What is tea
Coming after water, tea is the second most consumed drink in the world. What comes as a surprise to many is that all types (i.e. White, Green, Yellow, 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 plant has been growing all around the world. Varying with the time of year when farmers harvest the leaves of Camellia Sinensis, as well as the processing technique they use 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 fruits, amongst others. Another vital difference between the two is that tisanes are always caffeine free.
History of Tea
As many of us already know, people first consumed tea in China. That dates back at least 2000 years to Southwestern China, where people cultivated the bushes and consumed the resulting brew. However, back then, it was not at all what we know it to be now. Initially, people drank it as a medicine, and the preparation was completely different.
It became more popular to consume this magical drink for taste during the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD). It was when the first and most influential tea book came out called Cha Jing by Lu Yu.
Starting from then, tea started having great importance in Chinese culture. People used it as a tribute, present, for trade, and simply as an enjoyable beverage. It wasn't until hundreds of years later when Portuguese merchants finally introduced it to Europe during the 16th century.
To read more about the history of tea, click here.
How Does Camellia Sinensis Grow?
The terrain requires farmers to hand-pick these premium varieties. It takes around 2,000 tiny leaves to make just one pound of finished tea. On the other hand, the ones that farmers produce for large-scale commercial production grow in 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 this drink. Farmers also grow some of the finest, hand-picked teas at lower altitudes and flat fields.
The finest ones usually contain only the top two or three tender leaves and an unopened bud (the "buds" are the young, unopened leaves, not flowers), which farmers pluck carefully by hand and then process, creating thousands of different varieties.
A true art form, often artisans with generations of training handle the tea from the harvest till the finished product. For some varieties, one batch alone can take several days of work.
For commercial production, farmers use large machine harvesters to "mow" the bushes to get the leaves. This way of manufacturing is crushing, tearing, and curling the leaves into fine pieces. Merchants use "crush-tear-curl" primarily in the tea bag industry. These teas will brew very quickly and produce a bold, robust cup of tea. When doing this, farmers don't necessarily pick the leaves 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 six tea types lies in the levels of oxidation/fermentation that the tea leaves go through during the processing. For example, white tea is the least processed, while black tea is the most oxidized.
Let's take a look at a highly oxidized type like black tea. After farmers leave the leaves to wither for hours, they then roll them so they can crack, allowing their enzymes to start the oxidation. During this process, the leaf gradually darkens.
Green tea, on the other hand, is immediately pan-fired or steamed after harvest to stop oxidation and preserve as much of the natural color and taste as possible. It is why it usually has a bright and vivid green-yellow color.
The taste differs depending on the type, and even within one type, there can be so much variety.
Here are some general tasting notes:
- Ripe Pu-erh: earthy, woody, sweet, mellow.
- Raw Pu-erh: earthy, vegetal, pungent, astringent, sweet.
- Black: 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)
- Yellow: nutty, grainy, floral, vegetal, sweet
- Green: grassy, vegetal, umami, floral, sweet.
- White: flowery, fruity, subtle, sweet.
Largest Production Areas
Tea was born in China. Today, China remains at the top of the production list, with 2.5 million tons produced in one year! Here's the Top 5 of tea producing countries in the world:
- Sri Lanka
Interestingly, China is not the largest tea consumer. It is not even in the top 10! To date, the largest consumer is Turkey, with 7 pounds consumed per person per year!
The essential components of brewed tea (AKA "tea soup") are:
1. Essential Oils (chemical compounds such as flavones and flavanols) – are responsible for the delicious aromas and flavors.
2. Polyphenols – providing "briskness" or astringency in the mouth; these are the components that also carry plenty of the health benefits.
3. Caffeine – provides a natural energy boost.
4. L-Theanine – a neurotransmitter that slows down the absorbtion of caffeine and is related to promoting "alpha activity" in the brain.
5. Amino acids – compounds related to the delicate sweet and umami taste of the tea.