For the Love of Tea: Basic Tea Primer

Tea Tasting

A couple weeks ago, my Mom and I went to a tea tasting at a local gourmet food store where we enjoyed quality time together and got to indulge our tea addiction. We learned a few new things and got to try some new teas (milk oolong -yummy!!). I had been meaning to write a bit about tea for a while, but this fun time gave me the motivation I needed to start a series on one of my favorite things: tea. Enjoy!

Flavored honey for tea

My family has a genuine love of tea that has spanned generations. Our family tea addiction started with my Grandma (and perhaps her parents) and was passed to my Mom, my sisters and I me, and now my kids enjoy tea. Tea was always a part of our morning breakfast ritual growing up, and now I drink tea throughout the day: caffeinated tea in the morning and early afternoon, and decaf tea at night. I admit, it took me a while to really fall in love with tea, but over the years I have come to appreciate the complexities and uniqueness of this ancient beverage.

Tea Leaves – 2 leaves and 1 bud

The exact origin of tea drinking is not known, but the earliest recorded consumption of tea was during the 10 century  B.C. in China. True teas are made from tea plants (Camellia sinensis), but there are other tea-infusions can be made from a many other kids of plants.

Similar to coffee and chocolate, tea leaves have unique characteristics based on growing location (country of origin, altitude, soil pH), time of harvest (first flush, second harvest), processing (oxidizing, hand rolling, aging), and final brewing technique. So many factors affect the flavor and quality of tea that every cup you brew may end up slightly different.

What: Camellia sinensis, evergreen tropical and sub-topical plants that are grown as bushes. The plants can grow taller, but they are kept short to make it easier for the harvesters to pick.

Where: Asia mostly, but tea plants are grown in other areas around the world as well. Some locations are prized for their high quality teas, such as Darjeeling and Assam, (India); Ti Kuan Yin (China); Ceylon (Sri Lanka); Formosa (Taiwan); Gyokuro, Sencha and Bancha (Japan), among others.

Harvesting: Tea leaves are harvested by hand. Harvesters typically pluck the top bud and adjacent 2 leaves.

Major Types (based on processing):

Black tea: oxidized. After harvesting, the tea leaves are withered, rolled, and spread out to oxidize. These leaves are then heat dried (“fired”) to produce the final product.

Green tea: un-oxidized. The tea leaves are first steamed to prevent oxidation. The leaves are then rolled or twisted, then fired.

Oolong: semi-oxidized. This variation of tea is like a cross between black and green tea. The tea leaves are slightly withered, and then rolled to allow oxidation of the outside of the leaf but no oxidation of the inside of the leaf.

White Tea: un-oxidized. The rarest of teas, it is also the least processed. White tea leaves are harvested during a very brief time of the season before the buds open into leaves. The buds are carefully dried to prevent oxidation.

Puh-Erh: aged/fermented. After tea leaves are dried, these leaves undergo a microbial aging and fermentation process. There are many variations within this tea type, such as raw, cooked, or added fermentation. I have yet to try this tea, but this one is on my list!

Other tea-infusions:

Matè: Yerba matè. this “tea” is from the South American Yerba matè plant, which is actually a tree and not a true herb. The leaves are steeped in hot (not boiling) water and the resulting drink is similar to green tea. Matè has caffeine and antioxidants, making it an ingredient in some diet pills.

Wild Yerba mate tree
Source: Wikipedia

RooibosAspalathus linearis. This tea has many names: red bush tea, honey-bush, red tea, bush tea, South African red tea. The needle-like leaves of this bush are harvested, oxidized, and dried to produce red rooibos tea. Green rooibos tea is un-oxidized. Rooibos tea is caffeine-free, and, like other teas, has many health benefits. This tea is also considered an herbal tea.

Rooibos or Red Bush
Source: Bushman’s Kloof

Herbal tea: nearly infinite sources. Herbal tea is an infusion made any plant material not of the Camellia sinensis plant. Herbal teas can be made from the leaves, roots, fruits, spices, nuts, grains, or seeds of any number of plants. Herbal teas are generally caffeine-free.

Herbal Tea from Teavana

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4 thoughts on “For the Love of Tea: Basic Tea Primer

  1. Tea is one of my absolute favourite things too. This event looks awesome! Thanks for all the information!

  2. My husband says I need a second pantry dedicated to my teas! 🙂 The most difficult decision of my day is deciding which tea to drink in the morning. Great post!

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