Not Your Grandmother's Cup of Tea by Laurie Bell for Capital Wine & Food , the newsletter of American Institute of Wine and Food
Nilgiri, Kenya, Dimbula, Pu Erh, Yunnan, Formosa, Darjeeling – are these places to visit or teas to drink? Well, they’re both. Travel the globe without leaving home by exploring the variety of high quality teas available from around the world. Oolong, white, green, Pu Erh, single estate blacks and the visually exciting flowering teas are worth searching for. Sorry, Sir Thomas, you won’t be a part of this journey!
Worldwide, tea is the most consumed beverage after water. And although this is not the case in the United States, tea has come a long way here since the Boston Tea Party and the invention of teabags. For years, when most Americans thought of tea they thought of those tissue bags holding tea dust, or fannings. It’s comparable to a few decades ago when all many people knew about wine, coffee and chocolate was jug wines, grocery store coffee and generic chocolate bars. But not today. Today, we know that tea, like those other commodities, can be exotic, exquisite and sometimes expensive, or it can be common, mundane and cheap. Much of the difference between good and not so good has to do with the location, climate, soil, altitude, and most importantly with tea – how it is harvested, processed and brewed. Once these time-honored methods are understood, the appreciation and enjoyment of the variety of unique, quality teas available increases immensely. From the herbal grassiness of a Japanese Sencha, to the rich smokiness of a Russian Caravan, or the delicate aroma of a White Peony to the bold heartiness of a straight Kenyan - travel the globe through tea.
All teas, whether they are white, green, oolong or black, come from one specific evergreen plant – Camellia sinensis, although there are several cultivars and subvarieties found around the world. This plant could grow to be thirty feet tall, but in order to constantly harvest the best leaves, the plant is kept pruned to a height of about three to five feet. Only the unopened leaf buds at the tip and the next few layers of upper leaves on each stem of the tea plant are plucked for processing. The first harvesting of the season is called the first flush. The next new growth (which can take from a week or two at lower altitudes to several weeks at higher altitudes) is called the second flush.
To produce Chinese green teas, the leaves are spread out (preferably in the shade) to wither a bit, which reduces the moisture content and aids in rolling of the leaves. They are not allowed to oxidize. Instead, the leaves are immediately pan fired, which means they are heated and dried. (Japanese green teas are steamed before heat drying.) White teas are made only from the unopened tea buds and sometimes the first layer of leaves, and may not even go through the withering stage. They are the least processed of all the teas. Green teas can be made from any part of the harvested flush.
Oolong teas follow the same process but, after withering and rolling (which breaks the cells of the leaves enough to expose the inner leaf compounds to the air to start the oxidation process), they are allowed to partially oxidize. There are varying degrees of oxidation, from two to eighty percent, depending on the type of oolong being produced. Black teas are allowed to fully oxidize before drying which is what gives them their darker color.
Pu Erh teas (a category of Dark teas) are rare and expensive when they are aged for many years. During processing, a small amount of moisture is left in the leaves to allow fermentation to occur (not the same as oxidation, although those terms are unfortunately and incorrectly used interchangeably). Over time, this results in a very earthy aroma and taste in the Pu Erhs. They are quite often sold in little tablets, nuggets or large bricks.
The most visually stunning teas to be recently introduced to the American market go by several names – artisan tea, art tea, flowering tea, blossoming tea, blooming tea, hand crafted tea, showplace tea and mudan tea. All of these names describe this fascinating addition to the beverage world. These specialty teas are hand tied whole leaves shaped into agate-sized balls, or into mushroom or bullet shapes that quite often encase a dried flower. Use a clear teapot, mug or even a wineglass in order to watch the blooming of these enchanting teas. Most, upon opening, look like a sea anemone with any variety of flower dancing happily above it. Jasmine, osmanthus, lily, marigold and globe amaranth are some of the flowers featured as the tea leaves unfurl. It is a spectacular show and quite a conversation piece.
Explore the world of tea and experience the flavors of far off lands from the comfort of your home. Like all the wines of the world, there are just too many teas to ever taste them all, but it will certainly be fun to try.
A sampling of tea paraphernalia from around the globe, including an antique Russian Samovar
Tantalizing Tea Trivia
The largest tea producing countries are India, China, Sri Lanka (formerly called Ceylon), Taiwan (formerly called Formosa), and Kenya.
Cha is the Chinese and Japanese word for tea. Chai is the word for tea on the Indian subcontinent. Masala is the Indian word for spiced. So Masala Chai means spiced tea.
What Westerners call black tea (the color of the dried leaves), the Chinese actually call red tea (the russet color of the brewed liquid).
Beverages brewed exclusively from herbs and flowers are herbal infusions or tisanes, not true teas.
Rooibos (ROY bus) is an herbal infusion made from a bush grown only in South Africa. It is sometimes called Red Bush or Red Tea. It has no caffeine. Honeybush is a similar herbal.
Yerba Mate is an infusion made from an evergreen tree found in the South American rain forest. It does have caffeine.
A pound of dry tea may have more caffeine than a pound of dry coffee, but a cup of brewed tea has less than half the caffeine as a cup of brewed coffee. A pound of tea yields about 200 cups. A pound of coffee yields only 40 - 50 cups.
Oxidation is the process in which a chemical reaction occurs when a substance is exposed to the air (oxygen).
Fermentation is the process in which a chemical reaction occurs when a substance is exposed to a yeast, mold or bacteria.
Orange Pekoe is a sizing grade of tea and refers to the leaves just below the leaf bud. It is not a type or flavor of tea.
English Breakfast Tea is a not a specific type of tea, but a proprietary blend that varies from company to company. It usually contains teas from India, Sri Lanka (Ceylon), China, and/or Kenya.