Tea v Tisane
A confusing aspect of learning about tea is that many of the beverages which are called "tea" are not tea at all.
Herbal teas, which are known as Tisanes (a French word for "herbal infusion"), normally consist of herbs, fruits or dried flowers, which are then steeped in boiling water.
Surprising as it may seem, true tea no matter the type comes from one species of plant.
The Camellia Sinensis is an evergreen shrub which comes in two original varieties - Sinensis (smaller leaves) and Assamica (larger leaves).
Below this, there are several sub-varieties or cultivars( cultivated varieties). The difference is simple. If a subvariety is cultivated by propagation such as cloning using cuttings, or cross-pollination then it is described as a cultivar.
As with wine, tea harvesting varies from year to year depending on the changes in climate, terroir, rainfall and other conditions brought by the seasons.
The first couple of leaves and buds (unopened leaves) are what is used to produce this beverage, no matter variety. The tea plantations are cultivated by stripping the tea bushes of leaves and buds, at particular times of year either by hand or using machinery. The subtle differences in the picking, processing and cultivation methods, as well as the terroir, are what helps to create each teas individual flavour profile.
The leaf of the tea is a direct expression of its relationship to the environment. If the farmer is sensitive, which is a requirement for the mastery of tea production, he/she will adapt their processing methods to suit the leaf and season. In other words, great farmers adjust their processing every year depending on weather patterns, rainfall, humidity, mist and other influences.
Although there are many categories of tea out there and more being discovered or created, the six most common are White, Yellow, Green, Oolong, Black & Pu-erh (fermented).
Once the leaves are harvested, the processing to create the complex kaleidoscope of flavours- that differentiate each category of tea- begins.
The five stages of processing
Freshly plucked tea leaves are fragile and can easily break apart. So, as the first step in processing, the leaves are laid out to dry for several hours, this will make them “wither” and lose some of their moisture content. Withering softens the tea leaves, making them flexible and supple, so they won’t crumble during the rest of the processing steps.
This is where tea leaves start developing their unique appearance and flavour profiles. As the soft leaves are rolled and shaped by hand or machine, the cell walls break, releasing the enzymes and essential oils, this will alter the flavour of the leaf. Rolling also exposes the chemical components of the tea leaves to oxygen and initiates the oxidation process.
Oxidation is a chemical reaction that alters the flavour of tea and helps, the processed tea, develop its final appearance and colour. How long the tea leaves are allowed to oxidise or be exposed to oxygen, will determine the type of tea the leaf will become. Black tea leaves are highly oxidised and are therefore the darkest in colour and strongest in flavour. Oolong teas vary in levels of oxidation, and thus have varying colours and flavours, depending on the goals of the tea master. Green, Yellow and white teas are light in colour and flavour because they are barely oxidized.
By either baking, pan frying or steaming initiates the final drying process. Once the leaf is oxidised to its desired level, heat is applied to halt the oxidation process and to further reduce the leaf’s moisture content, so that the tea leaves can be stored without spoiling. Depending on the type of heat applied, this process can alter the flavour profile of the final product significantly.
Once the tea leaves have dried, they are hand sorted into various groups of similar size and colour to create different lots of like teas. These lots of tea receive different industry grades, based on how the tea visually looks depending on how much whole leaf, broken leaf or unopened tea buds end up in each lot.
Each processing method has been developed over hundreds of years, passed down through the generations and specially designed to bring out the best, in specific varieties of trees, grown in a particular climate, in a particular type of environment to create the best tea possible, in every single type of tea. The complexity of these teas doesn't end there. Tea is not a static product that can be replicated year to year. It is a continually changing and evolving process, which produces a continuously evolving result. No harvest is like another, and with a changing climate brings more challenges in processing and harvesting methods.
How to know "quality"
To say tea is complex is an understatement. What was once an ancient medicine, over centuries has become the second most popular beverage, in the modern world, just behind water. The more we learn about tea, the more it reveals itself to us as something so much more complex and ever-changing, than a simple beverage- which fuels our passion. Tea is something, we feel, we will never fully know, always the student. Frustrating as it may sound, understanding this is actually quite comforting. xxx