All tea comes from a single plant, the Camellia Sinensis. An evergreen bush, tea is grown predominantly in Southeastern Asia. Harvesting, picking and processing this evergreen bush yields 5 classes of tea: white, green, oolong, black, and pu-erh.
Although scientists believe Yunnan Province in China to be the birthplace of the tea plant, both Indian and Chinese Mythology stake legendary claims to its mystical discovery.
Known as the Divine Healer, second Emperor Shen Nung is credited with identifying the medicinal properties of hundreds of ingredients that later became the foundation of Chinese Medicine. It is said that he possessed the magical property of a transparent stomach with which he could gauge the effects of medicine on the body. One fateful afternoon in the year 2737 B.C., Shen Nung was boiling water and resting upon a wild tree when a slight breeze stirred the branches above and caused a few leaves to drift into the simmering water. Intrigued by the change in colour and tempting aroma his infusion now possessed, Shen Nung drank the liquid and felt revitalized and invigorated. As chance would have it, he was resting under a tea tree.
According to legend, an Indian Bodhisattva by the name of Bodhidharma went to China to teach Buddhism in the 6th Century B.C.. One version of the story tells of prospective monks becoming impatient and falling asleep during lengthy meditation. Leading by example, Bodhidharma began a nine year meditation near the entrance to a cave. After seven years of meditation Bodhidharma accidentally fell asleep. Upon awakening he became angry with himself and sliced the eyelids from his face, throwing them upon the ground. Legend has it, that where his eyelids fell, the first tea plant grew to aid the monk in his meditation. From that point on, the monks of Zen Buddhism would incorporate tea into their ritual meditation to attain a calm awakening and spiritual development.
"Monkey-picked" is a term used today to denote high-quality tea, but like the tea bush, the term's origin is shrouded in mystery.
One story tells of Buddhist monks training monkeys to fetch precious tea leaves off trees growing from the sides of treacherously high cliffs. Another version of the story portrays the monks as throwing stones at monkeys perched high in tea trees so that they would fall to the ground, breaking the branches bringing the leaves down with them.
Another Chinese legend suggests that tea was discovered by a poor woodcutter who was chopping trees in the hills when he observed several monkeys plucking leaves off a tree and chewing them. He tasted some of the leaves, liked them and brought some back to the village. He told others of his discovery and soon everyone was adding leaves from the tree to their drinks.
Today, tea trees are pruned to waist high bushes and monkeys no longer pick the leaves. When someone refers to "monkey-picked" tea, they are simply referring to premium quality tea leaves.
Before the advent of tea cultivation, two genera of Camellia Sinensis thrived in the wild. Camellia Sinensis var. Sinensis (China bush) is at home on the foggy mountainsides of Southwestern China and produce a small, tender leaf during a short growing period. Separated from China by the Himalayan Mountains, Camellia Sinensis var. Assamica (Assam bush) prefers the jungle-like conditions of Northeastern India and yields a large, broad leaf that can be picked year-round.
Since the discovery of tea by the Western World in the 1600's, tea has been transplanted and cultivated all over the world. Although still predominantly grown in China and India, tea gardens thrive in Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Kenya, Uganda, Argentina and Brazil. Experimental and small-production gardens are even being grown in Hawaii, Washington, and South Carolina.
The top leaves and bud of the Camelia Sinsensis bush yield between 2,000-3,000 varieties of tea. Farmers harvest different bushes for specific varieties (for example, one bush may yield a Lung Jing Green Tea while another bush is used for a Spring White Tea). Teas are generally named after the region they are from: Darjeeling from Darjeeling India, Yunnan from Yunnan Province in China; or named after the physical attributes of processed tea: Jasmine Pearls from the scenting and rolling of green tea, Silver Needles from the colour and shape of budset white tea.
White tea (in one form or another) has been treasured for over 1,000 years as the finest of all teas and for a time, was reserved solely for Chinese Royalty. True to its history, white tea remains a delicacy to this day, albeit, one we can all enjoy.
Harvested in early spring, tender young buds are carefully plucked the day before they unfurl into leaves. The downy buds are briefly withered and then quickly steamed to prevent oxidation. As a result of minimal processing, white tea is valued for its high concentration of polyphenols. The flavour of white tea can be described as delicate, smooth, sweet, velvety, and reminiscent of fresh apricots.
The combination of a bud and top leaf from the tea plant provides us with the backbone of green tea. After picking, the tea begins its journey down the mountain where it will be thinly spread in the shade and left to air-dry. This primary drying is short to prevent oxidation of the leaf. The next step in green tea's manufacture determines the characteristics of a tea's style. Working with fresh product, a team of firers will sift, roll, flatten, tumble, or shake the tea over a heat source until it is thoroughly dried and the flavour is locked in.
The method of firing will give the tea distinctive shapes. Traditionally, this process was done entirely by hand in baskets and on woks carefully placed over coal and wood burning fires. Today, large tumblers and ovens are employed during this phase to process large amounts of green tea for export.
The flavour of green tea is partially determined by region of growth and time of pick, but especially dependent upon method of finishing. Pan-frying results in the toasty flavour of Long Jing, while steaming results in the vegetal and robust flavours of Sencha.
It was once said that over 10,000 types of green tea exist in China alone. While this may be an exaggeration, the chances are good that if you haven't found a green tea you like, there is one waiting for you out there.
Jasmine Green Tea
Jasmine Green Tea is one of the oldest known and most popular scenting methods for tea. On the eve that the jasmine flowers bloom, they are picked and laid over dried tea leaves overnight. As the flowers open, they release their aromatic fragrance and the tea absorbs the sweet scent. The next day, the flowers and tea are separated and the tea rest for three days. This process is repeated anywhere from 3-5 times depending on the quality of jasmine scenting (the longer the scenting the higher the quality). This process can take up to one month.
Oolong teas are made from large, broad tea leaves picked later in the season than green tea. Oolongs can be made from the bud of the tea plant with up to three large leaves still attached to the twig, or from a single large leaf. Some oolongs are green in colour and tightly rolled into balls that unfurl in hot water, while others are brown, crimped, or loosely folded. What separates oolongs from other classes of tea is that oolongs are only partially oxidized.
Particular to the style of oolong being produced, a complex method of bruising the tea leaves is used to break down cell walls and begin the process of enzymatic oxidation. Low heat is then used to halt the process, allowing the still pliable leave to be rolled, curled, crimped, twisted, and fired into their final form.
Different levels of oxidation and firing are used to bring out complex flavours and aromas that are uniquely "oolong." Sometimes referred to as the "tea for connoisseurs," oolongs possess aromatics that range from distinctively floral, to reminiscent of stone fruit. Flavours can be smooth, savoury, full-bodied and rich; or delicate, with notes of orchid, honey, and exotic fruits.
Black tea results from the full oxidation of the bud and first two leaves of the tea plant. Like green and white teas, a high quality black tea is picked early in the spring and contains a high ratio of bud-to-leaf. Unlike other teas, leaves destined for black tea production are brought down the mountain and spread thickly on the ground or in troughs where they will wither for up to 18 hours. Withering drives moisture out of the leaf and begins the conversion of delicate "juices" within the leaf into more complex liquoring compounds. The oxidation begins at this stage and continues into the rolling process. After being sorted by size, the withered leaves will be twisted, compressed, and turned multiple times, breaking down cell walls and allowing enzymes to mix with polyphenols. This brings more compounds into contact with the air and special oxidation chambers are then used to feed oxygen through thin layers of rolled leaves. Once the tea master determines oxidation is complete and the flavours and aromas properly developed, the leaves will be dried, cooled, and packaged for sale.
Grown and produced similarly all over the world, black tea is graded and sold by its size of leaf and point of origin. High quality black teas are of whole leaf with "tips" or leaf buds included and labelled "Flowery Orange Pekoe" (FOP). Names like: Assam, Darjeeling, Yunnan, and Ceylon refer to the region where the tea was grown.
Lower quality black teas prepared from fannings and dust (not whole leaf) will taste bitter and harsh. Full leaf black teas will have aromas that are clean, nutty, and bright, with flavours that are brisk, coppery, soft, and full.
Pu-erh is a different type of tea. It undergoes a special fermentation process yielding a bold brew richer than black tea and a sweet malty taste. This oldest known tea grows on 500-year-old trees, and as things of value take time to mature, so it is with Pu-erh. Pu-erh provides a natural boost of sustained energy and delivers focus and clarity.
After tea leaves are picked and still moist, they are sewn together with flowers with cotton thread into various shapes and bundles (tea leaves may also be scented with jasmine blossoms before sewing for a more floral flavour). Some shapes take one minute to sew, while other more elaborate designs containing lilies, chrysanthemum, or osmanthus flowers may take up to twelve minutes. The sewn leaves and flowers are shaped into bundles or rosettes and then undergo the usual drying and firing process. They require boiling water in order for the leaves to expand and unfurl.
Tea is a misnomer for anything steeped in hot water. Teas come from the tea plant. "Teasans" is our term, from the French tisanes, for brewed herbal beverages brewed from herbs, fruits or flowers. Strictly speaking, Teasans contain no tea leaves. They have a variety of flavours from minty, to sweet chamomile to tart lemon. They contain no caffeine and have an abundant and varied health benefits depending on the herb, flower or fruit.
A six ounce cup of tea generally contains between 15-70 milligrams of caffeine. The actual amount of caffeine present depends on the age of the leaf at picking, the method of processing, and the amount of tea and time used during steeping. While these variables make it difficult to accurately guess the amount of caffeine in a given cup of tea, you can typically assume that the caffeine content increases from white to green to oolong to black. Compared to the caffeine content in six ounces of coffee (which can range between 80 and 170 milligrams of caffeine), tea is not considered highly caffeinated.
While tea contains some caffeine, polyphenols in tea inhibit the absorption of caffeine into the bloodstream, thereby tempering the jittery buzz often associated with the caffeine rush from coffee. For centuries, Buddhist monks have been drinking tea for its ability to induce a calm alertness.
Herbal teasans are derived from a variety of plants and herbs that naturally do not contain caffeine and are thus caffeine-free. One exception is the South American beverage Yerba Mate that contains a caffeine content comparable to coffee.