Getting to the Bottom of That Wonderful Cup
Ah, the joys of tea. Whether it’s a steaming cup of earthy green tea, or a robust serving of hot Earl Grey, tea is certainly one of life’s finer pleasures. But how often do you really think about how that wonderful cup of tea came to be? How often do you ponder its provenance and preparation?
It turns out that your cup of tea has a very interesting backstory, and we’re here to fill you in.
Green tea has always been popular in the East; it’s been a favorite in China for more than 4,000 years. Green tea comes in many varieties, but they all come from the same plant: Camellia sinensis. The subtle differences in flavor are the result of specific cultivars, processing, time of harvest, and to borrow a term from viticulture, terroir.
Are you ready for a surprise? OK. Here it comes. Black tea comes from the same plant as green tea. You already knew that? Well, aren’t you just the consummate tea connoisseur?
Oolong, black, pu-erh… they’re all Camellia sinensis. So what makes them so distinct from one another? And how can they be so different from green tea?
Same Plant, Different Cultivars
To really appreciate the difference that different varietals of the same plant can make, let’s talk about wine.
Clearly, there’s a huge difference between a pinot noir and a cabernet sauvignon. The former has soft tannins and fruity aromatics, often accompanied by earthy hints of leather or petrichor. The latter is full bodied with strong currant qualities and hints of bell pepper.
They’re both grapes, but they couldn’t be more different. Well, you can think of the tea plant in the same way. Various cultivars have been selectively bred over the centuries, and while they all share a common lineage, they’ve developed some very distinct characteristics.
How Preparation Influences Tea
Before it can be processed, the tea must be harvested. The best tea comes from plucking only the buds and two small leaves from the tea plant.
Next, the tea may be withered. This is accomplished by laying the leaves out to dry in hot air, often on bamboo trays. Withering reduces the water content and makes the leaves flexible enough to be rolled.
Green tea is not withered for as long as black, oolong, or pu-erh. Instead, it’s steamed or baked after a short withering to halt the oxidation process that gives darker teas their deep color.
While many modern teas are simply ground, you’ll notice that better quality oolong, black, and some green teas (gunpowder, pearl, etc.) are actually rolled or scrunched. This part of the process releases the natural oils from the tea and makes it richer and more flavorful.
Oxidation is a bad thing for classic cars, but it’s a crucial part of the tea-making process. The darkest teas have been heavily oxidized. Green and white teas or oxidized the least.
Finally, our tea is ready to dry. The goal is to dry the tea evenly and carefully, halting the oxidation process and sealing in the desired flavor. If the leaves get burned, the delicate flavor will be ruined.
What About Herbal Teas?
Ah yes. We said we’d discuss herbal teas, didn’t we? Here’s an interesting factoid: herbal tea isn’t actually tea. It’s an herbal infusion. But as it’s consumed in exactly the same manner, it’s typically referred to as tea.
There are more types of herbal tea than you can shake a bombilla at. Each is the product of a unique blend of herbs, spices, and other plant materials. Certain ingredients, such as chamomile, mint, ginger, and cinnamon make frequent appearances.
Enjoy Your Tea!
Teatime is over, but we hope you’ve had as much fun as we have. Don’t worry – we can have tea together again whenever you’d like. Come and visit us at Bipartisan Café in Montavilla. We have a wide selection of fine teas that you’re sure to enjoy.