Tea has been enjoyed for thousands of years and has become the most widely consumed beverage in the world next to water. It can be found in almost 80% of all U.S. households and on any given day over 159 million Americans are drinking tea, of one type or another. It may be served both hot or iced, anytime, anywhere, for any occasion. So, with the heading Tea Knowledge 101 let's go over the basics of tea, what actually is tea and what process does it go through to become the tea we all know and love. Whichever type that is!
There are five different types of tea : black, green, white, oolong and pu-erh, that amazingly all originate from the same plant species. A warm weather evergreen, Camellia Sinensis was originally found in China and India. This plant is now cultivated in other countries in Asia, the traditional tea growing countries being China, India, Japan, Taiwan and Sri Lanka. This plant enjoys a warm, humid climate with plenty of sun and rain. The high quality tea tends to be grown at higher elevations as the plants grow more slowly thus developing more flavor.
So, from this one plant we amazingly get very different teas. The type of tea that will result, the differences in color, flavor and quality, depends not just on the plant itself but also on the cultivation region, the climatic conditions, the diligent plucking and the careful processing of the tea leaves.
The Processing Stages
The tea leaves are harvested by hand and go through multiple processing steps to create aromatic tea. However, not all teas go through each step. So much depends on the knowledge and skill of the producers if the result is to be high quality, hand processed tea such as those specially chosen by The PuraTea Company. This expensive and time consuming traditional method of producing high quality tea is called the orthodox method. A second method, known as the CTC method (Crush-Tear-Curl), is a cheaper, quicker, continuous machine process resulting in a higher yield per pound of fresh plucked leaves. It produces a more intensely flavored tea than the more delicate whole leaf varieties, and is usually found in traditional teabags.
Plucking, or harvesting, is usually done by women who take great care when plucking the leaves and buds. The different teas are harvested at different times, for instance white tea has a short harvesting season being harvested early, before the young buds have fully opened. The soft white hairs still covering the young, light green leaf buds, give the tea its name. Older leaves are deeper in color and have developed in flavor.
Of interest, on the tea estates, or tea gardens as they are sometimes known, this plant is pruned, being kept at waist height to make it easier to harvest the tea leaves. If left undisturbed, this shrub would mature into a tree some 20-25 feet high with dark green leaves and yellow-white flowers, its fruit is small with a hard shell.
This is the first stage in the processing of the freshly plucked tea leaves. They are laid out to reduce the moisture level at which time the leaves wilt. The withering softens the leaf and ensures they are supple enough not to break up when rolled.
The supple leaves are gently rolled into shapes, ie balls, twists and sticks. This process bruises the leaf, exposing enzymes within the leaf to oxygen in the air, thus initiating a natural chemical reaction and the oxidation process begins.
This is the natural, chemical reaction that alters the flavor and aroma, developing the distinguishing characteristics of the various teas. Oxidation occurs best at temperatures around 80-85 °F and in a moist, oxygen rich environment.
Oxidation has a big influence on how the tea will change. For instance, black tea is fully oxidized, the leaves turn from fresh green to dark and results in a dark tea, amber in color and richer in flavor. Alternatively, green tea does not go through the oxidation process and retains both its fresh green color and lighter flavor.
Firing, the process of heating the leaves, prevents any further chemical reactions (oxidation) from taking place. Oxidation is halted at temperatures around 150 °F but the exact temperature and length of time heating is adjusted according to the size and thickness of the leaves and the desired end result.
Green and white teas, not being oxidized, go straight from rolling to heating in order to prevent the oxidation stage, traditionally by pan firing or steaming. Firing reduces moisture content to between 2-4% and enhances the final flavor. This process of drying the leaves also prevents deterioration of the tea.
The tea is then sorted, or graded, typically by hand for the high quality loose leaf teas.
It is said that tea is one of the healthiest drinks available and the good news is that you enjoy health benefits regardless of the type of tea you drink. There are different types and amounts of antioxidants and polyphenols in the various teas, however the level of health benefits vary from tea to tea and this cannot simply be defined by whether the tea is white, black, green or oolong. So I always say, the healthiest tea is the one you enjoy and will therefore drink on a regular basis!
When we talk of caffeine levels in tea, each different tea has a range rather than a fixed number. As a guideline, black tea has the highest caffeine level, followed by oolong and green with white having the lowest levels. This will also vary if the tea is blended. For instance, if a tea is blended with other ingredients such as fruits or spices, this reduces the percentage of tea and thus the caffeine level. Whenever we know the percentage of a tea included in a blend it is listed in the ingredients. When choosing your tea think about the time of day and level of caffeine in each variety.
Tea - The Natural Choice
Tea is an all natural and environmentally sound product from a renewable source. It's a beverage you can feel good about drinking on many levels. Tea supports sustainability; ecologically, socially and economically. The tea plant is naturally resistant to most insects; oxidation of the tea leaf is a natural process; hundreds of thousands of workers are involved with the growing and production of tea and renowned tea houses support sustainable development in the countries of origin and social conditions for workers.
From growing to pouring, that cup of tea is something of an art form and is a natural, healthy choice. So, put the kettle on, relax and enjoy a cup.