What is tea?
All tea comes from the leaves and buds of the evergreen plant, Camellia sinensis, that grows in tropical and subtropical climates with at least 120 centimetres of rain per year. The best tea grows on high mountains at elevations as high as 2,700 metres above sea level, where large temperature differences exist between day and night and there are often cloudy skies.
There are more than 1500 varietals of Camellia sinensis. These range from small and delicate shrubs to large and ancient wild tea trees (up to 800 years old). But most tea comes from two principal varietals, the small-leaf China plant (sinensis) and the large-leaf Assam plant (assamica). The type of tea (white, green, oolong, black, dark) is decided by which varietal is used and how the leaves are harvested and processed. Small changes in soil and sunlight levels affect the flavour of the tea in the same way that wine is affected by terroir.
Typically, only the top 1-2 inches of a mature plant are plucked (the top two leaves and an unopened bud.) These buds and leaves are called 'flushes.' A plant will grow a new flush every ten days during the growing season. The vast majority of premium teas are plucked entirely by hand.
Categories of tea
Tea is generally grouped according to the method of processing. The leaves of the tea plant will begin to wilt and 'oxidise' soon after plucking. While the amount of oxidation and the process used to control it distinguishes one type of tea from another, the end result is ultimately determined by the skill, technique and art of the tea growers and masters who create them.
White tea: White teas come from fine young buds and leaves that are withered in natural sunlight. They are carefully dried at low temperature to avoid oxidisation of the leaves and help seal in the fresh and delicate characteristics of the tea. The name derives from the delicate silver-white hairs on the immature buds of the plant which are hand-picked during a short period of time in early spring. White tea is the least processed of any tea type. It is considered to contain the highest level of anti-oxidants and provide a wide range of health benefits. The two notable varieties of white tea are Silver Needle (Baihao Yinzhen) and White Peony (Bai Mu Dan).
Green tea: The most prized green teas are picked in early spring and left to wither on bamboo trays. The leaf is then heated in a wok. This firing process kills the enzymes inside the leaves (known as the 'kill green' process) and helps to preserve the natural flavours present in the tea. After the initial firing, the leaf is rolled to expose the moisture held deep inside the leaves before being fired again. As the leaves are not oxidised they retain their natural green colour. Green teas are grown in many regions of China, notable areas include Hunan, Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Fujian Province. In Japan, green teas are steamed contributing a fresh 'grassy' taste to the tea.
Yellow tea: A special tea processed in a similar manner to green tea, but it undergoes a slower drying phase, where the damp leaves are allowed to undergo a small amount of oxidsation. The tea has a very yellow-green appearance and a different aroma from both white tea and green tea. Produced mainly in Hunan, Anhui and Sichuan provinces.
Oolong tea: Oolong tea (also called wulong or wu long) is a semi-oxidised type of tea that falls in the range between green (non-oxidised) and black (fully-oxidised) tea. They are produced from a number of long leaf varieties of Camellia sinensis that encompass an abundant range of aroma and taste from light and fragrant to dark and smoky. Older leaves are picked, then withered and tossed in a bamboo drum to encourage them to bruise and oxidise. Once the required level is reached the tea is fired in large pans to prevent any further oxidisation. Some oolongs, such as Tie Guan Yin, are then hand rolled while others, such as Dan Cong, are twisted. The tea is then given a final baking to reduce the moisture content. The duration and level of these firings will determine the taste of the tea. Oxidisation levels can range from approximately 10% to 80%.
The principal growing regions for oolong are Fujian, Wuyi, Anxi, Guangdong and other areas of southern China. In Taiwan there are a number of notable regions such as Dong Ding and AliShan. Emerging areas for oolong are Northern Thailand and the Himalayas.
Black tea: Black tea, often known as Hong Cha (red tea) is fully oxidised. After picking the leaves are withered before being rolled to aid oxidisation. This slow and careful process turns the leaf from green in colour to varying shades of deep red or black. A final firing will halt the oxidisation process and reduce the moisture content in the leaf. Black teas can be stored for a number of years, with finer teas developing nuances of flavour over time.
Black teas are widely produced but main areas include Yunnan, Anhui and Fujian. In Taiwan, Ruby Black (or Red Jade) grown in the Sun Moon Lake region is renowned for its unique flavour.
Dark tea: Pu'erh (also known as Pu'er or Pu-lei) is a post-fermented tea produced from large leaf varietals of the Camellia plant grown in Yunnan Province. There are two forms of pu'erh tea - raw (sheng) and ripe (cooked or shu). Raw pu'erh is the traditional form - the freshly picked leaves are sun dried, fired to prevent oxidisation and left to age. This leaf, known as 'maocha' can be left loose, or compressed into differing sized cakes, bricks, mushrooms or bowl shapes known as 'tuocha.' The tea master will also blend leaves from different growing regions and vintages to specific recipes before pressing. Through ageing, good quality teas can develop like fine wine vintages over time.
Ripe pu'erh is a recent invention from the 1970's that imitates the conditions to mimic the result of the aging process by prolonged bacterial and fungal fermentation in a warm humid environment. The maocha undergoes a technique known as 'wet piling' which involves piling, dampening, and turning the tea leaves to ensure even fermentation in a process that is similar to composting. This process can last 30-60 days. It takes great skill, craft and knowledge to achieve the right fermentation and not let the leaves start decomposing. The maocha is then sorted into different grades. It can be sold loose or compressed in the same way as raw pu'erh.
Yunnan Province is the home of pu'erh. The tea is widely grown and produced across the region. The Six Famous Tea Mountains in Xishuangbanna is probably the best known. Other notable areas include Menghai, Nannuo and Jingmai that produce individual and unique tasting teas.
Scented or flavoured tea: The main reason for scenting or flavouring tea is to obtain different blends, styles and flavours, and to create distinctive, enhanced tastes for the classical types of tea. Some producers scent their teas by layering tea and flowers in order to allow the leaves to absorb the fragrances released by flowers. Others prefer to flavour their tea blends with inclusions, this procedure being a bit simpler. Inclusions can include fruits, flowers, spices and natural flavours. Note: Always check for artificial flavourings when purchasing scented or flavoured teas.
Herbal infusion: Technically, an infusion of herbs, flowers or spices is not a tea but a tisane. These drinks are distinguished from true teas which are prepared from the leaves of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, as well as from decaffeinated tea, in which the caffeine has been removed. Like beverages made from true teas, a tisane can be served hot or cold.
Temperature: Temperature has a big effect on the flavour of your tea. For the best green tea flavour, ensure you do not use water which is too hot, or it will scald the leaves and make it bitter. On the other hand, it is important to use a high enough temperature for semi-ball rolled oolongs and black teas in order to open and draw out the oils in the leaves.
- Green: 70-80 degrees
- White: 80-85 degrees
- Oolong: 85-90 degrees
- Black: 95-100 degrees
- Pu'erh: 95-100 degrees
- Herbal: 100 degrees
Always rinse out your teapot or other brewing vessel to ensure no prior tea residue or detergent remains. In most instances it actually preferred to not use soap when cleaning your teapot, but rinse under hot water and thoroughly dry to not add any unwanted residues.
Infusion Techniques: The key to brewing a great cup of tea is experimentation. The journey is yours. In saying that, these basic guidelines may be helpful if you are starting out.
Western Method: Tea quantity: ~3g (1-1.5 tsp) per 250 mls (1 cup). Follow recommendation for temperature and time on packaging. Experiment and adjust to suit your taste.
Gong Fu Method: Tea quantity: ~7g (2 tsps) per 120-150 mls. Rinse leaves with correct temperature water for ~10sec and discard water. Follow recommendation for temperature and time on packaging. Experiment and adjust to suit your taste.
Multiple Infusions: Tea devotees delight in tasting how a tea changes flavour over multiple infusions. In China, they say the first infusion is to wash the tea, the second is to taste the tea, and the third is to experience the essence of the tea. White and Green teas can be infused up to 5 times while Oolong, Black and Pu'erh teas up to 16 times. (Note: For additional infusions using Western Method, gradually increase infusion time by 20-30 seconds. For additional infusions using Gong Fu Method, gradually increase infusion time by 5-10 seconds.)
Vessels: Just as it is important to drink wine out of a wine glass, the material and shape of the teapot and cups are critical in order to bring out the best of particular types of tea. A general rule is that glass, porcelain or ceramic is good for White and Green teas and that clay (red or yellow) is preferred for Oolong, Black and Pu'erh teas. The shape of the teapot should be wide to allow maximum room for the tea leaves to expand.