Before entering into any discussion on the subject of Tea, it is important to first establish that Tea – Real Tea - is one plant: Camelia Sinensis. Tea in the western world is often misplaced in the same category as what are call Tisanes, or Herbal Teas, which are any infusion of herbs, spices and other plant material in hot water. It is important to distinguish between the two as they are historically, culturally, and chemically very different.
Tea (Camelia Sinensis) can be divided into 6 main categories: Green, White, Yellow, Oolong, Black and Puerh. Although the lines are often blurred between the categories of tea, they can generally be distinguished from each other by their regional origins, level of oxidation, varietal type, and processing style.
This is responsible for the majority of the difference in appearance, taste, and aroma among different teas. Oxidation begins immediately after a living leaf is plucked, thereby releasing the polyphenol oxidase into the leaf. This affects the entire chemical composition of the leaf converting polyphenols into new compounds, most notably thearubigins and theaflavins.
The differences in color and flavor between different teas comes from arresting this oxidation process at different stages. Sometimes called the “Kill-green”, this occurs when heat is applied to the leaf causing an enzymatic reaction, which ends the oxidation process and kills off enzymes responsible for bitterness. With Green tea, this is done at the beginning of the process, hence the fresh green appearance; whereas with black tea, this is done at the very end, when the tea is almost fully oxidized. Oolong oxidation levels will vary depending on type, sitting somewhere in the 10%-90% range.
CULTIVAR / VARIETAL
While all tea is made from Camellia Sinensis, there are thousands of different varietals and cultivars, all of which have their own distinct characteristics. Famous regional teas have developed over time as the tea masters and workers of the land learned to coax out the best characteristics from each type. While varietals are wild-growing species that have developed naturally over time in accordance with the local terroir, cultivars are man-made (cultivated varietal), in that they are either created by hybridization or cultivated to maintain certain desirable aspects of a varietal.
Although wine may lay claim to the term, its governing forces have an effect on all things growing on this planet. In its essence, tea terroir is the complete natural environment in which a particular tea is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate. While genetics play an important role in the finished leaf, if it is not raised in a healthy and flourishing environment, then it will never reach its full potential. Most experts agree that the best tea grows in warm, humid climates, on the sides of mountains, with light and well-drained soil. Although you can still find great tea that doesn’t grow in these conditions, most of the world’s famous tea terroirs will fit these criteria. The celebrated, exceptional teas of the Wuyi Mountains in Fujian (and the majority of Taiwanese teas) are all grown in these conditions.
Processing style has continually developed since the first tea leaves made contact with humans thousands of years ago in the jungle forests of Yunnan, China. Initially, drinking tea meant placing raw leaves in boiling water, but this quickly evolved to encompass far more complex production and brewing methods. Contemporary tea processing varies by region and tea type, ranging from industrial CTC (crush tear, curl) for low-grade plantation tea (most tea bags) to entirely hand-processed traditional styles (what we look for). The most important stages of tea processing are the pluck, the wither, oxidation, drying and sometimes roasting. In order to produce premium tea, each stage must be carried out by skilled workers and overseen by the knowledge and wisdom of a tea master. The skill required to produce great tea is remarkable. A true tea master must be fully in tune with any slight variation in the harvest - be it weather conditions at the time of pluck, or seasonal variations in soil and climate. To be able to produce great tea is a life’s work, requiring acute attention to detail and a sensitivity to nature, only cultivated by a lifelong commitment to the craft.