Tea. Cha. Camellia Sinensis. The world’s’ most popular beverage after water goes by many names. Some like to sip it hot, with ceremonial grace, poise, and equipment. Some prefer it over ice with cane sugar and a lemon wedge. There are so many different varieties, flavors, types, and grades of tea that it can seem endless. There’s a lot of rich history and culture behind your perfect pour. If you’re looking to gain more tea knowledge, or just starting to get your feet wet, here’s a glance at what it is that makes tea, tea. (1)
History of Tea
The earliest records of tea drinking originate in China, as far back as the first millennium B.C. Though it soon spread and became well known as a medicine, the Chinese dynasties were the first to popularize it. The legend of its creation was when an emperor was sitting on a hill when a few tea leaves floated into his pot of boiling water, and he became overwhelmed with the wonderful liquid. He felt the tea ‘investigated’ every part of his body, and due to this, he called the drink “ch’a”, meaning ‘to investigate, or check.’
It didn’t take China long to cultivate the plant, and soon camellia sinensis plantation spread across the eastern coast of China. China became known for churning out high-quality green, black, oolong, and pu-erh teas that were coveted around the world. One of the main reasons that China had such great quality was due to the perfect terroir, or terrain for growing tea. The ph of the soil, mineral content of the water, and the high elevation all blended together for the perfect tea growing environment.
Some of the best teas come from the Wuyi Mountains in China’s Fujian province. Here, the rainfall is quite abundant, but because of the steep elevation, runs off quickly, so it does not ‘drown’ the plant. The Wuyi mountain tops are shrouded in mist and cloud coverage, resulting in only a few hours of sunlight daily. In terms of soil, the thin and rocky layers are chock full of vitamins and minerals that contribute to the teas’ healthy attributes.
What is the Camellia Sinensis?
To be precise, the Camellia Sinensis is an evergreen shrub. The two main varieties are Camellia Sinensis var. Sinensis and Camellia sinensis var. Assamica. Native to Asia, it has been cultivated to grow in subtropical regions. It thrives the best in areas receiving 50 inches of rainfall or more per year. Higher quality teas are made from bushes at higher elevations where they take longer to grow and become stronger in flavor. (2)
How is it made?
Green, white/yellow, black, pu-erh, and oolong are all made from the same variety of camellia sinensis. The real difference between which tea the leaves become is the amount of oxidation the leaves undergo, and the way the leaves are treated during the process. When the leaves are damaged, the chemicals within them interact with the air to start the oxidation process, much like the inside of an apple turning brown when exposed to air. For white tea, the leaves are wilted and unoxidized. Oolong teas are wilted, bruised, and partially oxidized, while black teas are wilted, crushed, and allowed to oxidize fully. Even with all the different teas, the range of oxidation is roughly 12-80%.
Getting tea from the earth to your cabinet is no easy task. Tea plantation workers must use pest control methods, fertilizing, replacing damaged and/or old bushes, and keeping to a yearly calendar for each. The highest quality and therefore most expensive teas are typically the ones picked earlier in the spring, known as “first flush”. These are the leaves the plant produces when it is blooming for the first time and has cultivated lots of rain and nutrients.
Different Types of Tea
There are many different types of teas that are known for many different types of ailments. If you’d like to see which teas correspond to certain ailments, check out our post covering this topic here. A common misconception is that any hot liquid with flowers and fruits is a tea. Any plant, flower, or fruit mixed without the camellia sinensis is not a tea by categorization. These are called herbal teas or tisanes. Chamomile and Peppermint ‘tea’ are two popular examples.
White tea is predominantly manufactured in southern China and is known for it’s light and delicate bouquet. It is the least processed type of tea, making it taste earthy and natural. Don’t be fooled by its light body, however. White tea still has a bit of caffeine and is the perfect thing to get you through an afternoon slump. One of the highest qualities of white tea is Bai Mu Dan, or White Peony. White tea is best enjoyed steeped with 175-185-degree water for 2-3 minutes.
Green tea is the most popular drink of China and is often enjoyed with or directly after a meal. It has some caffeine and is known for its grassy and floral flavor. Japanese green teas are some of the most sought-after in the world. Green tea is unwilted and unoxidized, which is what makes it taste much like the terrain it was grown in. High grade Japanese called Sencha is used to make one of the most prized green teas in the world, Gyokuro. Sencha is also used to make matcha powder, which is popular in foods, lattes, and smoothies. Green tea has the most potent amount of EGCG, a catechin shown to help prevent cancers. Green tea is best enjoyed with water around 165-175 degrees, steeped for 1-2 minutes.
Oolong teas are cultivated in Chinese and Taiwanese coasts and are partially oxidized. They are known for their earthy flavors, with tones of fruit, honey, milk, and wood. It is higher than green tea in caffeine content and helps with weight loss as well as preventing obesity. It is also the most popular tea used in the Chinese tea ceremony Gongfu Cha, meaning ‘making tea with skill’. Oolong is best prepared with 180-190-degree water for 2 minutes.
Black teas are the closest thing to coffee in the world of caffeine. The strong oxidation lets the caffeine become more and more potent. Indian, Sri Lankan, And English Black teas are among some of the more popular black teas. Most people enjoy black tea much like coffee, adding cream and sugar to cut down the robust flavor. Black tea is best enjoyed strong, with 195-205-degree water steeped for 4-5 minutes.
What is High Quality Tea?
There are many different ways to differentiate whether a tea is of higher quality. Using four of your five senses (you can’t really hear good tea, sadly), you can determine the quality.
Touch: If you’re allowed to feel some of the loose leaf tea before buying it, you want to make sure the leaves aren’t too brittle, which can indicate being over-dried or exposed to too much air. It should feel slightly weighed down, as opposed to incredibly airy and light, as this too can imply over oxidation. A silky, firm feel indicates good quality.
Smell: All high grade tea will have a potent aroma, regardless of what the flavors are. A tea with very subtle notes of anything has been crushed or left out in the open. A strong pungent aroma with notes of many different varieties promises that the tea was handled well.
Sight: Most manufactures employ the Cut-tear-Curl method of harvesting leaves, which breaks them down and allows the flavor to weaken. Most high quality teas are made using the Orthodox method of rolling the leaves to preserve the leaf and it’s flavor. Crumbly looking tea with pieces of stalk and wood are to be avoided. The tea leaves should be nearly 100% intact and unfurl slowly in the hot water to reveal the full leaf.
Taste: Tea and wine are similar in their vernacular used to describe the tastes and bodies of the liquid. A good tea will open up upon consuming, giving way to various channels of flavor. There should be a lot to evaluate, and many subtle notes that may take you a few sips to even pick up on. A tea tasting dull and of only one main flavor all throughout is generally not of the highest grade. (3)
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Do I need special equipment to enjoy loose leaf tea?
A: Not at all! There are compostable bags, mesh balls, and many other methods for putting your loose-leaf tea into a regular cup or mug. A Yixing teapot or gaiwan will bring out the best of your tea but is by no means a necessity.
Q: Isn’t it more expensive?
A: While high-quality loose-leaf tea can be a bit pricey, there are hundreds of viable options that are just as healthy, delicious, and won’t break the bank.
Q: How should I store my tea?
A: You don’t want to keep tea around things with strong intrusive odors, like coffees or bananas. It should be sealed in an airtight container and kept in a cupboard or cabinet away from strong light exposure. Never buy tea that has been kept in glass containers or kept around spices and other strong aromas.
Q: I love my coffee too much to switch to tea. Any suggestions?
A: You’re not the only one! Check out our blog post on switching from Coffee to Tea, and all the ensuing benefits.
Q: I don’t have a lot of time in my day to go through all the preparations, but I want to enjoy the benefits. What do I do?
A: We’ve heard lots of similar problems here at Pique, which is why we created our tea crystals! They’re the exact intersection where high-quality tea meets convenience.
There are countless reasons to enjoy nature’s elixir, whether for taste or health benefits. With all the types of teas available, you are sure to find your perfect cup.