tea bushes

Tea, Anyone?

Photo by Windslash

Tea is so varied in name, color and flavor that it is usually a surprise for anyone to discover that all the different types are made from basically the same tea plant. Of course, some are flavored with essential oils (Earl Grey, for example, has oil of bergamot, which is made from a type of bitter orange) or fragrant herbal additives (like the jasmine flowers added to jasmine tea), but the basic ingredient, the tea leaf itself, comes from the Camellia sinensis plant. It should perhaps be clarified at this point that we are talking about caffeinated teas, not “herbal” ones. Herbal teas have only come to be called teas because they are steeped the way the real thing is. Officially, an herbal tea — that is, one made completely from dried mint leaves or chamomile blossoms or rose hips or any combination of herbs and spices that does not include the leaves of the tea plant — is actually an infusion or a tisane.

The tea plant is an evergreen shrub. As the name Camellia sinensis suggests, it is related to the same camellias that are popular with American gardeners because they produce showy, fragrant white or pink flowers during the winter, when most other plants are dormant. In fact, wherever you can grow garden-variety camellias (basically, in parts of the country where winters are mild), you can probably have a tea bush. And although it won’t produce a quality or quantity of leaves that would justify going to the trouble to pluck, prepare, steep, and sip them, you can still enjoy the yellow-centered white flowers and congratulate yourself on possessing such a versatile and historically important plant.

All tea starts it’s life when the newest and youngest leaves from the bush are harvested. Only the unopened leaf bud and the top three or four tenderest leaves on a branch are ever used. The next part of the process ensures that the freshly picked leaved are “withered”. This means that they are placed in a warm and dry environment until they wilt and have expelled around 60% of their orignal moisture. The semi-dried leaves are then “curled” or “rolled” which used to be done manually by hand. Workers would grab bunches of the wilted leaves and roll them between the palms of ther hands while pressing them to crush the cells of the leaves.

What happens next, however, makes all the difference in the world, as a look at the meanings of just a few tea terms will show. Keep in mind that this is just the very basics of tea terminology. This beverage inspires reverence and connoisseurship, and those who are interested will find that there are plenty of tea-related phrases to learn and subtleties to discern.

All teas are either black, green, or oolong:

Black Tea

Black teas are by far the most popular teas in the West. They are the teas of fancy tea parties, of the Boston Tea Party, of the British concept of “tea and sympathy.” They are sweetened and served over ice in the American South. The crucial step in making black tea is to allow the juices in the rolled fresh leaves to darken from contact with the air. Tea makers call this process “fermentation,” although, technically, it is “oxidation.” A similar process occurs when the flesh of a cut apple turns brown.

The dark substances that form while the tea leaves are exposed to the air are produced by the chemical reactions of the tannins in the tea. They give the tea astringency, robust flavor and aroma, and they leach into hot water to produce the characteristic reddish-amber color (the Chinese, preferring to designate the tea by its color after brewing as opposed to before, call black tea “red tea”). The oxidizing stage of tea processing does not take long, no more than four hours. When the leaves have transformed sufficiently, then they are “fired,” dried over heat to stop the oxidation process.

The most important step in the process of creating black tea is to allow the oils and juices in the fresh rolled leaves to become darker through contact with the air. This darkening process is called “fermentation” by tea-makers but in-fact it is the rather natural process of “oxidation” which is the same processs that causes a sliced apple to go brown. The tannins in the tea are responsible for the dark color as they react with the oxygen in the air. These tannins give the tea it’s astringency, along with aroma and a robust flavor. They will also strain into hot water which produces the golden-red color so characteristic of black tea.

The oxidation stage of processing tea for consumption can take up to four hours. When the transformation of the leaves is complete, they are then dried out completely over heat or “fired” to stop further oxidation and preserve them.

As an interesting note, the Chinese rather logically name tea after the color it produces while brewing, so in China one must ask for “Red” tea if wanting the western “black tea” instead.

Green Tea

Green teas, on the other hand, are very popular in Asia and have only caught on here in the past 15 years or so. Green tea is produced by preventing oxidation of the tea leaves altogether. The leaves are withered and then steamed which destryos the enzyme responsible for darkening the during oxidation. After steaming, the leaves are rolled and fired immediately which creates a green dried tea, which when brewed, produces a pale green tea that has a slightly bitter but subtle flavor with hints of the fresh plant. Because  the mellowing effect of oxidation is not allowed to happen, green teas can be more bitter and more astringent than their black tea cousin especially when brewed for a longer time.

Oolong and Pouchong Teas

Both Oolong and Pouchong teas are semi-fermented. This means that they are pprocessed in a similar way to black tea, but instead are not allowed to fully oxidize. the oxidizing stage with Pouchong tea is reduced by a quarter as compare to black tea. Ollong teas, which are generally more popular, are fermented for longer but still around a half of the time that a black tea would be. It is no surprise that the flavour of these semi-fermented teas lies between that of green and black. In fact, an Ollong tea is jusdged to be good when it has a peachy aroma and flavor. One of the best Oolong teas is the Formosa Oolong which is produced in Taiwan. The name Formosa comes from the 16th Century Portugese arrivals who called it the Ilha Formosa or Beautiful Island.

The basics mastered, there are still many variables to consider. Take just a few:

Pekoe teas

The silvery down found on very young leaves of the tea bush gave it’s Chinese name to the word used to grade black teas. “Pekoe” is taken from the Chinese word that means “silver-haired”. Most tea drinkers are familiar with Orange Pekoe tea. Although it is not particularly orange colored, nor is it flavored with oranges, the name most liley comes from the Dutch Royal House of Orange. The dutch, of course being major players in bringing tea to the West via the Dutch East India Company, the first large-scale tea traders in Europe. So, Orange Pekkoe tea is descriptive of a particular grade of black tea with it’s reference to the Dutch Royal Family and the very young leaves it is made from.

There are many variations and grades of Pekoe tea. In a nutshell, the younger the leaves it is made from, the more special the tea becomes, in part because the very young tips are less likley to have become broken during the processing stages. Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe tea, another popular variety, is made with the leaf buds which grow at the tips of the branches, and these become a golden color during fermenting. Broken Pekoe’s name speaks for itself as there are more stems with fewer leaf tips, and the leaves it contains are crushed. Pekoe Fannings and the finer Pekoe Dust are tea leaves that have been crushed almost to a powder during processing. Fannings and dust are very often used in tea bag manufacture because they release both flavor and color into hot water much more quickly while brewing than more tightly rolled or larger leaf pieces.

Gunpowder, Imperial, and Hyson teas

Among Chinese green teas, Gunpowder, Hyson, and Imperial are popular. Gunpowder is made with high-grade, young leaves that have been rolled into small, tight balls. The loose tea looks a little like small lead shot. Hyson (the word means “young spring”) teas are also made with young leaves, but they are not rolled so tightly. The Imperial designation indicates that a tea has been made with slightly older leaves.

Darjeeling and Assam teas

Naturally, the terrain and climate in which a tea shrub is grown has a pronounced effect on the flavor of the resulting tes harvest. This is why, like Champagne, a tea is often named by it’s region of origin. A couple of favorite Indian teas, Darjeeling and Assam are great examples of regional naming. The British colonialists were thrilled to find tea shrubs growing wild in the Assam region of Northeast India in the 19th Century. Now known as the Assamica variety of Camellia Sinensis, The British had the local population produce vast quantities to supply the rest of the Empire. In the Himalayas, less than 200 miles from where those orignal wild shrubs were found, Darjeeling is situated at famously high altitudes with a view of Mount Everest on a clear day. This altitude benefits the plants with a long and slow growing season. the tea produced from leaves picked in early summer is flowery and light while the most complex flavors and expensive teas are made from leaves that are picked in the mid-summer of June and July. The monsoon season which starts in August signals the end of the quality tea harvest andthe plantations are dormant from January to April.


The most green colored of all the grren teas is called Matcha. It is ground into a very fine powder and made from the best quality leaves. The Japanese Chado (The Way of Tea) ritual ceremony has particular associations with Matcha tea. A container called a Natsume is used to store the fine bright green tea powder. A special whisk made of bamboo is used to mix the hot water and tea powder. The resulting bright emerald but cloudy-colored liquid is topped off with a bright green layer of foam. Matcha is sipped from a small traditional bowl and is very bitter and strong because the tea particles are suspended in the water rather than strained out as with a clear tea. Most westerners find it difficult to become accustomed to the strong flavour of Matcha tea in Japan.

The Brew

Few indulgences are simpler to prepare than a nice cup of tea. Really, no more than boiling and steeping is involved. But still, connoisseurs insist that there is a Right way to do it. And while this is nothing so complex as a Japanese tea ceremony, the process by which a mug of steaming, fragrant, perfectly-steeped tea is produced is a small ritual in itself.

First, measure out the tea leaves and set them aside. The rule of thumb is to add one teaspoon (or teabag) per cup and “one for the pot.” If you are using loose tea leaves, you can put them into a tea ball, a perforated container that allows the leaves to steep but keeps them from floating freely in the water. Many people just add the loose leaves to the pot without worrying about the tea ball, though. Generally, they’ll sink in the water as they steep, so they don’t clog the spout of the pot, and you don’t end up with a cup full of soggy leaves. Pouring the tea through a strainer helps to catch floating leaves before they make it into the cup.

The ideal cup of tea is made with fresh, cool water. It’s not worth it to trim down the boiling time by using hot water from the tap. Or to save yourself exertion by turning up the flame under a kettle half-filled with water left over from yesterday. Water for tea should have a high oxygen content, which makes its flavor lively rather than flat. Both hot tap water and preboiled water have already been partially deoxygenated.

As soon as the water reaches a “rolling boil” — but not before — remove it from the heat. Letting it boil for too long allows oxygen to escape. Not letting it reach the boiling point at all means your tea water isn’t as hot as it can be. And the hotter it is, the more effectively it dissolves the flavors, colors, and caffeine out of the leaves. Before combining tea leaves and water, drizzle a bit of boiling water into the pot, swish it around, and pour it out. Then drop the tea leaves in. The purpose of this preheating step is twofold: the steamy air softens the tea leaves so they release their flavors more readily once they are in the water, and the warm pot helps the tea stay hot a little longer. Finally, fill the pot with water.

In 3 to 5 minutes, depending on your taste, the tea is ready to be served. Some tea lovers prefer to remove the tea leaves at this point, because longer steeping makes a bitterer brew. If you are making green tea, 3 minutes should be sufficient to reach the optimum flavor — a longer brewing time can make the tea too astringent.

How Much of a Buzz?

Just how much of a boost can a drowsy person expect to get from a fragrant cup of tea? It depends on several factors. A 6-ounce cup of black tea can (if brewed long enough) provide over 100 mg of caffeine, about as much as an average cup of coffee. There is a catch, though. The longer the tea sits in the water, the more the tannins leach out with the caffeine. This can make the tea unnecessarily bitter and upset some sensitive stomachs.

One thing you can do, if you’re determined to drink your tea coffee-strength, is add milk. It will bind to the tannins and neutralize them, without affecting the caffeine. If you’re one of those people who prefers to dangle a tea bag in hot water just until the liquid turns a pretty color, you won’t get much caffeine at all. The tea leaves release the color first — caffeine takes a bit longer to start to dissolve. So, at the low end of the stimulant-spectrum, a cup of tea provides about 20 mg of caffeine. As a general rule, you can expect a cup of black tea to have about 50 mg.

As for oolong and green teas, they both have less caffeine than black. It appears that the early fermentation (oxidization) process makes the caffeine more easily soluble in hot water. So, the shorter the oxidation stage, the less caffeine the brewed tea provides. Semi-fermented oolong teas have between 10 and 55 mg of caffeine per 6-ounce cup. Green teas, which are never allowed to oxidize at all, have between 8 and 15 mg.

Tea Enthusiasts

There’s an impressive selection of tea information on the Web, and a lot of it is worth taking a look at. Apparently tea-lovers are more literary, and more graphically inclined, than coffee-lovers.

The Tea Council, a non-profit British organization formed to promote the sale of tea, has an extensive and detailed website.

Centuries ago, before tea began to be enjoyed as a beverage, it was considered a medicine. And in recent years, research suggests that early reputation might have been well-deserved. Tea is being studied to determine its cancer-preventing properties, its benefits to heart patients, and its effects as an antioxidant. It even turns out tea contains fluoride, so it helps prevent tooth-decay (although it can’t be said to do much in the whitening-and-brightening department).