Introduction to Tea

The most widely accepted non-alcoholic beverage in the world is tea, with over three million tonnes are grown annually. In the UK alone 165,000,000 cups of tea are drunk every day, accounting for 40% of our daily fluid intake. Tetley alone buys 1,000 kg of tea every week, and sells 60 different tea blends, where each blend is taste tested 8 times before being sold. This major beverage has given rise to a variety of social conventions from around the world, such as Japanese tea ceremonies, and the creation of British tea time. Most tea contains stimulant properties, but there is 50% less caffeine in tea than coffee, as well as numerous health benefits.

Despite the fact that there are 1,500 different varieties of tea, including Black, Green, Oolong, White and Pu’erh, they all come from the leaves of the camellia sinensis plant. The only exception to this rule is herbal teas also known as tisanes, where virtually any flower, fruit or herb that can be steeped in water and ingested can become a tisane. Camellia sinensis is a sub-tropical species of evergreen shrub native to Asia, but is now grown around the world as the leaves and leaf buds are used to make tea. It is of the genus Camellia of flowering plants in the family Theaceae. Whereupon four varieties are recognised, but only two are mostly 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.

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 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 small holders; 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 of the 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. Cooler climates plus higher elevations are believed to make the best teas. Multiple processes are involved in treating the tea, which are different depending on the type of tea, and influence 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 can either be 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.

White tea is considered by some as the purest of tea, the leaf is picked in the spring, and the early morning shoots are plucked and left to dry in the fresh air. Green tea is treated by the leaf being plucked from the bush and then either roasted or steamed; the leaf is then dried, sealing in the greenness; steamed green teas tend to have a more delicate taste than the roasted version. Oolong tea is plucked from the bush and allowed to wither, it’s then twisted and allowed to part-ferment; that is, it’s allowed to turn slightly from green to brown but not completely; the leaf is then dried in a giant oven. Oolong or blue tea is said to be between green and black – having the flavour of a green tea and some of the strength of a black tea. Black tea is plucked from the bush and withered in the open air, when the leaf becomes softer it is twisted and then fermented, the fermentation is the most important and skilled stage; this is when the leaf oxidises; finally the leaf is cooked in a giant oven to seal in the flavour.

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  1. Heather says:

    It was very informativemative and had a good balance of facts, figures and the history of tea; as well as the current standing of the tea industry.

  2. Very interesting post! I love all things tea and this was no exception 🙂

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