A Brief Introduction to Tea
#Before You Read 前言
Hi, it’s me again, abusing this platform as a debut stage for my next assignment. This is a project from a course I’m taking at National Taiwan University, Journalistic Writing, and you could find our official Tumblr here. Get a kettle going, kick back and enjoy.
Have you ever heard of Oolong, Chai tea, or Earl Grey? Tea is a part of traditional Chinese as well as Western culture — it is almost an universal language, but there are a thousand ways to make a decent cuppa. Not unlike alcohol or coffee, appropriate temperature and precise brewing time hugely affect the taste, but more importantly, from the moment of being plucked, what the tea leaves have been through forms the base flavour.
I was on my Chinese New Year vacation, watching midnight cheesy movies on my laptop when my iPhone screen lighted up by a notification in the otherwise dark room — a senior alumna was opening a teahouse and she was desperately in need of part-timers. I didn’t think twice and agreed to help out — who am I to refuse double pay? What I hadn’t expected then is how much of an eye-opening experience this would be to me. I have never tried to understand this ancient art before this job despite the fact that I literally grew up drinking tea, and it dawned on me that I have been missing on so much, therefore, I would like to take you on this journey and scratch the surface of tea with me. In this article, you will understand how exactly teas are made and how the variation of tea processing leads to different types of tea.
Most of you must have heard of the six main bases of liquor: Vodka, Tequila, Gin, Rum, Whiskey and Brandy. What you might not know is that it is the same for tea — the categories of tea are distinguished by the processing they undergo, which involves different manners and degree of oxidation of the leaves, stopping the oxidation, forming the tea and drying it. The key identifier between each classification are based on:
- The degree or period of oxidation (fermentation) the leaves have undergone
- Dry tea colour
What is Fermentation?
For teas that require oxidation (the most common way of fermentation) , the leaves are scattered in a climate-controlled room where they turn progressively darker. In this process the chlorophyll in the leaves is enzymatically broken down, and its tannins are released or transformed. The tea producer may choose when the oxidation should be stopped, which depends on the desired qualities in the final tea as well as the conditions, heat and humidity. Oxidation is highly important in the formation of many taste and aroma compounds, which give a tea its liquor colour, strength, and briskness. Depending on the type of tea desired, under or over-oxidation can result in grassy flavours, or overly thick winey flavours.
From Leaf to Cup
1. Wilting and Withering
Tea leaves begin to wilt the moment they are plucked, which follows a gradual enzymatic oxidation. The withering process helps remove excess water in the leaves and allows a slight amount of oxidation, so it is required for fermented teas. This step could be done under the sun or in a cool breezy room , where the former brings out the high fragrance or sharp notes of ripe fruit scent in the partially-fermented teas, while the latter heightens the deep notes of candy scent in the completely-fermented tea.
2. Fixation / Kill-green
This is the next stop for teas that have gone through the withering, while non-fermented teas start their processing from this step. Kill-green is done to stop the tea leaf oxidation at a desired level, which is accomplished by heating the leaves and deactivating their oxidative enzymes, thus leading to the dissipation of moisture, softening of leaves, and removing unwanted scent.
3. Rolling / Disruption
The tea leaves are then rolled to be formed into wrinkled strips by shaking and tossing in a bamboo tray, tumbling in baskets, or by using a rolling machine which causes the tea to wrap around itself. The points of this step are: one, crumple the leaf cells so that the flavour of the tea could be released more completely while brewing; two, the wrinkled strips could then be shaped easily into different forms and thus saving storage room; last but not least, the extent of this action decides different characters of tea, for it causes some of the sap, essential oils, and juices inside the leaves to ooze out.
Generally, tea leaves should be dried to contain 3%~5% of water to reduce microorganisms and chemical reactions for better storage quality, and the fixed shape of dried leaves makes it more convenient for packaging and shipping. For green teas, this step is particularly important, as it is responsible for many new flavour compounds.
This process is exclusively required for post-fermented tea (Pu-erh). It is like a second fermentation process that turns the originally bitter and harsh taste to rich and mellow. This effect is achieved through the heating and dampness generated with aging, which drives microbe growth and degrades some components.
Classification of Tea
Tea could come in different names, some named by their origins (龍井 being the famous example) and some named by special flavours. Also, there are non-caffeine teas based on fruits or floras. However, we should keep in mind that the six bases of tea are classified by degrees of fermentation as mentioned above.
Green tea undergoes the least amount of oxidation, is processed within one to two days of harvesting, and if done correctly retains most of the chemical composition of the fresh leaves from which it was produced. Rich in antioxidants, those chemicals include Vitamin C, amino acid, and tannin, which are good for human, and some research even shows that drinking green tea helps prevent cancer.
- Flavour: Fresh and grassy; some people may find it bitter.
- Famous Varieties: Dragon Well, Sencha, Gyokurocha
- Barista’s Recipe: Brew at 80°C for approximately 3'30".
Yellow tea is increasingly rare and expensive. It is processed in a similar manner to green tea, but instead of immediate drying after kill-green, it is stacked, covered, and gently heated in a humid environment, which means a gentle fermentation in the chlorophyll of the leaves through non-enzymatic and non-microbial means. In Chinese medicine, this tea is suit for those are strong with a “hot” body.
- Flavour: Smooth, aromatic with a bright and floral taste.
- Famous Varieties: Junshan Yinzhen 君山銀針
White tea is the least processed of all, with some natural oxidation, but not withered and rolled in the way other teas are. Traditionally a product of Fujian Province, it can now be found in nearly every growing region.
- Flavour: Light, sweet, and floral.
- Famous Varieties: Silver Needle (Bai Hao Yinzhen), White Peony (Bai Mu Dan)
- Barista’s Recipe: Brew at 90°C for approximately 3'30", then feel free to stir a spoon of apricot jam into your tea.
Also known as Oolong, this tea has the most complicated withering process. It is medium oxidized and lengthily baked, where oxidization ranges from 10% up to 80%. This wide range of varieties makes it hard to give all-inclusive description of the flavour of oolong teas. It is said that drinking Oolong helps reduce blood pressure, cut blood sugar, lower cholesterols and removes bad breath.
- Flavour: Can be light with sweet vegetal flavours or thick and heavy with earthy and woody tones.
- Famous Varieties: Tie Guan Yin 鐵觀音, Dongfang Meiren 東方美人, White Tip Oolong 白毫烏龍
- Barista’s Recipe: Best brewed at hotter degrees, steep with water at 95°C for approximately 3 minutes.
With completely oxidized tea leaves, black tea has the highest worldwide consumption rates and the Assam region of India is one of the largest producers. It is more commonly drunk in the West than the East. Most commercially available black teas are blends of black teas with different origins as well as classic single-origin teas. Recently, many tea companies have started to offer more exotic and non-traditional black tea blends. These may include flavours like chocolate or vanilla, wood or smoke, tropical fruits, warming spices, and dried herbs. Some black teas are intended to be drunk with a splash of milk and/or sugar, and British fixes everything with a cuppa.
- Flavour: Bold , strong and brisk with a hint of astringent.
- Famous Varieties: Lapsang Souchong, Assam, Darjeeling, Earl Grey, English Breakfast, Irish Breakfast, Afternoon Tea
- Barista’s Recipe: Brew at 90°C for approximately 3'00. This tastes wild and it my personal favourite.
The only tea that undergoes a second fermentation — it is actually fermented (in the piling process) and not just oxidized, where fermentation involves microbes like wine, cheese and yogurt. The most common kind of post-fermentation tea is Pu-erh, which can be divided into two categories — Raw Pu-erh is carefully stored and aged for future consumption for several years, which makes it some of the most expensive teas in the world, unlike its more friendly-priced brother, Ripened Pu-erh, which undergoes a faster, deeper aging process that takes roughly three months.
- Flavour: Has an earthy, woodsy aroma with depth, picking up the occasional notes of tobacco, musty antique store, barnyard.
- Famous Varieties: Pu-erh 普洱
- Barista’s Recipe: A very forgiving cup to infuse; you can steep it for 30 seconds or 30 minutes.
With all these new information of tea bubbling in your mind, you must be hosting a migraine. I would suggest that you go and put on a kettle, because if tea couldn’t fix it, probably nothing else could.
↑ Brew tea in fashion like Teddy, who leads me into the world of tea, sparkling my interest with his patience and feeding me tidbits of knowledge whenever we have shifts together.
Clap if you want to make a girl’s day, and leave a comment if you would like to compensate her for a sleepless night.