Tea has been the world’s favourite drink and is loved for its refreshing properties as well as its medicinal value. Tea was a closely guarded secret and considered a heavenly boon in its native place of origin in China before travellers and later on the trading Europeans came to be acquainted with the magic oriental brew from leaves. It was only after the British East India company started commercial trading of tea, enamoured by its refreshing taste, tea gradually became a household name all over the world. The early European travelling explorer to the Oriental East mentioned the magic herbal potion in their travelogues, but China firmly held monopoly over tea, controlling and regulating transfer of the plant or its seeds for cultivation. However they had literally no need for worry, because the tea plant is extremely susceptible to favourable climatic conditions in order for it to prosper and flourish. The Camelia Sinsensis, the tea plant as it is scientifically classified, is native to Yunan in China where its brew was accidentally discovered as early as the 3rd century BC or even earlier. Apart from Yunan it naturally flourishes only in the Sichuan district of China where the climatic conditions favour its growth. However another variety of the Camelia Sinensis, assamica has been prominently flourishing in the hills of Assam as early as the Chinese variety and although no documented evidence supports the same, the indigenous tribes occupying those hills claim to have knowledge of the tea plant and its brew and its medicinal properties much earlier than it became popular in India. As a matter of fact when the British had set sight on commercial cultivation of the tea plant in the hills of Darjeeling, they had procured the seeds for the same from Chinese but had escaped acquiring expertise and skill in cultivation. Hence initially after the tea stint failed in Darjeeling, due to lack of subject matter and cultivation expertise, the British were astonished to find the Singpho tribe of the upper Assam hills, already proficient in the art of tea of cultivation. The Singpho claim tea to be an integral part of their culture ever since its inception although there is no documented evidence to prove the same. Overwhelmed, the British nurtured their ambitions of commercial tea cultivation from Assam and then later on moved to Darjeeling motivated by the success of Assam plantations. Upon prolonged research and experiment it was later understood how the unpredictable weather of Darjeeling and the acidic soil conditions would go on to create a separate brand of tea, identified by its place of origin, loved by tea connoisseurs and revered by culinary experts.
Whether a tea plant will become white, green, black or oolong depends upon the extent of oxidation it undergoes before being sent for packaging. In the present day tea is segregated into various categories based on their method of processing.
There are at least 6 distinct and noticeable types of tea available in the market for purchase today. They are namely, Black Tea, Green Tea, Oolong, White tea, Herbal tea & Organic tea.
Black tea is the most popular variety of tea available in the West. Black tea is served as red tea in China denoting the extent to which its leaves are oxidized hence resulting in the dark bold colour of the brew. Black tea comprises of leaves which are fully oxidized and as a thumb rule, stronger than white tea, green tea or oolong variety of tea. Most black teas are produced by picking younger leaves and then subjecting them to subsequent processing involving methods like withering, rolling, full oxidization, and finally firing the leaves for roasting them. Originally created in China black tea is cultivated worldwide for trade and other commercial purposes. In many instances machines are involved in every aspect of the manufacturing right form picking leaves to their subsequent processing and finally packaging. However the best black teas are those that are completely made by hand. Some of the most famous black teas in the world come from the tea gardens in the hills of Assam, Darjeeling, and Nilgiri. Most of these estates were started by the British and hence it is not surprising that most of them still retain some of the British values incorporated in the system since its inception. Black tea is usually processed in two prevalent methods Crush Tear Curl or CTC and Orthodox method of processing. While CTC caters to the demands for mass consumption for a strong coloured tea compatible with milk and sugar, Orthodox method is generally used for preparation of Gourmet Teas. While CTC is effective in gathering most from low quality leaves, Orthodox essentially involves in high quality leaves for a luxury tea experience. Black tea hand made by orthodox processing is known to retain its flavor for years even after exposure in storage.
Creating blends in black tea is a practice epitomized by the British and now a globally accepted trend.Tea gardens and estates draw lots from varieties of their produce andtake various kinds of tea to create a particular blendwith distinct character, aroma and taste. For example, a strong breakfast tea or a soulful evening tea. Moreover like a designer line fashion house, several older tea estates like Margaret Hope are known for their signature blends. Since quality of harvest is subject to change every, it is left to the skill and expertise of the tea blenders who take leaves from different harvests of different gardens to create the same consistency in taste and flavor without compromising on the aroma or colour of the brew. Another recent trend in the International and European black tea market is estate teas, those teas that come from a single tea garden or estate from a particular year. Exactly like the practice of selecting good wine, estate teas can capture character and elements of the area in its taste. This has given Darjeeling tea a new found status in the gourmet tea consumer market estate and Darjeeling tea has gained steady global presence, often being auctioned for thousands of dollars per pound.
With both blends and estate teas, it is not surprising to see black teas further bifurcated into two more categories, namely broken leaf and full leaf categories. A broken-leaf tea consists of leaves that have been purposely broken into small pieces during processing. The smaller size allows the tea to spread over a larger area of water to extract most of the tea leaves’ components in a short period of time. Broken leaf teas tend to be bolder and more robust with a higher caffeine content, making them an excellent choice for morning teas to be paired with milk and sugar. Full leaf teas tend to be more refined and smooth in taste and are meant to be consumed without any external additives.
Green tea comprises of those leaves of the tea plant that have undergone minimal oxidation during their processing. Due to this reason they are able to self preserve and retain their vital colour. To prevent oxidation tea leaves are cured in the heat to remove any trace of moisture that may provoke or incite oxidation. Curing can be done by roasting or pan frying the young tea leaves or they can be steamed at high temperature. Each style of curing imparts a distinctly unique flavour to the tea leaves which is profoundly visible in the resulting brew. While the Chinese preferred the former method of curing to bring out flavours like citrus and add a smoky tinge to the drink, the Japanese preferred the latter method to restore the inherent vegetal qualities and strength in the drink. Although Green tea originated in China as a medicinal beverage, it has gained steady foothold in every culture of the world, not only as a drink but also as an ingredient for cooking, as a dietary supplement as also for cosmetic value. Depending upon its moisture content in the leaves, green tea can stir up a pale yellow straw coloured brew to a light glassy green colored brew.
Oolong tea is the traditional Chinese tea made from semi oxidized tea leaves. Oolong is also pronounced Wu Long and is said to mean Black Dragon in Chinese and they have a history being cultivated both in mainland China as well as Taiwan. Mature leaves are picked and cured in the sun till they wither before they are subsequently oxidized anywhere from between 10 – 80 % and then curled and twisted. Most tea estates hold secret their own unique methods of processing tea which have been perfected over years of accumulated expertise by trial and error. This is what contributes to the widespread array of flavours and aromas that are involved in brewing a cup of Oolong tea.
White tea is the most untampered and natural product from the Camelia Sinesnis in a sense that it undergoes the least amount of processing after plucking. Traditionally a product cultivated in China, it involves leaves picked only a particular few days of the year when a white silvery hair appears on the tender shoots of the tea plant. The tea shoots with the silvery hair on the buds, known as bai ho in Chinese, are then picked along with the leaves and the harvest is allowed to wither in natural sunlight and dry to prevent oxidation. The process is extremely complicated as it is delicate and demands utmost attention and care along with subject matter expertise which is the legacy of the tea estates it is produced in.
Organic Tea OR Fermented Tea
The common confusion regarding tea is that tea is processed and cannot be produced organically by fermenting. However with the increasing interest in the tea lover for experimenting with taste and gathering more information regarding tea, Fermented Tea or Organic tea as it is popularly known or Pu’Er in Chinese is also steadily gaining popularity in the world of culinary tea and health drinks. Despite this common misnomer, there is a variety of tea that is actually fermented. Named after a town in China’s Yunnan province, Pu’er, leaves of such teas are larger and full bodied that are aged for several years. As a matter of fact, a quality assurance of good Organic tea is that the leaves will actually have a light dusting of mold. Tea leaves are usually compressed into various shapes before being aged during which they are exposed to microflora and bacteria that ferment the tea, in a way similar to wine or yogurt. Although the process is time consuming, it is completely organic and like fine wines, they are highly prized collector’s items as well for obvious reasons. Some of the most highly regarded and expensive teas of this type are well over 30 years old.
Organic teas yield a dark, full bodied overwhelming brew that is low in caffeine. The taste is mellow without any of the layers in taste unlike other processed teas. It has vegetal qualities and an astringent taste and is highly recommended as it aids the body with digestion, while new studies indicate that it may help combat cholesterol as well.
Herbal Tea or Tisanes
Herbal Teas, also referred to as herb teas or tisanes popularly are beverages made from the infusion or decoction of leaves and other parts of the tea plant along with other added spices, fruits and herbs. They usually do not contain caffeine and their existence can be traced back to ancient civilizations in China and Egypt. Although the name herbal tea has become very popular in the world of beverages, the term tisane is more applicable to this genre of beverages and consistent to its texture. However any plant extract derived as a brew is defined as tea in the English etymology, so the term herbal tea although a little mismatch should not be misleading. Often, tisanes have their own particular benefits, as is the case South African Rooibos, which is naturally high in vitamin C and antioxidants. Herbal teas can be considered as an excellent choice of drink for children especially as they lack any stimulating ingredient and have medicinal benefits too and keeps the body refreshed. Like any other food product or beverage, it is important to be aware of the effects a particular tisane may have on the body and mind before consumption.
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