What is tea?
Tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world, after water. Tea originated in Southwest China, but is now grown all over the world. Tea drinking which first began for medicinal purpose, is now a part of our everyday life. From British high tea to Japanese tea ceremony, different cultures have embraced and influenced tea growth and consumption over the centuries.
About the tea plant
The scientific name of the tea plant is Camellia sinensis. The tea plant grows best in loose, deep soil, at high altitudes, and in sub-tropical climates. Leaf size is the chief criterion for the classification of tea plants, with three primary classifications being, Assam type, characterised by the largest leaves; China type, characterised by the smallest leaves; and Cambodian type, characterised by leaves of intermediate size.
Two principal varieties of Camellia sinensis are used for making tea: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, which is used for most Chinese and Japanese teas, and C. s.var. assamica, used in Pu-erh and most Indian teas.
Camellia sinensis sinensis (China)
The China plant thrives at elevations up to 9,500 feet. Because of the climate and elevation, the China plant grows between 5 and 15 feet tall. The yield is small and of tender leaves that lend a sweeter, less astringent cup.
Camellia sinensis assamica (Assam, India)
The Assamica strain is native to the Assam region in Northern India. This region has high humidity, more rainfall, and warm temperatures which allow this larger, more robust tea variety to thrive. The Assamica plant will grow to between 30 and 60 feet. The Assamica leaf is ideal for producing strong, malty, black teas.
How is 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 in tropical climates, at higher elevations, and often, on steep slopes. The premium teas are handplucked, and it takes thousands of tiny leaves to make just one kg of finished tea.
The leaves undergo a series of processes like withering, fermentation and drying before the final product is made. Tea is classified into two categories based on the processing techniques: Orthodox and CTC.
- Orthodox Teas: Orthodox teas contain only two leaves and an unopened leaf bud, which are handplucked and then processed using basic steps.
- CTC: Crush Tear Curl is a much faster style of production for teas. 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. CTC production uses a leaf shredder which macerates the leaves (crushing, tearing, and curling them, hence the name) into fine pieces. They are then rolled into little balls. These teas will brew very quickly and produce and a bold, powerful cup of tea. Crush-tear-curl is usually used primarily in the tea bag industry, as well as in India to create blends (due to their strength and color).
What is in Tea?
The three primary components of brewed tea are:
1. Essential Oils – They give aroma and flavor to the tea
2. Polyphenols – These are the micronutrients that are filled with antioxidants. They are helpful in digestion, weight management, diabetes, neurogenerative and cardiovascular diseases.
3. Caffeine – Tea extract contains upto 2-4% caffeine. It provides tea's natural energy boost.
Types of Tea:
Black tea is the most oxidized tea and has a strong flavor. It is also known as Red tea in China and Japan. Camellia sinensis assamica is typically used to produce black tea. During oxidation, oxygen interacts with the tea plant’s cell walls to turn the leaves the rich dark brown to black color. Black teas offer the strongest flavors and, in some cases, the greatest astringency. Black teas are the only style of tea regularly consumed with milk and sugar and the best variety come from Assam.
Green Tea is the least oxidised tea. It is plucked, withered and rolled. Although this tea originated in China, it is now widely produced in almost every tea growing region of the world. It is not oxidized because during the rolling process, oxidation is prevented by applying heat. The liquor of a green tea is typically a green or yellow color, and flavors range from toasty, grassy to fresh steamed greens (steamed teas) with mild, vegetal astringency. Green tea has a number of health benefits, owing to the presence of flavonoids in it. It helps in improving digestion, weight management, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. A superior quality green tea has long leaves and presence of golden tips in it. There are various type of green tea from powdered to whole leaves, giving people a plethora of options to choose from.
White Tea refers to tea that is merely dried with no additional processing, is essentially unprocessed tea.White tea process:
Fresh tea leaf → withering → drying → white tea
The selection of raw material is extremely stringent, only young leaves are plucked to produce a good quality tea of a high grade.Despite its name being White tea, the brewed tea is pale yellow in color. The presence of silver tips in white tea is an indication of superior quality.
Oolong Tea is halfway between green and black tea and is one of the most complex type of tea. It is highly oxidized ( anywhere between 7-80%). The overall process of making an oolong is extremely intricate, labor-intensive, and time-consuming. Every step goes through close monitoring. Often, the steps involved in making an oolong tea are repeated multiple times before the desired amount of bruising and browning of the leaves is achieved.
For new tea drinkers, Oolong provides a rich aroma and flavor.
Tea is enjoyed worldwide, though its culture is very subjective. For example, most people in India enjoy their black tea and may have had or heard of a Matcha. Tea has evolved since its inception in China and today there are hundreds of blends available.