Something people have told me more often recently is that what may seem like common sense to me is not necessarily general knowledge to others. Thus, in that vein, this is my survival guide to the fundamentals of tea. It contains everything I believe any budding tea fanatic should know about this staple beverage.
As a matter of fact the most widely accepted non-alcoholic beverage in the world is tea, with over a whopping 3 million tonnes being grown annually. Veritably the UK alone drinks 165 million cups of tea every day, accounting for 40% of our daily fluid intake. Whilst Tetley alone buys 1,000 kg of tea every week and selling 60 different tea blends, where each blend is taste tested 8 times before being sold. Meaning each tea taster has to taste over 500 cups of tea every day. That a lot of tea. But it doesn’t end there this major beverage has given rise to a variety of social conventions from around the world, including but in no way limited to Japanese tea ceremonies, and the creation of British tea time. So much so that this simple drink has become a staple part of people everyday habits for millennia.
Though did you know that both Black and Green tea despite appearances comes from the same plant? As does Oolong, Pu’er and White tea. In fact, there are as many as 1500 different varieties of tea that all come from of the leaves of the Camilla sinensis plant. A subtropical species of evergreen shrub that was originally native to Asia but has spread around the world.
It is of the genus Camellia of flowering plants in the family Theaceae. Whereupon four varieties are recognised, but only two are widely known. Camellia sinensis var. sinensis is more robust than Assam tea, and has relatively small and narrow leaves, which are used to produce green tea as well as Chinese black tea; and C.sinensis var. assamica is much taller in its natural state and can grow into a loosely branched tree to a height of about 17m, although, it is a less hardy variety with larger, rather droopy, leathery leaves, which are used to make Assam (Indian) black tea.
The only exception to this rule is Tisanes. The word ’tisane’ refers to any part of the plant that can be used in conjunction with hot water, to make a hot beverage. Tea is often used as an interchangeable term where tea can mean both teas from the tea plant and tisanes, interestingly this began during the Revolutionary War among the American colonies Tea was a major staple of their diets on both sides of the Atlantic, whilst taxation of its importation into America was symbolic of the control levied by England over the colonial citizens. Therefore, the colonists invented what they called ‘freedom tea’ or ‘herbal tea’ as a substitute in order to escape the import tax as they contained no tea but were instead sourced locally. Because of this, the two terms ‘tea’ and ‘herbal tea’ became so intertwined that each subsequent generation lost the ability to tell the difference. Even to this day most people, and I include myself in this, forget to make this distinction.
In its wild state, tea grows best in regions which enjoy a warm, humid climate with a rainfall measuring at least 100 centimetres a year. Ideally, it grows better in the deep, light, acidic and well-drained soil. Given these conditions, tea will grow in areas from sea level up to altitudes as high as 2,100 metres above sea level. The tea grows on estates or small holdings. A smallholding is privately owned and can range from 0.5 hectares to cover several hectares. In various tea producing countries, where the tea grows in smallholding, co-operatives are formed to build a tea processing factory central to a group of smallholders; the owners of the small holdings sell their plucked leaf to the factory for processing. On the other hand, an estate is a self-contained unit, often hundreds of hectares in size, housing its own factory, tea growing area, schools, hospital, staff houses and gardens, places of worship, reservoir and guest house. The tea grows as a bush approximately one metre high, for ease of plucking. Each bush is grown from cuttings or clones which are carefully nurtured in nursery beds until ready for planting out. With a distance of one metre between each row, and approximately 1.5 metres apart in rows the young bushes are planted. In the higher altitudes, these rows follow the contours of the hills or mountainsides to avoid soil erosion. On some higher altitude terraces are built, again to avoid soil erosion. The bush itself is trained into a fan shape, with a flat top, called a plucking plateau, about 1×1.5 metres in area and takes between three to five years to come to maturity. This is dependent on the altitude at which the tea is grown. Before the first plucking, the bushes are severely pruned by a method known as “lung” pruning. The bushes are plucked, mostly by hand, every 7-14 days. Altitude and climatic conditions of the growing area are the two deciding factors in this regrowth period. A tea bush grown at sea level will replace itself more quickly once plucked, than a tea bush growing at a higher altitude, where the air is often cooler. Only the top two leaves and a bud are plucked from the sprigs on the plucking plateau.
For centuries, it was thought that black and green came from different plants, however, the taste variation comes the location, the soil, the altitude, the weather pattern, and the way the leaves are treated after plucking changes the final flavour of the tea; rather than the actual species of plant. Cooler climates plus higher elevations are believed to make the best teas. Multiple processes are involved in treating the tea, which is different depending on the type of tea and influences the flavour. Before the tea is processed all the leaves must go through plucking, which is where the buds and two small leaves are plucked from the best plants. The final process is drying in which the tea leaves are dried evenly, without burning the leaves, this halts the oxidation process and locks in the flavour. All other processes are optional, like in the case of green teas, the leaves are often either steamed or roasted which arrests oxidation so that they remain green. Withering is particularly important for White, Oolong, Black and Pu’erh teas; the leaves are laid to dry out on bamboo leaves or in large indoor areas where heated air forced over them if the climate is too cool to heat the leaves naturally, this reduces the water content and makes the leaves pliable. Rolling is either done through machines, or by hand to make extremely rare high-grade teas, to roll and shape the leaves; this process breaks down the cell walls of the leaves, causing the vacuoles within to burst which releases the juices and oils, stored within the vacuole, from the leaves; it also encourages a more uniform oxidation, and gives each tea a distinct favour. Fermenting is the last possible process the tea leaves can go through, and it is also known as oxidation, during this the leaves are laid out to rest for several hours, allowing the oxygen in the air to interact with the exposed enzymes in the leaf, turning it a reddish brown colour as well changing the chemical composition; the length of time this process is allowed depends on the style of tea produced as well as the ambient conditions, this step also impacts the flavour of the tea.