that is aged anywhere from a few months to several years.
The Tastes of Tea
Although all tea comes from the same plant, each tea is extremely different, even amongst the same tea type. This is not only due to the artisanry of the tea maker, but it also intricately tied to the land on which it was grown. When tasting tea, it is said that tea develops its flavor from the minerals and nutrients from the soil, from the plants grown around the tea plant, and the weather in which the tea plant endures for its 10 days of life. Like wine, a tea’s character is influenced by many variable factors, making each harvest extremely different, so that no two teas are the same.
A World’s Difference: Tea Bags vs. Loose Leaf Tea
The first tea bags were actually an accident. Thomas Sullivan, a tea and coffee merchant from New York City, tried to cut sampling costs by sending loose tea in small, hand-sewn silk pouches (instead of costly tins, which was what most merchants used at the time). Potential clients, confused by this new packaging, threw the tea in hot water– bag and all. Thomas started getting many requests for these “tea bags” and realized that he had struck gold. The quick and easy clean-up of the leaves (since they were still contained in the silk bag) made it enticingly convenient. Tea bags first began appearing commercially around 1904, and quickly shipped around the world.
Unfortunately, this convenience came at a high price: flavor. Using bags created the problem of improper expansion of leaves. In order for a tea leaf to fully release its flavor, it needs a great deal of room to expand. Because teas in bags had less leg room, the quality was diminished. As a result, merchants could purchase much cheaper grades of tea known as “fannings” or “dust.” These are the lowest rankings that tea can achieve; the bottom of the tea barrels. This “tea” will certainly add color to your cup, but not nearly as much flavor. After this, companies began to wrap the “leaves” in paper filters, a much cheaper alternative that didn’t allow water to flow through to the cup as easily, further reducing quality.
This state of tea mediocrity has now plagued the West for several decades. Most supermarkets still offer only a bottom-of-the-barrel tea product, leaving most consumers to believe that there is nothing better available. But this is a far cry from the abundance of flavor and intoxicating aroma found in a cup of full-leaf premium tea.
Where to I Find my Premium Tea?
Many health food stores now offer loose leaf tea, but that does not mean that it is going to be of premier quality. Because we are looking for the tea that has been hand crafted with age-old traditional methods, I find the best tea from Adagio. Adagio is a company that has started from humble beginnings and has grown to a successful business where a host of buyers go directly to the farmers in order to hand pick each tea. Many of the teas on their site even offer a story of the farmer that made that particular tea. The utmost care and thought is put into each tea, making them one of the finest tea providers in the Western world. They offer so many types of tea, it is the best place to begin your tea adventures!
Strange how a teapot can represent at the same time the comforts of solitude and the pleasures of company.