A tradition as old as civilization.
There is only one plant that produces tea, Camellia sinensis. This single plant produces many varietals which in turn can be produced into thousands of types of teas. The differences are based on where the tea is grown, how it is plucked and how it is processed. The character, flavor and body of quality tea is much more complex than coffee. There are three types of tea: black, green, and oolong.
The process for making tea originated in China and was transplanted by the British to India and Ceylon in the last century, and to Kenya in this century. Like coffee plants, tea likes hot days, cool nights, and plenty of rain. And, also like coffee, most high quality tea is grown at higher altitudes in mountainous regions.
In general, tea is harvested every seven days in the growing season. When picked in the orthodox manner, only the uppermost leaves and terminal buds are plucked by hand. However, as the demand for mass-produced, cheap tea has increased, some growers have switched to rude machines that basically remove the top of the plant, leaves, stems, and all.
An Overview of Tea History
According to legend, tea was discovered by the Chinese Emperor Shen Nong in 2737 B.C. The Emperor was boiling water in the garden and a leaf from the camellia plant fell into the pot. Upon drinking the resulting infusion, he felt revived and refreshed and declared the brew to have medicinal powers.
Tea was originally brewed with raw, un-processed wild leaves steeped in boiling water. As the refinement developed, the leaves were dried, crushed and then pressed into “cakes” which were broken up and placed into boiling water. Special containers for preparing and enjoying tea were not created until about 960 B.C. It was also around this time that the forerunner of the Japanese Tea Ceremony was developed: fresh green tea leaves are dried, powdered and then whisked into a bowl of hot water.
Around 1370 B.C., processed leaves replaced the tea cakes and tea is traded as a commodity throughout Asia and Europe. The Chinese would hold their monopoly on tea until the 1800’s when the British were able to successfully grow tea in what was then their largest colony, India. And tea probably arrived in the Americas before it reached England, with heavily sugared green tea proving to be very popular in the New World colonies. Of course, any good American knows that on 16 December, 1773, a group of Americans, dressed as Mohawk Indians, threw about 340 chests of tea into Boston Harbor, protesting King George II’s new increased tax on tea. This act also explains the U.S.’s preference for coffee over tea.
Today, more tea is consumed worldwide than any other beverage with the exception of water. Outside of China, the three largest tea consumers are the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom, and Turkey. Just as each country produces a different variety of tea, so too does each country produce a different beverage that they label either “tea” or “tay”, “cha” or “chai”.
Fully processed, is black in appearance. The tea is allowed to ferment and is amber in color when brewed. Some black tea is set on screens and smoked for flavoring. Black teas contain more caffeine than their counterparts, green and oolong, and are more familiar to Westerners.
Green tea is made by taking the tender leaf and subjecting it to very few insults. Barely processed, green tea is usually sun dried, pan fired in a special wok or lightly steamed. It should be light green in appearance, very delicate, and have a subtle taste.
The method of coaxing flavor out of green tea is different than for black tea – traditional brewing methods don’t apply. Green tea asks that you not only change your brewing methods, but also how you approach and appreciate them. However, once you open your mind and give their difference a chance, you will be enchanted.
Since the news came out last year from the National Cancer Institute that polyphenols in green tea seem to block cancer cells, consumption has been increasing.
The Chinese refer to this process as “black dragon”. Developed in Formosa (now Taiwan) in the mid-nineteenth century, this sweetly fermented method produces a fragrant, distinctive sweet aftertaste.
Somewhere between black and green tea, Oolongs are the most sought after and wonderful teas.
Are actually not teas at all. Dried flowers, roots, and bark have been brewed into consumable, hot liquids for many centuries as folk medicines throughout Asia and Europe.
Today’s herbal teas usually contain the same mixtures they have always had, but often black, green, or oolong teas are added.
Making the Grade
As a general rule, the larger the leaf, the better the tea. Also, the presence of leaf tips generally indicates a higher grade of tea. There is no standard of grading teas so the same leaf may be graded one way in India, another in China, and still another in Kenya. Below is an abbreviated list of tea grades.
Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (TGFOP)
The absolute top grade. Lesser grades will sometimes have less initials (GFOP, FOP).
Orange Pekoe (OP)
A fancy grade of tea with no tip, but nice, tightly rolled leaves. Pekoe should rhyme with “gecko” not “rico” and means “white hair” in Chinese. The Orange refers not to flavor, but to the Dutch House of Orange and was used to denote high quality.
Broken Orange Pekoe (BOP)
A broken or smaller leaf; one step below the full leaf. Can also be characterized by “tippy”, “golden”, “flowery”, or a combination of these terms.
Small, broken leaves about the size of a pinhead.
Quite literally the bottom of the chest or barrel. The Dust is the smallest part of the tea left over from the processing or sifting.