At first glance, tea seems a simple and ordinary thing. You’d pass by an old man sipping a cup early in the morning, and won’t even give it a second look. It’s just a drink, you’d say. It’s just hot water, you’d say.
But, you see, this simple beverage discovered 5,000 years ago has become the second most consumed drink in the world for a plethora of reasons.
The Mystique Behind Tea
From being a drink, tea has evolved into an anticipated, highly-revered social gathering, event or ritual. All over the world, countries have developed their own distinct tea cultures.
You could say tea holds a certain enigma to it, flavored by its colorful history, and the art and craftsmanship that goes behind producing tea. So that when it arrives in your teapot or cup, the myriad of flavors, notes, aromas, and characteristics of tea leap out and converse with you in volumes.
But before we go any deeper, let’s pull the brakes, and get to know TEA on the surface level first. Much like getting to know a new acquaintance. Consider this your TEA 101, or Introduction to Tea. So grab yourself a cuppa, and read on!
What is Tea & Where Does It Come From?
Tea is made by adding hot or boiling water to a teapot containing leaves from the plant Camella Sinensis.
The Camella Sinensis plant is an evergreen shrub endemic to parts of China, India, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. Camella Sinensis is the mother of all tea leaves, from which all kinds of teas are derived. True Teas include black, green, oolong, yellow, white and pu-erh tea, all coming from the same plant, but had been processed differently, thus the different colors and tastes.
Now, how about the other teas you’ve seen in the market? Like hibiscus, chamomile, and other floral and herbal teas? In the world of hard-core tea connoisseurs, those are called TISANES, meaning other tea variations that do not come from the Camella Sinensis plant. But, to most of us, and just for easier reference, we’ve come to refer to all of them as teas.
These are terminologies and bits of trivia you can bring with you to your next tea party. Share with your friends the difference between TRUE TEAS and TISANES by the time you help yourself to a second cup.
Harvesting Tea Leaves
The Camella Sinensis thrive in acidic soil, and can be grown at any altitude—from sea level to up to altitudes of 7,000 feet. But the best quality leaves are said to be grown from places at higher elevations and cooler climates.
At age three, a tea plant is now deemed mature enough to be harvested. When the plant begins to “flush”, meaning the leaves are large enough yet not very old, the tea farmers now have the go signal to handpick the leaves.
Tea is traditionally picked by hand to preserve the freshness and softness of leaves. But of course, today, modern methods of harvesting are done to prioritize efficiency. These use modern machinery like portable handheld harvester, or a tractor harvester vehicle.
But ask any tea connoisseur, and they’d tell you handpicked tea leaves are still the best! What happens next? Once the tea pickers pluck the tea leaves, they place them in huge wicker baskets and bring them to a tea processing plant, located within the tea plantation. And now the production of teas can begin.
The Processing of Teas
Tea-makers only have a short span of time—just 24 hours—to pack the tea plants the moment they’re picked! This is a crucial time. Here’s what needs to be done.
Withering is the process of removing excess moisture from the leaves. The leaves are laid out on a wire mesh and left to dry for 12-17 hours, or more. This is called “natural withering”. There are other methods, but natural withering is the easiest of them all.
Curling Once the tea leaves are successfully withered, they’re placed in a roller drum where they’re continuously pressed and rotated. This is done so that the tea leaves are able to release catechin compounds and enzymes that will later give tea its unique flavor and health benefits.
Oxidation Now comes the important part, oxidation! This stage will determine the identity of the tea leaves, as well as its flavors and aromas. The tea leaves are left to oxidize in a climate-controlled room with oxygen supply. The longer a tea is oxidized, the darker it is, like black tea! In contrast, white tea is the least processed, often just simply air-withered and dried. Some tea makers minimally oxidize white tea, but make sure that it will have a much softer, more delicate flavor profile than its green or black tea cousins.
Drying or Firing Once the leaves have been oxidized to the right level, they're passed through hot air dryers that further reduce their water content to about 3%. After this, they’re ready to be sorted, packed, and shipped!
You could say teas journey a long way to get from the tea farm to the old man’s cup you see in your neighborhood. Or even the tea steaming from the handmade ceramic mug you’re holding right now.
The next time you brew yourself a cup, take the time to savor the flavors, as well as ponder where your tea came from, and how it’s made.