Tea Time

by Dave on August 27, 2009

by Andy Meddick

from Coastal Sussex Weekly magazine, August 27, 2009

Part 2 of 2.

Tea: the infusion of water and the dried leaves of the evergreen Camellia Sinensis plant. Camellia dates back to the ice age and can grow up to 60 feet tall. In Yunnan Province, China, there is a 1700-year-old tea tree, over 100 feet tall. In commercial production, the tea plant is kept pruned and harvested at three feet, giving richer, fuller leaves. Variables such as soil, altitude, and weather affect the varieties of tea. Most premium quality teas grow at higher elevations, where mountain mist and dew shield the plants from direct sunlight. Humidity helps protect the leaves, maintaining a temperature that allows the leaves and buds to mature at a slower pace.

There are three main varieties of Camellia Sinensis commercially available: China, India (Assam region), and Hybrid (cross between China and India). China has small leaves and grows best at high elevations. India (or Assam) has larger leaves and cultivates best at lower elevations. The Hybrid falls somewhere in between!

Within these varieties, there are four major types of tea: White, Green, Black, and Oolong. The way the leaves are processed – steamed, fermented (oxidized), dried, or bruised, gives the tea the special characteristics of its type.

Scented, or blended tea, are produced using one of the four major types of tea as a base. For example, a flavored tea such as Earl Grey is the combination of bergamot oil and a strong black tea. English Breakfast tea is usually a combination of different black tea leaves from India and Sri Lanka.

Herbal and fruit teas are not really “Tea” but are referred to as tisanes, or herbal infusions. Rooibos (or African Redbush Tea) is an example of a tisane.

Besides geography and climate, how the tea plant leaves are processed determines the taste of the beverage. The types of tea go through a process of plucking, withering, rolling, oxidation and drying or firing. The more oxidized the tea is, the darker the infusion will be.

Plucking. Before tea can be processed, it must be picked. Only the bud and two small leaves are plucked from the best tea plants to ensure the best tasting tea.

Withering and Steaming. After the leaves are picked, they are laid out to dry on bamboo trays, or in large in-door areas and subject to forced, heated air for climates too damp, or too cool, to allow out-door drying. This reduces water content and makes the leaves pliable enough to
move to the next step, rolling.

Rolling. This process helps break down the leaf cell structure, releasing the juices and oils from the leaves, encouraging a more uniform oxidation, and giving each tea its distinctive flavor. Traditionally done by hand, and still used to make rare high-end teas. Today, machines are mostly used to roll and shape the leaves.

Oxidation. The natural absorption of oxygen the leaf is allowed to go through as it ages following picking. The greener the leaf, the less oxidized it is. Japanese steamed teas, Senchas, are the least oxidized (vibrant green color of the leaf and infusion). Black teas are the most oxidized (dark color of the leaf and deep crimson-brown of the infusion).

Drying or Firing. The final stage where the tea is dried evenly, without burning the leaves, in large ovens or drying machines to complete halt oxidation and lock in the flavor.

White Teas are minimally oxidized and not rolled, steamed, or fired like other teas. The silvery-white hairs of the leaves and sprouts, and the unique withering process results in their fuzzy leaf appearance and full, creamy mouth-feel.

Made from the tender, new-growth spring leaves, they are low in caffeine and high in the amino acid, L-theanine, which contributes to the calming effect white tea has on the system.

Green Teas are briefly withered, then immediately steamed and pan-fired, rolled and left to dry. They then undergo a second firing and drying. The first batch of withering, firing and rolling arrests oxidation of the leaves so that they remain green, retaining the distinctive flavors and health benefits green teas are known for.

Black Teas are the most oxidized and the highest in caffeine. The leaves are withered after plucking, rolled, and left to undergo a lengthy fermentation (oxidation), before firing. The long oxidation results in the dark color of the leaf and deep crimson-brown of the infusion.

Oolong Teas. In between Green and Black Teas lie the partially oxidized, delicate oolong teas. The process for making Oolong Teas is different for each kind, and equates to wine production. Tea Masters have crafted specific withering, rolling, bruising, drying and oxidation balances to produce the range of oolong infusion color: from bright green or golden to amber or reddish infusions.

Loose, or Bagged? Loose-leaf teas are made up of whole leaves or broken leaves, while tea bags are fannings, or dust. During processing, raw tea-leaves are graded from best (the bud and the first two leaves of the shoot) to worst (fannings). Filed under, “I did not know this!” Orange Pekoe is not a type of tea, but is a grading measurement of the tea-leaf size and condition.

Life is too short to drink cheap tea (and I’m not talking taxes here – us Brits tried that once already and look how that went!). Once you have experienced quality tea, you’ll be aghast at tea dust and flavored teas. All “Tea” comes from the same plant, so tea production is truly a craft. Savor your (loose-leaf) tea, and appreciate the dedication that has brought it to you. Please support Organic, Fair Trade tea farmers and help protect the communities that bring us our beloved beverage.

Coming in the fall to G4U Market: Tea Tasting parties and classes. E-mail goodforu@comcast.net for information.

Andy for Good For You Market.

Comments on this entry are closed.

[CoastalSussex] on Twitter[Coastal Sussex] on Facebook[Our] RSS Feed[Our] Email