what is tea?
Tea is the second-most consumed drink in the world, surpassed only by water. An often-surprising fact to tea novices is that all teas (white, green, oolong, black and pu'erh) come from the same plant. The botanical name of this versatile plant is Camellia sinensis. Camellia sinensis is a sub-tropical evergreen plant native to Asia but now grown around the world. The tea plant grows best in loose, deep soil, at high altitudes, and in sub-tropical climates. So, in short, "tea" is anything derived from the Camellia sinensis plant. Anything else, while sometimes called "tea", is more accurately referred to as an herbal tea or tisane. Tisanes include chamomile, Rooibos and fruit teas.
How is it grown?The tea plant, which grows in the wild in some parts of Asia, 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 elevation, and often, on steep slopes. The terrain requires that these premium teas be hand-plucked. Many of the teas that are grown for tea bags or iced teas, on the other hand, are grown on large, flat, lowland areas to allow for machine harvesting.
Teas that are processed in the traditional fashion are called Orthodox teas. Orthodox teas generally contain only the top two tender leaves and an unopened leaf bud, which are plucked carefully by hand. Most Orthodox tea production these days involves a unique combination of age-old methods, such as bamboo trays to allow the leaves to wither on, and modern, innovative machinery, like leaf rollers carefully calibrated to mimic motions originally done by hand. A true art form, the tea leaves are handled by artisans with years (often, generations) of training.
The other way of making tea is the Unorthodox method, of which the most common type is CTC (crush-tear-curl). This much faster style of production was specifically created for black tea. For commercial production, large machine harvesters are used to "mow" the top of the bushes to get the new leaves, rather than hand-pluck. CTC production uses a leaf shredder that macerates the leaves (crushing, tearing and curling them, hence the name) into fine pieces, then rolls them into little balls. These teas will brew very quickly and produce a bold, powerful cup of tea. CTC 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).
What is in tea?The three primary components of brewed tea (also called the "liquor") are:
1. Essential Oils - these provide tea's delicious aromas and flavors.
2. Polyphenols - these provide the "briskness" or astringency in the mouth and are the components that also carry most of the health benefits of tea.
3. Caffeine - found naturally in coffee, chocolate, tea and Yerba Mate, caffeine provides tea's natural energy boost.
How the leaves are processed will determine their final classification as white, green, oolong, etc. Although tea is one of the most enjoyed beverages worldwide, its culture can be very "local." For example, most tea drinkers in Darjeeling, India 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 when you think of how so many tea-drinking cultures developed all on their own. America's own newly found tea culture is unique because we actually enjoy all types of tea. No one else has that distinction.