Posted on February 09 2016
Perhaps you may have heard by now that tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world. Second only to water, consumers across the globe are brewing, steeping, and sipping every day. So what is it about tea that consumers are drawn to? Why is tea continuing to grow in popularity in the United States, and globally?
Thankfully here at Stash, our Tea Educator happens to be a professional on this topic of discussion. We chatted about the very basics of tea, to clarify in simple terms what tea is, how it’s made, and where it comes from.
Although we do plan on building on our topic today to include tea tradition by culture, proper tea food pairings, and much more, we understand that there is much to know about tea, and that it is crucial to start from the ground up. Whether you are a tea aficionado or perhaps fairly new to the wonderful world of tea (welcome!), we’d like to take this time to share a few of our findings with you.
The Plant: Camellia sinensis
There are many different varieties of tea, each unique not only in color, but in flavor. Interestingly enough, these different tea blends all originate from the same plant, known as the Camellia sinensis. This plant is adorned with delicate white flowers and is native to Central and Southeast Asia. Many people find it hard to believe that a single plant can yield such variation in tea blends. An easier way to envision this plant is to think of green and red apples. Yes, they are both apples, yet they stem from different varieties of the same plant.
It is the same case for tea, and different varieties of tea are better suited for specific climates. For example, the earliest known tea plant is a small-leafed variety native to China where temperatures may vary drastically from day to night. Several millennia later, a large-leafed variety was discovered in the jungles of India where the plant was immersed in perpetual moisture and ambient warmth. The cross-breeding of the two tea varieties has resulted in the development of cultivars (cultured varieties). The result of this cross breeding has led to the development of varieties that are able to exist in vastly different environments than their native habitats.
Processing: The Main Tea Types
Now that we know where tea originates from, it is important to touch on the way tea leaves are processed. It is through this step that we are able to sip many different varieties of tea, whether that is a bold black breakfast tea, or a vegetal green tea. Each style of tea goes through its own processing method which eventually brings out its distinct flavor notes and distinguished color.
White tea is the least processed of all the varieties. First, the leaves are plucked from the plant. Once the leaves are brought back to the processing facility, the leaves are typically placed on a table where they wither. After they are left out to wither overnight, the leaves are dried through a process that turns them regularly as air circulates around them. Once the desired level of dryness has been reached, the tea leaves are then ready to be packaged.
Similarly to white tea, the processing of green tea leaves begins with leaves that are plucked and brought to the processing facility where they are placed on a table to wither. From here, the processing steps become a little more involved. For green tea to retain its green color, the leaves must go through a de-enzyming process. In other words, the tea must be heated to prevent any oxidation of the leaves. Finally, the tea is fired to further reduce any moisture.
A tea that is fairly limited outside of regions in China, yellow tea mimics the process of green tea through the de-enzyming step. After this, the tea leaves are placed in piles where they are covered with damp cloths. Through this step, the leaves are said to bring back and retain their aromatics, while the grassy flavor known to green tea is removed. Once the proper level of aging has occurred, the tea leaves can be fired to prevent further aging.
The most widely consumed style of tea in the U.S., black tea, also begins its process in the same way as the aforementioned teas, wherein the leaves are plucked and allowed to wither. Differing from white, green, and yellow tea, the leaves are then rolled in order to break up the individual cells within the leaf. After, they are placed on a table to further enhance the oxidation process. Here, the leaves are turned regularly in order to ensure that all leaves are evenly exposed to the air. The dark color and brisk flavor of a cup of black tea can be attributed to this oxidation process.
If you’re someone who happens to enjoy the flavor of both green and black teas, an oolong tea may also please your palette, as it offers an intermediate color and flavor. Although the processing of oolong tea is similar in many ways to green and black teas, the degree to which each step is utilized itself varies among the different types of oolongs. Typically, oolong tea leaves are left out to wither at least eight hours before undergoing rolling. After this step, the greenest oolongs are fired and finished, while the more oxidized leaves will need to be rolled several more times. When the tea leaves have finally reached the correct level of oxidation for the oolong being processed, they will then be fired and dried for packaging.
Relatively new to Western culture, the process of pu-erh tea is most closely related to that of the green tea process. After the leaves are plucked, withered, and briefly heated in large pans, they undergo two rounds of rolling before they are dried. The major difference involved in this process is the use of fermentation. While oxidation exposes leaves to oxygen, fermentation occurs when there is an absence of oxygen and requires the use of external organisms to bring about changes in the flavor and appearance of the leaf. It is this fermentation process that is responsible for the dark liquor and loamy flavors in the cup. Traditionally, pu-erh leaves were formed in cakes and stored for years under carefully controlled conditions, which resulted in much slower fermentation. Due to an increase in customer demand, the leaves are piled and fermented quickly before being formed into cakes and sold.