Tea is the agricultural product of the leaves, leaf buds, and internodes of the Camellia sinensis plant, prepared and cured by various methods. “Tea” also refers to the aromatic beverage prepared from the cured leaves by combination with hot or boiling water, and is the common name for the Camellia sinensis plant itself.

Tea.  It is the most popular drink in the world, and its consumption it equal to all other drinks in the world, including coffee, chocolate, soft drinks, and alcohol put together.  This to me is amazing in the fact that here in the US, tea is an often overlooked beverage.  We have it occasionally when we have colds, or if we are from certain ancestral backgrounds, but as a whole I think to the average citizen, tea is merely a simple beverage of a bygone era.  Let us however take a closer look.

There are six varieties of tea; white, yellow, green, oolong, black and pu-erh, of which the most commonly found on the market are white, green, oolong and black. All tea are made from the same bushes but processed differently, and, in the case of fine white tea, grown differently. Pu-erh tea, a post-fermented tea, is also often used medicinally, and I myself have never seen this tea available.

Herbal “tea’s” are not tea at all but rather an infusion or tisane of leaves, flowers, fruit, herbs or other plant material that contains no Camellia sinensis. The term “red tea” either refers to an infusion made from the South African rooibos plant, also containing no Camellia sinensis, or, in many Asian languages, refers to black tea.

The Camillia sinensis is an evergreen bush that is grown mainly in sub-tropical climates.  The plants require a minimum of 50 inches of rainfall a year, as well as a zone 8 climate and acidic soils.  There are 2 varieties of the tea plant, the large leafed Assam (C. sinensis assamica) which is predominantly processes into black and oolong teas, and the Chinese (C. sinensis sinensis) which is predominantly green, white, and yellow teas.  The tea plant can grow quite large, but is usually kept trimmed to waist lever to facilitate production.  During the tea producing season, the top 1-2 inches of the plant are picked.  This is called the flush.  A plant will flush every 7-10 days during this season.  Over three quarters of the tea in the world comes from the east half of the Asian continent; China, India, and Sri Lanka producing about 60 percent of the worlds tea.

Similarly to coffees that gain differing flavors from the region of growth and the roasting process, to tea is also classified according to processing techniques:

  • White tea:  wilted and unoxidized
  • Yellow tea:  unwilted and unoxidized, but allowed to yellow
  • Green tea:  unwilted and unoxodized
  • Oolong tea:  wilted, bruised, and partia;;y oxidized
  • Black tea:  wilted, often crushed, and fully oxidized
  • Post-fermented tea:  Green tea that has been fermented/composted

The proper preparation for tea is also one that is often overlooked in our culture.  Different teas require different brewing times and temperatures.  Many teas are brewed several times using the same leaves which is said to brew more complex flavors during the subsequent infusions.  Below is a graph depicting brewing temperature, time, and number of possible infusions.

Type Water Temp. Steep Time Infusions
White Tea 150 °F (66 °C) – 160 °F (71 °C) 1–2 minutes 3
Yellow Tea 160 °F (71 °C) – 170 °F (77 °C) 1–2 minutes 3
Green Tea 170 °F (77 °C) – 180 °F (82 °C) 1–2 minutes 4-6
Oolong Tea 180 °F (82 °C) – 190 °F (88 °C) 2–3 minutes 4-6
Black Tea 210 °F (99 °C) 2–3 minutes 2-3
Pu-erh Tea 200 °F (93 °C) – 210 °F (99 °C) Limitless Several
Herbal Tea 210 °F (99 °C) 3–6 minutes Varied

All of the teas above have differing flavor profiles, not only based upon the type of tea, but also where it is grown, how it is processed, if/how it was blended with other teas, and what additives where used (jasmine, bergamot, lemon, honey, mint, etc).  As you can see, tea can be either a very simple beverage or an epicurian delight.  With so many flavor profiles, tea can be paired expertly with a plethora of dishes.  Next time you are in the mood to try something new, reach for the tea leaves.

And stay tuned for the upcoming MxMo on January 25th, featuring Tea!