If you’re new to loose leaf tea, it can seem like an intimidating switch to move from tea bags to “the good stuff.” There is a lot of information to learn about the different types of tea (white, green, oolong, and black), their varying flavor profiles, caffeine content, steeping processes, but it doesn’t have to be complicated! Our whole goal at TeBella Tea is to make the ritual of making loose leaf tea at home accessible and fun. And because we could nerd out about tea for hours, we like to serve it with a heaping helping of education on the side.
So, let’s talk tea.
As mentioned, whole leaf tea has been consumed for thousands of years, beginning with the Chinese. According to legend, tea was first discovered in China in 2737 BC by the Emperor Shen Nong, when leaves from the tea plant, camellia sinensis, fell directly into a pot of boiling water. Tea did not arrive in Europe and North America until the 17th century, and did not become popular until the 18th century.
Drinking chocolate and coffee were more popular in the 16th and 17th centuries, particularly in the royal courts of Spain and France. However, the rapid expansion in international trade in the 17th and 18th centuries saw an explosion in popularity for coffee, chocolate and tea; in fact, by the 1700s tea had become the preferred drink throughout many parts of Europe, particularly England. Today, tea is the second most popular beverage in the world. Grown in nearly forty countries, its annual production tops 8 billion pounds.
All tea comes from the same evergreen plant, Camellia sinensis. The primary tea growing regions that supply most of the world’s tea are China, India, Japan, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan. While countries such as Korea and Vietnam produce tea as well, their tea often does not make its way out of the domestic market in large quantities.
Kenya is also a major producer of black tea, most of which is processed using the CTC method (this stands for cut-tear-curl or crush-tear-curl, a production method that is indicative of the grade of tea. CTC grade tea is harvested and produced using machines rather than plucked by hand, and tea produced this way is often used for teabag tea). However, there are also quite a few microfarms in Kenya producing high quality white, yellow, and black teas.
Note: herbal infusions that do not contain any portion of the tea plant are often mistakenly referred to as “herbal tea” due to the fact that they are brewed like tea; however, they are not tea and are more accurately called herbals or tisanes
Now, if all tea comes from the same plant, how do you get such wide ranging distinctions in flavor and appearance? I’m glad you asked!
How the tea leaves are processed determines the type of tea that is produced:
White tea is the least processed of the four main tea families. It is simply withered to reduce the water content and then preserved through a drying process. White teas naturally undergo a very slow oxidation process, resulting in a nominal amount of oxidation. In tea, oxidation levels are often tied to caffeine content, so white teas are generally low in caffeine as well (the exception being Silver Needle white tea, which is highly caffeinated. Why? Because it contains the bud of the plant, and that youngest part of the plant is where caffeine is most highly concentrated). White teas are traditionally, and primarily, from China.
Green tea is never allowed to oxidize. It is heated at high temperatures directly after harvest to completely prevent oxidation. It is then rolled into its desired shape and dried. Heating methods vary by region. In Japan, a wet heat method is preferred to cure the tea (i.e. steaming). In China, however, a dry heat method (pan-frying, baking) is preferred. These differences in heating methods also affect the flavor of green tea. Japanese green teas tend to be prized for their grassy, seaweed like flavor (heavy on the umami), whereas Chinese green teas are often more mellow, with floral or nutty qualities. Green teas are also generally low in caffeine.
Oolong tea is semi-oxidized. It is withered (to reduce the water content), rolled (to break up the leaf and release the enzymes necessary to encourage oxidation), heated (to halt the oxidation process once the desired level of oxidation is reached) and then dried (to preserve the leaf). Oolongs can be oxidized as little as 5% or as much as 70%. All oolongs come from China or Taiwan, and regional growing traditions will determine the oxidation level and flavor profile of the tea.
Black tea is fully oxidized. It is withered, rolled, heated (once oxidation is complete) and dried. This results in black tea’s characteristically bold flavor and high caffeine content. China, India, Kenya, and Sri Lanka are the primary producers of black tea.
Although production method is the sole factor in determining the type of tea that is produced, there are environmental factors to consider when evaluating a tea’s more subtle flavors and aromas. Like wine, a tea’s character is influenced by several variables within its environment, an idea that is known in the tea industry as terroir: location, season of harvest, soil quality, climate, altitude, latitude, weather variations and plucking method all play a role in determining the finer qualities of specialty teas.
In particular, the method in which the leaves are plucked is crucial to the quality of the final product. Most top-quality teas come from picking only the youngest leaves on the plant–the bud and the first two leaves. The very finest teas contain only the fresh, young buds. To ensure that only the choicest leaves and buds are picked, the leaves must be gathered by hand–a very labor intensive process. It takes roughly 6-7 pounds of fresh tea to make 1 pound of dried tea. Machines cannot be selective enough to ensure the level of quality necessary for premium teas. As a result, machine-harvested teas often lack the more pronounced flavor profiles present in hand-picked teas.
In recent years, as tea has continued to grow in popularity, we have seen an increased demand for flavored teas. Flavored teas have been around for thousands of years. The ancient Chinese sometimes added salt, ginger, cloves, mint or even onions to their tea. Today, teas are commonly blended with flower petals, died fruit, or exotic spices, and flavored with essential oils such as bergamot. Flavored teas are so popular that it is not uncommon to hear the term “dessert tea” in reference to a sweetly flavored tea designed to complement, or even replace, an after dinner indulgence.
Brewing the Perfect Cup of Tea
When steeping whole leaf tea you need to pay attention to both the steeping time and the water temperature. Not all teas are steeped exactly the same. Some teas are more delicate than others and can easily taste bitter if over-steeped. This is particularly true of white teas and green teas. Using approximately 1 teaspoon of dry tea per 8 ounces of water, follow these general guidelines:
All of our teas come labeled with specific steeping instructions on the packaging so that you can be sure to brew the perfect cup every time. We realize that tea preferences are subjective, so feel free to tweak our recommendations to suit your taste.
Follow the same instructions for making iced tea, but double the amount of dry tea used and pour it immediately over ice.
Whole leaf tea is sensitive to air, light and moisture. To ensure that it says fresh, specialty tea should be stored in an air-tight container that blocks both light and moisture. We offer airtight tins you can purchase if you don’t have a way to store your tea to keep it nice and fresh.
That concludes the first part of our tea primer! Is there some topic relating to the the history, science, or future of tea you’re interested in learning more about? Let us know in the comments, and we will make sure to address it in a future blog post!