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What Exactly Is Tea

Posted by Angelina Kurganska on

Coming after water, tea is the second most consumed drink in the world. What comes as a surprise to many is that all teas (i.e. White, Green, Oolong, Black, and Pu-erh) come from the same plant – Camellia Sinensis.

Camellia Sinensis is a sub-tropical, evergreen plant native to China. However, since the early 19th century after merchants brought it to India, the tea plant has been growing all around the world. Varying with the time of year when the leaves of Camellia Sinensis get harvested, as well as the processing technique used after the harvest, several forms of tea come to life. Therefore, "tea" is everything that derives from the Camellia Sinensis plant.


Anything else, while sometimes called "tea", is more accurately referred to as an herbal tea or tisane. Tisanes include chamomile, rooibos and fruit teas, amongst others. Another vital difference between tisanes and teas is that tisanes are always caffeine free. 



History of Tea

As many of us already know people first consumed tea in China. This dates back at least 2000 years to Southwestern China where tea bushes were cultivated and tea consumed. However, back then it was not at all what we know it to be now. Originally tea was drunk as a medicine and the preparation was completely different. 

It became more popular to drink tea for taste during the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD). This was when the first and most influential tea book came out called the Cha Jing by Lu Yu. Starting from then tea started having great importance in Chinese culture;  being used as a tribute, present, for trade, and simply as an enjoyable beverage. 

It wasn't until hundreds of years later when tea was finally introduced to Europe during the 16th century by Portuguese merchants. 

To read more about the history of tea click here

How Does Tea Grow? 

The best tea is usually grown at higher elevations, and often, on steep slopes.

The terrain requires these premium teas to be hand-picked. It takes around 2,000 tiny leaves to make just one pound of finished tea. On the other hand, teas that are produced for large scale commercial production are grown on flat, lowland areas to allow for machine harvesting.

However, please note that high altitudes cannot be the only factor to consider when trying to determine the quality of the tea. Some of the finest, hand-picked teas are grown at lower altitudes and come from flat fields. 

The finest teas usually contain only the top two or three tender leaves and an unopened bud (the "buds" are the young, unopened leaves, not flowers), which are plucked carefully by hand and then processed, creating thousands of different tea varieties.


A true art form, the tea is handled by artisans often with generations of training, from the moment of harvest to when the tea becomes a finished product. For some teas, one batch alone can take several days of work.




For commercial production, large machine harvesters are used to “mow" the bushes to get the leaves. This way of manufacturing is crushing, tearing, and curling the leaves into fine pieces. Crush-tear-curl is usually used primarily in the tea bag industry. These teas will brew very quickly and produce a bold, powerful cup of tea. When implementing such style, leaves are not necessarily picked by hand.


The Differences Between The Types of Tea

As we already mentioned all types of tea come from the same plant. So what makes them so incredibly different in appearance, taste, and smell? 

The most significant  difference between the 5 types of tea lies in the levels of oxidation/fermentation that the tea leaves go through and the processing. With white tea being the least processed, while pu-erh tea is the most processed as well as most oxidized. 

Let's take a look at a highly oxidized tea like black tea. After it is left to wither for hours it is then rolled for the tea leaves to crack, allowing for oxygen to react with their enzymes. This is how the oxidization process begins, gradually darkening the tea leaf.

A green tea, on the other hand, is immediately pan-fired or steamed after harvest to stop the oxidation process and preserve as much of their natural color and taste as possible. This is why green tea is usually a bright and vivid green color.


The Taste of Tea

The taste of tea differs depending on the tea type, and even within one tea type there can be so much variety. 

Here are some general tasting notes based on the 5 tea types: 

  • Ripe Pu-erh: earthy, woody, sweet, mellow.
  • Raw Pu-erh: earthy, vegetal, pungent, astringent, sweet. 
  • Black Tea: malty, floral, fruity, sweet, smooth. 
  • Dark Oolong: roasted, nutty, sweet (taste is closer to a black tea)
  • Light Oolong: floral, sweet, leafy, creamy, buttery (taste is closer to a green tea)
  • Green Tea: grassy, vegetal, floral, sweet. 
  • White Tea: fruity, subtle, sweet. 


Largest Tea Producing Countries

Tea was born in China and China still remains at the top of the tea production list with 2.5 million tones of tea produced in one year! The countries that follow are:

  1. China
  2. India
  3. Kenya
  4. Sri Lanka
  5. Vietnam 

Interestingly enough China is not the largest consumer of tea and is not even in the top 10. To date, the largest consumer of tea is Turkey with 7 pounds of tea consumed per person per year!


The three essential components of brewed tea (also called the "liquor") are: 

1. Essential Oils - responsible for the tea’s delicious aromas and flavors. 

2. Polyphenols - providing "briskness" or astringency in the mouth; these are the components that also carry most of the health benefits of tea.

3. Caffeine - provides the tea's natural energy boost.