About Tea: Introducing Camellia Sinensis
Tea has a recorded history that spans nearly 5,000 years. Legend has it, that tea was discovered in 2737 BC, when some tea leaves blew into Chinese Emperor Shen-Nung’s cup of boiling water.
All true tea comes from the plant Camellia(genus) Sinensis(specie), which is a tropical and subtropical evergreen plant, native to Southeast Asia- best grown between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, in mountainous areas 3,000 to 7,000 feet above sea level. Current leading tea-producing countries include China, India, Japan, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Vietnam.
There are two primary types of Camellia Sinensis, used in the preparation of the tea:
- Camellia Sinesis var. Sinensis (China Jaat)- smaller leaves (5-12cm), propagated widely around China, Taiwan and Japan.
- Camellia Sinensis var. Assamica (Assam Jaat)- larger leaves (15-20cm), known for its large leaves and its hardiness; grown widely in India, Sri Lanka and Kenya, for the production of black tea.
Tea plants, can either be propagated from seeds or by using grafts and cuttings. Tea propagation from seeds, is not as common- in large scale production- due to the risk of the tea bush not conforming to the desired characteristics.
When plants are propagated through cuttings, the new plants will be identical clones of the original plants from which the cuttings were taken. This means preferred characteristics (taste, aroma, leaf size, level of disease, pest and weather resistance) will be passed on to the new tea bush and can be replicated to scale.
When propagating from grafting, two different plants are combined, to enhance or improve its taste, aroma and level of disease, pest or weather resistance- sometimes resulting in something new. Therefore, grafted plants are called cultivars. The word cultivar is a combination of the words "cultivated" and "variety". Cultivar is simply a cultivated variety, meaning that someone has recognized variations in a plant and has cultivated it to maintain these variations.
Depending on the climate conditions, the tea plan can either continuously grow (e.g. Sri Lanka- produces tea throughout the year due to its warm climate and high rainfall, creating a new flush or growing cycle, approximately every 80 days) or go dormant during the winter months (e.g. India, Darjeeling Region- where tea bushes stay dormant until spring. The new shoots, new growth and the tea made from it, are commonly referred to or named as First Flush. First flushes are often highly prized- due to its previous dormant period- it is believed to that the first spring flush contains the most amount of catechins (antioxidants) and L-theanine (a stimulant) than any other flushes).
The first tea harvest, is normally done 4 to 5 years after planting. There are three varieties of Camellia Sinensis plant, respectively belonging to shrub, small arbour and arbour. The most cultivated Camellia Sinensis plants- worldwide- belong to the shrub category, with height between 1 to 3 meters and without large trunks. In southern China's Fujian and Guangdong provinces, the most cultivated Camellia Sinensis is the small arbour, with visible trunks and branches, 20 to 30 centimetres above the ground. The Camellia Sinensis arbours, are very similar to trees with visible trunks and wide canopies, that can grow up to a height of 30metres- often found in the virgin forest of Yunnan province, in China.
Much like wine and coffee, the terroir (environment), in which the tea is grown, is crucial in the overall quality and flavour of the final product. Tea, is often considered more representative of these qualities (elevation; climate; rain fall; average temperature/temperature variation; winds; soil fertility; PH and drainage), than its wine and coffee, counterparts.
Whilst, there is significant variation with respect to the appearance, aroma, flavour and strength given by the terroir; the skill and motivations of both the farmer and manufacturer, producing the tea, also have significant bearing on final quality and flavour- as this is likely to impact decisions concerning the cultivation method, plant material (varietal or cultivar), type of plucking and production equipment used, as well as, choosing which approach to use for its tea manufacturing practices (e.g. steaming vs panning- to halt oxidisation; plucking standards; orthodox versus CTC processing; machine versus hand plucking; applying heat during withering, and continuous oxidisation methods).
Camellia Sinensis plants, typically grow within 20 degrees of the equator, in tropical climates- although, they have been cultivated in over 49 countries, between the longitudes of 42 degrees North and 33 degrees South. They generally prefer warm, wet and shaded growing environment with acidic soil (reddish-yellow soil, with PH anywhere between 4.0 - 6.5, the most suitable being a PH value between 5-6) and annual average temperatures between 15°C and 25°C (humidity levels should be between 75% and 85%, with the annual minimum requirement of rainfall, in the 1000-2000 mm).
Camellia shrubs, can usually stand up to -10°C and even -15°C- for a short amount of time; the highest temperature is 45°C- however, once it is above 35°C, the plants growth will be inhibited and leaves seared.
Camellia Sinensis, are suitable to be planted in hills and plains, however, the most famous teas and flavour profiles, come from the those growing at high elevations, in mountains.
SPECIALTY TEA VS COMMODITY TEA
Specialty tea, is a term given to leafy grade tea, produced with the intention of enhancing and fully expressing the flavour characteristics, present in the tea. Specialty tea, honours the diverse range of qualities, growing regions, climates, production and preparation methods; it utilises the best practice methods- to produce the highest quality and finest flavour. To achieve such standards, specialty tea, tends to take a more artisan approach- with smaller yields and higher costs, than mass produced commodity teas- preferring always quality over quantity.
Commodity tea, which represents the largest portion of tea produced, is purchased as a homogeneous product, where the objective of production is to maximise yields and consistency for an ‘acceptable’ standard of quality, whilst reducing costs. Commodity teas, tends to place a higher emphasis on strength and consistency, with limited tolerance for seasonal variation and spikes in character- resulting from peak flavour periods- in order to create a standardised product.
The primary type of tea sold and the way it is prepared, in each country, also varies depending on where you are in the world. China, is considered a green tea consuming country, preparing hot tea primarily in the Gongfu style, with a gaiwan; India, is considered a black tea consuming country, preparing hot tea primarily with a tea pot and adding milk and sugar; The USA, consumes a variety of teas, with the highest consumption being iced tea, where black and herbal teas are mostly made by using tea bags with lots of added sugar.
Types of Tea
Tea can be broadly categorised into different types: White tea, Green tea, Yellow tea, Oolong tea, Black tea and Fermented tea. The process used to make all of these different teas, from the Camellia Sinensis plant, is (mainly) oxidation. Oxidation, essentially refers to a series of chemical reactions that result in the browning of tea leaves, which in turn is related to the production of flavour and aroma compounds, in finished teas. Depending on the type of tea being made, oxidisation is prevented altogether or deliberately initiated, controlled then stopped.
you heat the leaf to about 100-120c, that enzyme is deactivated and therefore, the leaf stops any oxidation- this way we can manipulate the leaf from very light, to very dark.
White tea undergoes minimal rolling and processing and is not typically withered.
Is the least processed of all the teas. For the highest grade, the tea picker will very carefully pick the bud, so it won’t bruise the plant in any way, they will then wither the leaves, by spreading them onto mats or sheets- under direct or indirect sun light, to allow the tea to lose moister and dry.
Once completely dry, this tea is ready to be consumed. The name ‘White’ derived from the little white and silver downy hairs, which are still attached to the leaves.
Once brewed, the buds turn a lovely light green-jade colour. The flavour profile of this tea is very light, very elegant with some nutty notes through it, sometimes with some floral fragrance with fruity undertones and sweetness.
Because the tea has been dried under the sun over a period of time, that means it has been slightly oxidised, something like 5-10%- it is extremely light, a great tea to gently start your day or to be used for meditative purposes.
Green tea is made from non-oxidised tea leaves, of the Camellia Sinensis plant. To prevent oxidation, heat is applied to the leaves, which neutralise the enzymes responsible for oxidisation process. The resulting green tea liquor, may vary depending on the country of origin, but is typically light and pale in colour. In terms of flavour profile green teas are mostly fresh, slightly grassy, slightly astringent (dryness not bitterness), with toasted and nutty notes and a clean finish.
You may have heard or read about the health benefits of green tea and indeed, there are many- but all tea is good for you, they just have slightly different levels of anti-oxidants and health benefits.
Contrary to most information you find online, green tea “normally” has the highest amount of caffeine, compared to other teas, this is however, contra-balanced by higher levels of L-theanine in the leaf, which actually makes you feel quite calm, so you get that lovely sensation of being alert but relaxed at the same time.
Yellow tea, is made in a very similar way to green tea- after the leaves are exposed to heat, they are covered them- this process removes some of the grassier notes and softens the tea, in China they say that this step allows for the reabsorbing of its own flavour. This tea, sits between White and Green, in terms of flavour Yellow tea is very pure, it’s kind of summer dew, with a beautiful lingering sweetness, it has some of the freshness of green tea, with he softness and elegance of a white tea.
Oolong tea can be roasted to varying degrees to bring about alternate flavour characteristics (floral and aromatic to lightly toasty, to dark golden roast).
These are semi-oxidized teas, this means the leaf has been oxidised anywhere between 8 %-85%. With Oolongs, you can get an enormous variety of flavours. Most oolong teas, use specific plant cultivars chosen because they produce bigger but still tender leaves; they are withered under the sun, then they are rolled or shaped, which bruises the edges of the leaves, it also releases some of the essential oils- that react with air and starts the oxidation process. Once the right level of oxidation is achieved, further oxidation is stopped, from there the leaf goes through many processes of rolling and drying.
There are 2 styles of Oolong, ball rolled (rolled into compact small spheres) or strip style (the tea still resembles strips of individual leaves).
They also can vary on oxidation, so you can have a green Oolong, between 5-30% oxidation; medium- dark Oolongs between 30-60% and dark oolong from 60-85%.
Because of this, the flavour profile of Oolongs varies widely, with light Oolongs you tend to get freshness, floral notes, creaminess and sometimes some nuttiness. As it gets darker, they start to develop a sweetness/fruitiness, it becomes drier and you start getting toasting and roasting notes.
Once finished, the production process, most Oolongs go through some level of roasting, to accentuate the flavours and bring forward more complex notes.
Contrary to a lot of information online and by some tea vendors, black tea it’s not fully oxidised, although, it has a high oxidation, sitting at around 90-95%. For this tea, the young leaves are picked, withered in the sun or indoors; after, the leaves need to be bruised either by being hand rolled or by using rolling machines- this releases all of the essential oils, which react with air and oxidise- the entire oxidation process changes the chemical composition of the leaf and alters the health benefits and flavour- as tannins develop, the tea becomes richer, stronger and more robust.
It becomes stronger enough, to withstand milk, if you so wish- especially if it’s an Indian or Sri Lankan, black tea. However, if you were drinking Chinese black tea, I would advise not to, because all the intricacies and subtleties will be lost.
The wet leaves, are usually a darker brown/dark copper colour. Black tea, has a very robust and satisfying flavour- it can have from malt to sweet notes, sometimes even some fruit notes. The aroma is very comforting- this is the tea that most people in the west turn to for comfort- in times of distress or to unwind.
As the tea ferments, it becomes darker and smother. Also, the health properties and benefits change with the fermentation process. The fully aged/fermented Puerh’s normally take 20-25 years, although they last a lot longer and can be consumed throughout the years.
This is a completely different class of tea. This is a tea that has been allowed to ferment. One of the most classical examples is Puerh. Puerh tea, comes from the Yunnan province, in the South West of China.
The especial thing about this tea, is that if you pick it’s leaves and process them as green teas (pick it-wither- pan fry, to deactivate oxidation) and then pack them into small compressed “cakes” (although they come in different shapes and forms) and then leave it over the years, the micro-organisms that exist- naturally- on the leaf, allow the tea to ferment. As the tea ferments, it becomes darker and smother. Also, the health properties and benefits change with the fermentation process. The fully aged/fermented Puerh’s normally take 20-25 years, although they last a lot longer and can be consumed throughout the years.
Due to the industrious nature of the Chinese, in the 1970’s they invented a process to speed things up- after all 25years is a long time to wait for your product to hit its peak and be sold accordingly. After the picking, withering and pan fry- they pile the leaves into large clean warehouses, where they can manipulate the temperature and humidity- accelerating fermentation from 25 years to about 2 months- its still a labour intensive process- the leaves need to be raked to ensure even fermentation and to prevent any musk or mould from developing.
In terms of flavour- In general, Puerh is very, very earthy- like sticking your nose into a pile of autumn leaves- really rich earthy taste that is not brewed correctly (needs to be rinsed and very short steeps), can put some people off, as it might have a slight marine- seaweed almost fishy scent, but the taste is extremely earthy, clean and fresh. And its’ extremely good for you, since the fermentation process naturally creates statins, which help lower cholesterol- for example. It’s also used as a digestive after a big, heavy meal.
Only beverages containing the tea plant Camellia Sinensis are considered true tea. Herbal infusions like peppermint, chamomile, lemongrass, etc, are considered -instead- herbal infusions or tisanes (pronounced ti-zahn). The word tisane, is derived from the Greek word "ptisane" and it means caffeine free- the Camellia Sinensis plant inherently has caffeine, which is used as a defence mechanism, to detract animals from eating its’ leaves.