Tea, part of a $10 billion dollar industry, is the second most popular drink in the world after water. All tea comes from the Camellia sinensis species of plant. And while ingredients like mint, chamomile and rooibos are often grouped under the ‘tea’ section of a menu, the plants bear no relation to Camellia sinensis, thusly they’re not true teas.
Camellia sinensis is broken down into two varieties: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis and Camellia sinensis var. assamica. The former is from China with smaller leaves that can adapt to lower temperatures and the latter grows in India with larger leaves, better suited to warmer temperatures.
Tea is grown all over the world including the US in states like Hawaii and South Carolina, but the main tea producing countries that consistently turn out the highest quality and volume of tea are China, India, Sri Lanka, Japan, and Taiwan. China is recognized as the birthplace of tea, but it was the British who originally established tea plantations in both India and Sri Lanka.
As for types of tea, the five main groups are white, green, oolong, black, and pu’erh. And while all tea is made from the same plant as previously mentioned, what accounts for the variety and different in tea groups is the length of time leaves are oxidized (the browning of the tea leaves due to oxygen exposure) and the processing style, which can including methods such as roasting, steaming, and pan-firing.
These teas are subtle in flavor, very delicate and elegant on the tongue. White teas undergo the least amount of processing. The leaves are picked, withered (when oxidation takes place), and dried. The finished tea leaves are a soft grey color, consisting only of the bud and two top leaves from the shoot of the plant (or sometimes, only the bud for top tier white teas). Popular white teas include Silver Needle and Bai Mudan. It’s generally understood that the finest come from the Fujian province of China, but white tea can be produced in areas including Nepal and even Yunnan, a region best known for pu’erh teas.
Green teas require more steps to process than white teas, but less oxidation takes place, which is why the leaf itself remains green. Two main methods yield green tea: steaming and pan-firing. Japanese green teas that are steamed tend to be brighter and more vibrant in color compared to pan-fired teas. This doesn’t mean steaming is a better method, it just produces a different type of green tea. Popular Japanese greens include Sencha and Genmaicha. Some Japanese tea bushes are shaded for a few weeks leading up to harvest to increase chlorophyll production, yielding a brighter colored leaf. These leaves are used to produce prized teas like Gyukuro and Matcha. Whereas Japanese green teas are steamed, Chinese greens are pan-fired and leaves range in color from pale to dark green. Well-known Chinese green teas include Longjing and Gunpowder. The flavors of green tea covers a wide spectrum from buttery and grassy to smokey, and even broth-like and savory.
Oolong is a semi-oxidized tea, and the most complex type of tea to produce. The best oolongs come from both Taiwan and China, though some will insist that Taiwanese oolongs are superior. These teas require numerous steps to produce, with many variations within each step. Though oolong is semi-oxidized, oxidation levels can be as low as 10 percent (close to a green tea) and as high as 85 percent (close to a black tea). Leaves are usually rolled or balled up. A great oolong can be steeped eight or so times, each steep releasing a new dimension of flavor. As a general rule, the higher the tea’s oxidation level, the more steps involved in the process. Famous oolongs include Baozhong, Da Hong Pao, Jin Xuan (often marketed as “milk oolong” in the US because of its natural sweet and creamy flavors), Dong Ding, and Tieguanyin. The flavor of individual oolongs teas differ greatly, but usually one can expect a complex roundedness complemented with notes ranging from sweet and misty honey to a milky creaminess and bold roasted flavors.
Black teas are perhaps the most common on the market. Darjeeling, Assam, Ceylon, and Keemun are a few of the most well-known. These teas are heavily oxidized and brew up strong, bold, and often malty. Unlike white, green, or oolongs, processed black teas are separated into a grading system. For example, Orange Pekoe (OP) means full-leaf tea, and BOP indicates a broken leaf black tea. In general, the more crushed/broken the leaf, the stronger the brew. Black teas serve as the base of popular scented teas including Earl Grey. In China, black tea is referred to as red tea because of its color once brewed.
Pu’erh is a fermented style of tea from the Yunnan province in China that’s divided into two styles: sheng/raw and shou/cooked. (The latter involves a process that encourages faster fermentation.) After the leaves are oxidized, a small mount of moisture is left, and the leaves are then aged for months or years. Most pu’erh is sold in a pressed cake form with the year of the tea stamped on the package. Very old and well-aged pu’erh cakes can fetch tens of thousands at auction houses. Flavor and color-wise, some brew up light while others can be dark and intensely earthy. Perfect for pairing with a good cigar.