Tea is a very old thing, ancient almost. And with the age comes a certain amount of mystery, quite a bit of tradition, and a fair amount of myth. One of our main jobs at Queen’s Pantry is to help you understand what tea is exactly. Over the next few months, we’ll be taking some time to work out the different types of tea, proper brewing techniques, etc. Maybe you caught last week’s How to Brew Tea , and maybe you didn’t. Either way, this is the perfect place to start learning new things about tea or refresh on things you already know.
(Disclaimer: There are hundreds of years worth of knowledge, countless individual, geographic based ways to process tea, and many, many more subgroups of tea types and styles. This is designed to be an very brief overview of the most widely used methods for processing tea and the most common types of tea.)
First off, let me just say that the four major tea groups all come from the same plant – some variety of the tree Camellia Sinensis. Tradition states that Camellia Sinensis was first discovered in by the Emperor of China in 2737 BC. Over the centuries tea cultivation spread out to places like Japan, Taiwan, India, and eventually Africa. If you’re curious about what a modern tea estate looks like check out the fabulous photos by one of our suppliers, Glenburn Tea Estate.
Beautiful, right?? But to continue with our story of what tea is!
Most commonly drunk in the States, black tea is the most processed of the teas. And by processed, I don’t mean chemicals. Processed in this context means that black tea has the most happen to it between being picked on the estate to making it to a cup of hot, black goodness in your hands.
Some estates use machines to pick the tea, some tea is picked by hand. High quality teas (including most of our teas) are often picked by hand. Tea leaves that are destined to be a black tea are generally allowed to grow to maturity. After reaching maturity, the leaves are picked. To continue the process, the tea is taken and rolled, twisted, or cut. It is then allowed to dry. While it is drying a process called oxidation occurs, which causes the leaves to turn the black-brown color that we generally associate with black tea. Finally, when the tea is done drying it is then sorted by ‘grade’ which is the size of the leaf.
Black tea typically has a dark red to black liquor. It contains caffeine and takes milk, lemon, or sugars well. Traditional examples of black teas are English Breakfast and Scottish Breakfast, Earl Grey, and teas like Assam or Ceylon.
After the sorting process the tea is packaged and sent to it’s buyer, eventually making it’s way to your tea cup!
Oolong tea leaves are in between black and green tea in color and in processing methods. It has a lighter color in the cup, tending towards the wheat gold and grass green spectrum.
When tea is picked to be oolong, it goes through a similar picking procedure to the one black tea goes through. The leaves are then rolled or twisted. This starts the oxidization process. Unlike black teas, oolong teas are only partially oxidized. This means that oolong leaves can have a variety of appearances. Da Hong Pao looks much like a black tea, but Ti Quan Yin or Mandarin Silk Oolong look very similar to a green tea.
The biggest difference between green tea and oolong or black tea is oxidization. Green teas are made by plucking tea leaves and then withering them. This typically is done by laying tea out over large areas or on specially constructed shelves. The leaves wither for several hours. During the withering process the tea leaves loose some of the natural moisture. Then the tea leaves go through a heating process. Chinese and Chinese style green teas are often heated in a large drum or large, flat pans. Teas made with the Chinese method usually have lighter green tea flavors.
Japanese style green teas are usually steamed for less then 80 seconds, which creates a deep vegetal taste that is usually associated with Japanese green teas. After being heated, the tea leaves have lost more liquid and the next step is rolling the leaves. This rolling stage gives the tea leaves their final shape. Lastly, the tea is dried completely in order to be ready to transport and store on its way to the tea drinker.
When brewed, the infusion is typically on the yellow-green spectrum. Ranging anywhere from the palest green as found in Dragon Pearl Jasmine to a vibrant, almost neon green in Japanese Sencha many people find green teas to be beautiful throughout the entire process.
Jokingly called the “baby tea” by a unspecified member of the Queen’s Pantry family, white tea is the least processed of all the types of tea. White tea is simply picked and then spread out to wither. After 12 to 24 hours of withering, the tea leaves are sorted to remove any undesirable objects and grade the different sizes of tea leaves. That’s it! After that, the white tea is ready to land in someone’s cup and be enjoyed. Since the processing is so simple, you can often see whole tea leaves when you look at loose white tea and you may also find a layer of “fuzz” that is natural to the plant.
White tea is a delicate, sweet, light drink. When made, white tea has a light gold to sunshine yellow color.
While it has depth and character, it is a tea that most people have to work their way into. Because of it’s marked difference from black tea, many feel like it lacks flavor. I would argue that it does in fact have much flavor, but it is simply a different type of flavor. It engages a different part of your palate and is more of a sip-and-savor tea over a wake-up-call.
That’s it for today! Questions, comments, or clarification?? Let us know on FaceBook!
(teacups by PiCeramics. Check our their Facebook page!)