The tea we drink is made from the leaves of the plant Camellia Sinensis, a hardy evergreen shrub that has pointed leaves and a lovely aroma.
Tea originally grew wild in the mountainous regions of China and North East India. Wild tea plants can grow into trees, however ever since commercial cultivation started a few hundred years ago, the bushes have been controlled to waist height for easier plucking.
There are several legends surrounding tea’s origins, and no one is really sure how and when the practice of tea drinking began. All we know is that it started in China and was originally drunk for medicinal reasons. European merchants, especially the Portugese, discovered tea while trading with China in the 17th century and introduced it into their countries. Within the next few decades, tea became a household drink in most European nations across the social spectrum. In the United Kingdom it virtually was elevated to the position of an iconic national brew.
Today, tea is grown in many countries worldwide. While the most celebrated teas come from China, India, Sri Lanka and Japan, many other countries, from Russia to Argentina and Brazil to Mozambique, grow their own varietals.
Types of Tea
All teas come from the same plant. What makes them different is the manner in which they are processed.
Black Tea: This is tea that has undergone full oxidation and gives off a dark, rich brew. This is the most widely and commonly consumed type of tea in India and most of the world. In China this is known as Red Tea.
Note: Black refers to the type of tea and must not be confused with the manner of drinking tea without milk.
Green Tea – This usually comprises leaves that have not undergone any oxidisation. Green Tea has a subtler flavour and usually, is a lighter colour.
Yellow Tea – These are tea leaves that have been allowed to undergo partial oxidation and are dried more slowly. It is similar in taste to green and white tea but is of a yellow green colour and has its own distinct aroma.
White Tea – This is a lightly oxidised tea made of leaves that are withered in natural sunlight. Traditionally, white tea leaves are picked only during spring. Leaves picked after April are usually considered as Green Tea. White Tea gets its name from the silvery white hairs on the unopened bud.
Oolong Tea – Tea that is produced using a unique process that includes withering under sunlight and warm winds. This partially oxidised tea usually comes from specially grown cultivars, and has many varities whose bouquets can range from woody to fruity and sweet.
Blue Tea – In China, most partially oxidised teas are classified as Blue Teas.
Pu-Erh – Tea that is allowed to undergo a second oxidation and microbial fermentation in a controlled manner, is called Pu-erh, also known as post-fermented tea. Pu-erh tea is valued more when it is allowed to mature or ripen over a few years. The leaves are commonly compressed and sold in brick, pellet or cake form.
Other Types of Tea
While tea commonly refers to a beverage brewed from leaves of the tea pladint, Camellia Sinensis, many other drinks are called ‘Teas’ though bearing no ingredient from the tea plant.
Herbal Teas/Tisanes – These are brewed using a mixture of different herbs, leaves and roots, and are consumed primarily for their health benefits.
Rooibos – This is a tea brewed from the leaves of the South African plant of the same name. It has been drunk in South Africa for centuries and its processing and production methods are similar to that of tea.
Grades of Tea Leaves
Tea leaves are also graded into two broad categories: Leaf and broken. Each of these are further broken into sub-grades again. The grades have no relation to quality, only to the relative size and appearance of the leaf.
Leaf Teas come in Three Grades:
- Orange Pekoe – which has long, thin leaves
- Pekoe – small leaves that give off a stronger brew
- Souchong – broad leaves whose brew is harsher and sometimes smoked
Broken Teas come in Three Grades:
- Broken Orange Pekoe – comprising golden leaf tips
- Fannings – comprising the smallest leaves and producing a rich brew
- Dust – made up of the very fine broken tea. Generally used to fill teabags.
Today, tea is cultivated in large tea estates and the leaves are plucked by hand. Tea plucking requires considerable skill and is done by trained workers. The plucked leaves are gathered and transported to the tea factory, where they are put through a series of processes. Though different types of tea have different flavours, aromas and tastes, they all are put through a more or less similar process with minor variations. The temperature and moisture levels have to be carefully controlled to prevent fungi from forming on the leaves which could render them unfit for consumption.
The first step is to remove the moisture from the leaves. This is achieved through a process known as withering, in which the tea leaves are spread out on racks in a warm room.
Now, depending on the type required, one or two processes will be carried out, the Orthodox process or CTC.
In China, some parts of India, and Sri Lanka, the traditional method is followed, where the leaves are rolled to release their inner properties. The resultant leaf particles are of a larger size.
In the CTC, or Crush, Tear and Curl, process, the leaves are passed through the rollers of a CTC machine that rotates at variable speeds. This results in smaller leaf particles. CTC leaves are used in tea bags because they brew faster and stronger. This type of tea is very popular in countries like India, where people like their tea stronger.
The next process is oxidation. The tea leaves are kept in a climate controlled room and oxidation, wherein the chemicals in the leaves react with atmospheric oxygen, is allowed to take place naturally, which makes the leaves darker. Depending on the type of tea to be produced, the oxidation is controlled or omitted altogether. Green teas usually undergo zero oxidation, oolong teas around 40-50% oxidation and black teas 100% oxidation.
After this, the leaves are shaped into wrinkled strips by passing them through a rolling machine. This also allows the sap and essential oils in the leaf to emerge, which enhances the taste of the tea considerably.
After this, the tea leaves are dried, either in sunlight, or in most cases in a oven. This creates and/or release several new flavour compounds, particularly in green tea. This also makes the tea ready to be packed and sold.
Ever since it was first drunk, millenniums ago, tea has been known for its beneficial effects on the human health. The ancient Chinese believed it to be useful in the treatment of a wide variety of medical conditions, including tumors, fatigue and urinary problems. In modern times, studies show that tea, especially white and green teas, are rich in catechins. Catechins are a variety of antioxidant that help to counter the harmful effects of free radical cells in our body. Drinking tea thus can potentially be beneficial in preventing diseases like cancer, neurological conditions and coronary heart diseases. Studies are being conducted the world over to determine the exact nature and extent of the benefits.
A few such studies have indicated that green tea may lower the levels of low-density lipoprotein (bad cholestrol) and some trials have shown that green tea can reduce body fat by small amounts for a short time.
More research is needed to confirm these findings and present an accurate picture of tea’s health benefit.