They say tea is the most popular beverage in the world, after water. Saying water is the most popular, though, is to me like saying sunshine is more popular than electric light; popularity doesn’t really come into it. Meaning that tea is really the most popular drink of choice, for the entire world. Even in coffee-loving America 80% of households have tea in their cupboards and iced tea is now even more popular there than soda (the third biggest news piece of 2016 after Brexit and Trump). In Britain it is the national drink and carries a lot of emotion, with the most common source of family strife being poorly made tea. (I have guestimated that last statistic, but I expect it’s true.) In India, chai wallahs are an ever-present sight and the country is the largest consumer of tea in the world, drinking 30% of global tea output each year.
[Caption: Left: Before - tea gardens in Munnar, Kerala with fresh green leaves waiting to be picked; Right: After - a nice cuppa strong hot tea. So strong that two packets of sugar were necessary for this mug!]
And yet, very few people know where tea comes from, how it’s made, what it looks like or about the different types. Let’s start with the basics:
Tea is simply dried leaves from one specific type of evergreen: a type of camellia. Its Latin name is Camellia var. sinensis and there are two varieties: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis (translates to the Chinese Chinese camellia) and Camellia sinensis var. assamica (the Indian Chinese camellia). Wild tea plants can grow up to 15’ and 60’ tall (depending on the variety, respectively), but cultivated tea is kept trimmed into low waist-high bushes. One tea plant can produce tea for hundreds of years, though usually they are retired / chopped down after around 80 years.
How the tea is processed makes all the difference. A bag of Lipton and top-quality loose leaf white tea selling for hundreds of £$€ per kilo could easily come from the same plant, just as Bells and Lagavulin whiskies are both made from barley and water. Factors include:
Which leaf has been plucked. Tea professionals have names for each leaf on the branch, with the youngest leaves (including the buds) being the most valuable and the older leaves further down the branch being used for bulk black teas like PG Tips, Lipton and Tetleys where a strong malty flavour is required).
[Caption: The standard grading system for black tea in India and Sri Lanka. The smaller the leaf, the finer the tea with more delicacy and complexity of flavour. For more information, visit here]
Whether the tea has been oxidised or not (like an apple, tea leaves start to go brown after being picked; green tea has not been oxidised whereas black tea has been - completely and utterly)
If the tea has been fermented or not (fermentation creates Pu’erh teas, which taste and smell like a wood-room or cellar or rotten log, in a good way)
If the tea has been steamed or fried; the Japanese tend to steam their green teas, whereas the Chinese tend to fry them.
How the leaves have been treated: chopped up into tiny dust-like pieces, rolled into balls, rolled up like a rug, etc. etc. The shape effects what parts of the leaf flavour come through during brewing.
How the tea has been dried at the very end of the process, with some types being roasted to add a smoky flavour, like with many oolongs and the famous Russian Caravan black tea.
The differences between tea types are so significant that it was only after centuries of tea trading did the British realise one plant produced both black and green teas. They had sent spy after spy into China to find the seeds for the green tea plant, and each spy failed until Scottish botanist-cum-spy Robert Fortune figured it out in 1848. (In typical fashion, they disregarded the Chinese traders who said it was all from the same plant.)
The main tea types are:
[Caption: Types of tea by oxidisation level and caffeine. Yellow tea is greyed out because it is extremely uncommon outside of China and difficult to source, so unless you are living in China it is an imaginary tea]
White: Made from the buds and two youngest leaves
Green: Made from any part of the tea plant, but not oxidised at all
Oolong: As with green tea, but semi-oxidised, from 5-90%. Cheaper oolongs tend to be roasted to cover the flavour.
Black: The classic. Fully oxidised, from any leaf.
Pu’erh: A fully oxidised tea that has also been fermented. Also from any leaf.
Matcha: Any of the above ground up into a fine power, so you drink the actual leaf. 99.9% of matcha is made in Japan from shaded tea which boosts chlorophyll content, and so is a very green tea; it is possible to make any of the above into a matcha though as it simply means ‘ground-up tea’ in Japanese.
Within these there are thousands of variations, and one of the most beautiful teas we have ever tasted was Golden Monkey, which was an oxidised white tea. In other words, black tea made with the buds of the tea plant. Stunning, smooth, round, sweet and very dear.
A very important point before we finish: there are many beverages that are referred to as ‘tea’, but are not. Any other plant that has been steeped in hot water and turned into a drink is an ‘infusion’ or ‘tisane’, not tea. Common (and delicious) infusions include rooibos, mate and all the plants you can think of (chamomile, mint, liquorice, orange, lavender, vanilla, raspberry, and so on). When one of these is mixed with tea leaves, you get a Blend. Earl Grey is likely the most popular blend in the UK, while Jasmine tea is one of the most popular in Japan and China. Jasmine tea is made by mixing jasmine blossoms with green tea.
[Caption: Photos from our November trip to Munnar where we visited the Kanan Devan Tea Factory]
Since we started Travelling for Tea last year, we have had the unexpected pleasure of readers writing in with articles they have found about tea and we have enjoyed learning from these pieces and also having the excuse to talk (tea) shop with them. We will be posting a post will be delving into some of these pieces with their nuggets of tea wisdom. Please do continue sending us anything having to do with tea, we love it!
And next time you make yourself a cup of tea, have a think about which far-flung country it has come from and how it was made. It makes it taste even better.
P.S. For those of you keen to learn more about tea, World of Tea has a tremendous amount of information on all types and goes into well-researched detail.