Tea is a popular beverage that has been enjoyed for centuries. It is the second most consumed drink in the world, after water. Interestingly, all types of tea – black, green, oolong, white, and Pu’erh – come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. This versatile plant is a sub-tropical, evergreen plant native to Asia, but it is now grown around the world.
Tea grows best in loose, deep soil, at high altitudes, and in sub-tropical climates. It is cultivated in a variety of settings, from small family gardens to giant estates covering thousands of acres. The best tea is usually grown at higher elevations, and often, on steep slopes, which require premium teas to be hand-plucked. It takes around 2,000 tiny leaves to make just one pound of finished tea.
Tea production involves two methods: Orthodox and Unorthodox. Orthodox teas are processed in the traditional fashion and generally contain only the top two tender leaves and an unopened leaf bud, which are plucked carefully by hand and then processed using five basic steps. These methods have been around for several millennia and involve a unique combination of age-old methods and modern, innovative machinery. A true art form, the tea is handled by artisans with often generations of training from the moment of plucking to when the tea is finished.
On the other hand, Unorthodox methods, such as CTC (crush-tear-curl), are much faster and involve large machine harvesters to “mow” the top of the bushes to get the new leaves. CTC production uses a leaf shredder which macerates the leaves (crushing, tearing, and curling them) into fine pieces. These teas will brew very quickly and produce a bold, powerful cup of tea. Crush-tear-curl is usually used primarily in the tea bag industry, as well as in India to create Masala Chai blends (due to their strength and color).
The three primary components of brewed tea are essential oils, polyphenols, and caffeine. Essential oils provide tea’s delicious aromas and flavors, while polyphenols provide the “briskness” or astringency in the mouth and are the components that also carry most of the health benefits of tea. Caffeine, found naturally in tea, provides tea’s natural energy boost.
Tea culture can be very “local” and varies from one region to another. Tea drinkers in Darjeeling, India may have never had (or even heard of) a Taiwanese Pouchong. In China, most people do not drink black tea. The centuries-old Japanese tea ceremony uses powdered, rare Matcha tea, which most folks in black tea-loving Sri Lanka have never tasted.
Tea is a truly special, uniting thing, especially when you imagine how so many tea-drinking cultures developed all on their own. The amount of knowledge to be shared and tea to be enjoyed is tremendous.