THE RAINBOW OF TEA
Green, black, white, red – the vast array
of tea varieties can be dizzying. With the sudden upsurge of interest
in high-quality loose-leaf teas, where does a newcomer begin? How
about starting with the one plant that produces every tea in the
The Camellia sinensis is an evergreen native
of China. It takes a variety of forms, growing 15 to 20 meters tall,
with leaves ranging from smooth and shiny to fuzzy and white-haired.
The plant gives rise to more than 3,000 varieties of tea worldwide,
which can be roughly classified into six basic categories: white,
black (the Chinese call these
red teas), pu-erh, and flavored.
Some specialists would add another category, blends.
And then there are countless herbal
infusions, informally referred to as “tea” but entirely
unrelated to “real” tea made from Camellia sinensis
White tea is the rarest of all tea types. A specialty of
Fujian province on China's east coast, it was relatively hard to
come by outside of China until recently. The name comes from the
almost colorless liquor, and from the silvery hairs found on the
buds of the plant. Delicate in flavor as well as color, the tea
has a subtle, slightly sweet flavor and a mellow creamy or nutty
quality. White tea consists of the whitish buds of the tea plant;
lower quality varieties contain some leaves as well. The buds (and
leaves) are naturally dried using either sun drying or steaming
methods. This is the final step in the production process, as white
tea is unfermented.
Green tea makes up approximately ten percent of the world’s
tea. The production process, like that of white tea, starts with
withering, followed by pan-frying or steaming to prevent fermentation.
(The two types differ in that white tea has a higher proportion
of buds to leaves.) After steaming and before drying, green tea
leaves are rolled to give them the
desired shape. In China, this consists of eyebrow-shaped or
twisted pieces, tight balls, flat needles, or curled whole leaves.
Japanese green tea leaves are shiny green blades with reddish stalks
and stems. Green tea is greenish-yellow in color, with a grassy,
astringent quality reminiscent of the fresh leaves. Scientific studies
have shown that both green and black teas prevent cavities and gum
disease, and increase the body’s antioxidant activity.
Often referred to as “the champagne of teas,” oolongs
are considered to be among the finest – and therefore most
expensive - teas in the world. Most oolongs hail from Taiwan; in
China they are also referred to as pouchongs. Oolong tea
is “semi-fermented,” meaning that it goes through a
short period of oxidation (fermentation) that turns the leaves from
green to red-brown.
The liquor is pale yellow, with a floral, fruity quality - reminiscent
of peaches – and a hint of smoke. Due to the delicacy of the
flavor, connoisseurs generally prefer drinking it without milk,
sugar or lemon.
Though known to most of the world as “black tea,”
the Chinese call it “red tea” due to its characteristic
reddish-brown color. Black tea is the most common type of tea worldwide.
It has a broad range of flavors, but is typically heartier and more
assertive than green or oolong teas. It is made by fully fermenting
the harvested leaves (for several hours) before the heating or drying
processes occur. This oxidation imparts a dark coloring and triples
Pu-erh (or Puer) tea is in a category all its own. Though it could
simply be classified as a type of Chinese black tea, it is differentiated
from other black teas by the fact that it is fermented
not once, but twice. The double oxidation process is followed
by a period of maturation, which is often used to develop a thin
layer of mold on the leaves. The mold imparts a distinctive soil-like
flavor that many people find off-putting. For this reason, pu-erh
tea is often consumed for medicinal purposes rather than for pleasure
– aside from being known for its strong earthy quality, it
is recognized as a powerful digestive aid.
Tea easily absorbs other aromas and tastes. Thus tea drinkers
the world over have long enhanced their tea with additional flavors,
from flowers and oils to herbs and spices. Flavoring tea is a well-established
tradition in China, where, for centuries, people have brewed tea
with onions, orange peel, peach leaves, and berries. The Chinese
are also known for their flower teas - popular varieties include
jasmine, orchid, rose, and magnolia.
In many Arabic nations, mint (plus a generous
amount of sugar) is the flavoring of choice. In India, the spicy
“masala tea” is a popular beverage. It is made by boiling
black tea with spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, cloves,
and black or white pepper; milk and sugar are usually added as well.
Beyond herbs and spices, the flavor craze has more recently spurred
manufacturers to produce tea with just about every
flavor imaginable, from banana to toffee pudding.
Blends are the mutts of the tea world, possessing mixed heritages,
so to speak, rather than a single lineage. Tea producers make blends
by combining different types of teas, often in order to achieve
flavor consistency from one season to the next. Common blends include
Breakfast, and Caravan.
herbal infusions & tisanes
The word “tea” is often loosely used to describe
any beverage made with the leaves of a plant. But technically speaking,
true “tea” is made from the Camellia sinensis
– and everything else isn’t “tea” at all.
Connoisseurs and tea professionals will tell you that all leaf-derived
drinks other than true “tea” should be referred to as
tisanes or herbal infusions.
Tisane (tee-ZAHN) is what many people think
of as “herbal tea,” that is, a drink made by steeping
various herbs, spices, flowers, etc. in boiling water. The term
“herbal infusion” is pretty much the same thing: a drink
made by steeping an herb in hot water. These herbal drinks are commonly
associated with physical and mental health, and are consumed for
their soothing or rejuvenating qualities. They also suit the needs
of those who wish to avoid
caffeine. Common herbal beverages are chamomile, peppermint,
fennel, rose hip, and lemon verbena.