What Is Tea?

What Is Tea?

Tea is the most commonly consumed beverage in the world behind water. Even still there are a lot of people in the West who don’t really know what it is. So since many people getting in to tea are starting on the ground floor, I thought the basics of tea would be a good place to start. The truth of the matter is that most people in Canada see tea as nothing more than an alternative to coffee. It comes in a bag and you put it in a mug or maybe a teapot if your grandma is coming over. How much more complicated can it get? For a long time, tea has been boiled down to a caffeine booster that is reminiscent of a stuffy “Downton Abbey-esque” culture, but in reality, tea is so much more.

Let’s start with the basics which are often taken for granted. Tea is a beverage made from the leaves and/or stems of the plant Camellia Sinensis. There are two varieties of Camellia Sinensis: the Assamica variety (broad leaf variety) and the Sinensis variety (small leaf variety). The main difference in these varieties is that the Assamica has bigger leaves and is a tree, whereas the Sinensis variety has smaller leaves and is bush like. 

The beautiful thing about Camellia Sinensis is that it is deeply affected by even the slightest change in soil or climate, summed up in the term “terroir.” Just like wine, two teas that were processed the same way, but grown in different regions will have a very different taste. One analogy that I’ve found helpful is that in comparing caffeinated beverages to alcoholic beverages, coffee is like beer in that the terroir isn’t as big of a deal, while tea is like wine, where terroir plays a huge role.

Another basic point (admittedly, kinda nitpicky), is that since tea is made from Camellia Sinensis, any beverage made from a different plant is therefore not tea (I’m looking at you “mint tea”). So all those “teas” labelled under the category “herbal teas” are not really teas at all. That doesn’t mean they’re nothing, though! What they are is more accurately called tisanes (Pronounced: tea-sans). Exceptions to this rule are Camellia Taliensis and a couple other Camellias like Camellia Formosensis.

With that out of the way, let’s get on to the real deal. What are the different kinds of tea and what does it all mean? Well, the categories are more or less broken up based on their levels of oxidation, however this gets a little hazy in some circumstances as you’ll see. 

Oxidation is the same process that’s going on when an apple is sliced open and left out for an hour. It starts to brown. Baking the apple will stop the oxidation process and this same technique is used in tea processing. This phase is called the “kill green” phase (pan firing in Chinese green teas, boiling in Japanese green teas) which stops the natural oxidation process in the leaves. 

Okay, so, let’s look at the different kinds of tea. We’ll start with the very well-known green tea. With the amount of healing powers you hear about this type of tea, I’m surprised we’re not injecting it daily. The truth is, I have no clue whether the health claims revolving around green tea are true or not. I mean, it’s probably not bad for you and that’s good enough for me! Green tea is the category of tea with the lowest oxidation levels. The tea is picked and then immediately fired in order to maintain its fresh green taste. Afterwards, it is dried for storage.

Yellow tea is the next category, but since it isn’t a very widely produced tea and it shares much of the same processes as green tea, it’s often either forgotten or purposely left out. Yellow tea has one extra step when compared to green tea which is a bundling of the leaves in cloth which turns them yellow from green as the chlorophylls break down. In this process known as mèn huáng (闷黄) or sealed yellowing in English, the leaves slightly oxidize making it different from green tea.

Next let’s talk about white tea. White tea is an interesting category because unlike other teas which undergo a kill green process in order to stop the oxidation at desired levels, white tea only undergoes a slowing of the oxidation process. White tea is withered slowly until it dries. This allows the tea to be aged and change flavours over time. This is yet another parallel between tea and wine.

Oolong, or wulong tea is a wide category of tea with oxidation levels between roughly 8% and 85%. Since it is a semi-oxidized tea with a wide range of oxidation, there are many different styles and variations which all fall under the category of oolong. The processing behind oolong tea is meticulous and since the oxidation level can be so fickle, the tea master needs to be constantly watching to make sure that the batch he is making has reached the desired oxidation level.

Black tea is probably the most well-known tea in the West. English Breakfast, Orange pekoe, and Darjeeling are all examples of black tea. Black tea is the fully oxidized category of tea. Fun fact – in China, black tea is called red tea. This is because when the Europeans came to buy tea from the Chinese, they would buy tea leaves in bulk, all of which were black, so, black tea. However, the Chinese named the category after the colour of the liquid the leaves produce, which is, of course, red. In China, black, or dark, tea actually refers to our next category of tea: Dark tea.

Dark tea is not very well known in the West at all and is where breaking up the categories of tea in terms of oxidation doesn’t really work. Dark tea is in its own separate category because the microbial process which is allowed to take place in the leaves changes the taste significantly, and doesn’t really let it fit inside any other group. Pu’er is the most common tea in the fermented category and can be further broken down into raw pu’er and ripe pu’er.

Raw, or sheng, pu’er came first and was transported from what is now the province of Yunnan, to all over Southwest China, into Tibet along the Tea Horse Road. The tea was pressed into bricks, which eased the transportation process and this is still how pu’er is shipped. Raw pu’er is withered, pan-fired at a lower temperature than most teas, rolled and then sun dried before it is pressed into it’s bricks. Raw pu’er is known for ageing and in the 1970’s, consumers wanted aged pu’er, fast. To get the desired earthy taste, a raw pu’er might need to be fermented for 10, or even 20 years. This is where ripe pu’er comes in.

Ripe, or shu pu’er, is a relatively new tea which came about in the 1970’s. It was made to mimic the ageing process of raw pu’er, but rather than taking ten or twenty years to age, ripe pu’er was made to get that desired aged raw pu’er taste within months. To do this, the leaves of the tea were fermented in carefully managed wet piles. This process was taken from another fermented tea made in Guangxi. The result was a new tea altogether.

This post became a little longer than I thought, but even with this introduction, I am skipping over so many details. Tea can be incredibly complex, and there’s really so much more to say. There is a whole world of tea that many in the West don’t know about. But I hope I’ve helped make the case that it shouldn’t be ignored.

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