Tea emerges from legend over 5000 years ago when it was “discovered” by the emperor Shen Nong. While boiling his drinking water, dried leaves from a nearby bush fell into the water, and the result – Tea!
Ever since, the influence of tea has permeated every aspect of the Chinese society and culture. As trade routes were opened, tea quickly gained popularity in the West. Today, it is ranked second only to water as the world’s most consumed beverage.
Throughout history, tea has influenced world politics and shaped international events. From the British colonization of India, to the Boston Tea Party, tea has played an integral role in global trade relations.
Native to China, Camellia Sinensis, the tea plant, is now cultivated throughout the world. Today, tea plantations in India, Japan, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Africa, and Indonesia produce most of the world’s tea.
Types of Tea
Tea Types are generally defined by the level of “oxidation” of the leaf. Oxidation occurs naturally when enzymes in the leaf are exposed to air, similar to the way an apple browns once it's been cut. This complex series of chemical reactions ultimately yields the cup characteristics we anticipate with each style of tea. In general, the more oxidized the tea leaf, the darker the infusion and bolder the flavor.
White tea is the most simple of the tea types to describe, because it basically consists of the two steps of harvesting and drying. The leaves are not rolled or allowed to oxidize at all. This leaves the leaf in a full, unbroken, natural state. Originally, white tea was only produced in the Fujian province of China using bushes that were carefully selected and cultivated to produce this type of tea. Only the newest, downy tips were meticulously harvested to create tea that was used as “tribute tea” for the emperor. Today we can find two major styles of white tea; traditional “buds only” tea, such as Silver Needle, and the “bud and leaf” style, such as White Peony (bai mu dan). The bud and leaf style tea offers a more economical choice and broadens the availability of the tea. The increased awareness and marketability of white tea has influenced other tea producing regions to try their hands at white tea production as well.
Green Tea is not oxidized. After being harvested, sorted, and allowed to air-dry for a brief period (just long enough to reduce the moisture content about 10% and make the leaf more pliable), the leaf undergoes a process of firing or steaming. This stops any enzyme action or oxidation of the leaves and fixes the juices in the leaf. Many green teas are rolled or shaped using traditional techniques, creating a vast array of leaf styles from which to choose. Some teas may be lightly “fluffed” such as the Silver Dragon, while others may be flattened during a pan-firing process, like the Longjing (Dragonwell). The taste or character of green tea is heavily determined by the time of plucking, shoot maturity, geographic and weather conditions and cultivation method.
Oolong Tea encompasses all the tea that is partially oxidized, and the manufacture of oolong tea is an art form in its own right. Each farm or tea garden has proprietary methods of making their own type of tea. The tea goes through the initial steps of harvesting, sorting and weighing, and is then allowed to wither for a brief period. It is the next step that truly defines oolong tea as an artisan product. The leaves are bruised, using a variety of methods, and are then allowed to oxidize. Skillful timing and careful handling during this process determine the final outcome in your cup. The teas can range from 8% oxidation levels, to 80% oxidation levels. This wide variance creates a spectrum of flavors, colors, and aromas that range from very green to dark full brews. Leaf styles can also range from full, unrolled styles like the Phoenix Oolong, to tightly rolled selections like the Ti Kuan Yin. Although oolongs may initially seem more expensive than other types of tea, they are designed to be infused several times. This quality drastically reduced the “per pot” price, and each infusion yields its own special flavor and characteristic.
Black tea undergoes processing to fully oxidize the leaf, allowing natural and robust flavors to emerge. In the orthodox method of manufacturing, after harvesting and sorting, the leaves undergo the withering step where they are spread in several inch thick layers and allowed to dry, reducing the moisture of the leaf. This process usually takes about 18 – 20 hours and must be carefully controlled to produce the best teas. When the withering process is complete, the leaves are then rolled using modern machinery that rolls, twists, and compresses the leaf. This action bursts the cell structure, releases the juices of the leaf and promotes the start of the oxidation process. Black tea is allowed to oxidize fully, a process that is carefully controlled and monitored by experienced tea experts. When oxidation is considered complete, the tea is then dried with hot air to stop any further enzymatic breakdown of the leaf. The oxidation that takes place is largely responsible for the flavor, color and strength of black tea.