Tea 101 - The Basics

Posted by Tony Noto on

Since so much tea comes from China, it's fitting to begin today's post with a Chinese proverb: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Or, more commonly stated, the first step. The first step in our tea journey is to learn what tea actually is, how it's grown, and what's in it.

What is tea?

Tea is the second most consumed drink in the world, second only to water. That may come as a surprise to you, as may the fact that all teas come from the same plant. That's right, black, green, oolong, white and pu'erh all come from the plant known as Camellia sinensis, a subtropical evergreen plant native to Asia but now found around the world. The variations of tea that come from this plant are caused by different conditions in the various countries that grow tea --  where it's grown, when and how it's picked - and what is done to the leaf after it is picked. I'll go into the specifics of the different teas in my next post.

How is tea grown?

Camellia sinensis, or the tea plant, looks like a bush or a shrub, but left alone and uncultivated could grow into a tree sometimes reaching 30 feet tall! The plant grows naturally in the wild all over Asia, but is usually found in various settings ranging from small family gardens to huge estates covering thousands of acres.

The best tea is usually grown at higher elevations, often on steep slopes which forces it to be hand-plucked rather than machine picked. Commercial production tea is usually grown on flat, lowland areas to accommodate machine harvesting. However, I should note that some of the finest, hand-plucked tea in the world comes from flat fields at low altitude. 

Where in the world does tea come from?

Hot temperatures and heavy rainfall are key to growing tea. Tropical and subtropical regions of the world like India, Sri Lanka, China, Japan, Taiwan and Indonesia are some large tea-producing areas. Other countries, like Argentina, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, and Turkey, also grow and produce tea. There is even one (the only one according to their website) in North America called the Charleston Tea Plantation located in the low country of South Carolina, a mere two hours from our tea shop. 

Harvesting: Picked or plucked?

You might have noticed that I've used the words picked and plucked interchangeably in this post. Although grammar fanatics might argue there is a difference (you might say he plucked an apple off the tree but you wouldn't say let's go apple plucking), for the sake of learning about tea if you understand that each term means taking a leaf off of the bush, you're good.

 Two leaves and a bud

Teas processed in the traditional way are called Orthodox teas. They generally contain only the top two tender leaves and an unopened leaf bud, plucked by hand and then processed using five basic steps which leads to the hundreds of varieties of tea we all know and love. By the way, although tea plants do have small flowers, the bud I referred to is a young, unopened leaf, not actually a flower bud.

The Unorthodox method of harvesting, most commonly the CTC (crush-tear-curl) method, is much faster and predominantly used for commercial black teas. Machine harvesters "mow" the top of the bushes to get the new leaves. A leaf shredder crushes, tears and curls the leaves, hence the name. In the end, it kind of looks like Grape Nuts cereal, all rolled up into little balls. It produces tea that brews quickly and gives a bold, powerful drink, which is why the tea bag industry relies heavily on this method.

Three components in tea

The primary components of brewed tea are:

1. Essential oils, which provide the tea's aromas and flavors

2. Polyphenols, which provide the briskness and astringency in the mouth and carry most of the health benefits of tea

3. Caffeine, which is found naturally in tea and provides a natural energy boost.

 

Next time on Tea Talk, I'll tell you about the different types of tea you get from Camellia sinensis: Black, Green, White, Oolong and Pu'erh.

If you enjoyed this blog post, please share it with a friend. I invite your comments and extend a personal invitation to try our teas available on this website. If you're near Charlotte, NC, please come to our store and see us personally.

Best regards!


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