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An Illustrated Guide to Planting, Harvesting, and Blending Teas and Tisanes
By Cassie Liversidge
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 Cassie Liversidge
All rights reserved.
The Tea Plant
There are hundreds of species of camellia plants, grown in gardens all over the world for their beautiful flowers and dark green glossy foliage. Only one species of camellia is used to make tea, however, and that is Camellia sinensis. All tea — white, green, oolong, and black — is made from this plant.
The tea plant is native to the high mountain ranges of the Yunnan province in southern China; sinensis actually means "from China." There are two main varieties from which tea is made, Camellia sinensis var. sinensis and Camellia sinensis var. assamica. Camellia sinensis var. sinensis (which I refer to as simply sinensis in this book) has smaller green leaves than assamica, and it is a strong hardy plant. This plant is best suited to the growing conditions in China and Japan. In 1823, Major Robert Bruce, who was working for the East India Company at the time, discovered Camellia sinensis var. assamica in Assam, in northern India. Assamica is grown predominantly in India, Africa, and Sri Lanka. Hundreds of hybrids and cultivars of these two varieties have been developed over the years.
Growing tea is as complex as growing grapes in a vineyard. The climate and soil directly influence the distinct flavor of the tea. Each country, each region, and even each producer will have their own distinct methods of growing and processing tea leaves. The world of tea is vast and the variations produced are many. Even tea produced on the same plantation over the course of one year can have large seasonal flavor differences. By growing your own tea, you will have the opportunity to experience your own homegrown tea flavor. In this chapter, I give a general and simplified introduction to the main differences between the methods of producing white, green, and black tea. I have created a way to process your own tea at home, based on information of how tea is processed all over the world. You will be using tiny quantities of leaf and processing by hand, so the method and the results will be very different from tea grown and processed commercially. Even so, I hope it will give you an insight into the world of tea and help you to understand the tremendous experience and expertise tea producers have.
Camellia sinensis loves to grow at high altitudes, where misty mornings and evenings allow the plant to absorb a lot of moisture. They like the warmth and light of the sun during the day. If you don't live at high altitude, do not fear — you can still grow camellias. Try to plant your camellia in a sunny or partly shaded location and make sure that it has plenty of water — preferably rainwater — especially if you are growing it in a container.
It is very slow to grow tea from seeds. They take four to five weeks to germinate, so I recommend you buy one or two plants to start with. Tea plants are large enough to be harvested from when they are three or four years old, so try to get as mature a plant as possible. The sinensis variety is slower growing than assamica, and the leaves produce a lighter taste, but it is hardier and more resilient to frosts. Tea plants are not grown widely so you will probably not get a choice in which tea variety you can buy. I have listed a few suppliers in the back of this book.
You can grow your camellia in the ground or in a container. It needs well-drained, acidic soil with a pH of 5 or less. If your soil is not acidic, you can mix in leaf mold, bark, or mushroom compost. If your soil is very alkaline, it might be easier to grow camellias in a raised bed or a container. You may need to repot your camellia every one or two years, or when you first buy it if the roots are pot bound. Choose a container larger than the existing pot and make sure it has good drainage holes. Mix perlite (naturally occurring volcanic rock) or fine grit into ericaceous soil or acidic compost that is specially formulated compost for acid loving plants. (More information about repotting). They like a warm, sunny, or partly shaded location. They do not like direct heat over a prolonged time, such as next to a south-facing wall, so if you live in a warm climate, plant your camellia where it will have sun for part of the day and then shade. Mulch around your plant with bark to a depth of about 1 inch (2 to 3 cm). Camellia sinensis can tolerate cold and frost to 14°F (10°C). If the plant is potted, however, the roots are more vulnerable to cold, especially if they are wet, so you may need to protect them with fleece. Fleece is a polypropylene fabric through which light, air, and rain can pass, unlike other fabrics. You can create a framework of canes around the plant and use pegs to attach the fleece, making sure the ground immediately around the plant is also covered. Or you can simply lay the fleece over the plant (and pot if its in one) so that it is totally covered, removing it if the temperature is warm enough during the day. It creates a warm pocket of air around the plant to help protect the leaves and roots from any drop in temperature. The more layers of fleece used, the greater the frost protection. Ask your supplier to give you specific advice on how many layers to use for your location.
On tea plantations, camellias are pruned to about 3 feet (1 meter) high so the new shoots grow at hand height. This is called the "plucking table," and you can do the same in your own garden if you have enough plants and space. This pruning promotes new shoots to grow. These fresh young leaves are referred to as the "flush." When the flush of growth appears in the spring, you will be able to harvest your tea. The length of the growing season depends on the amount of sunlight the plants receive. If the camellia's exposure to sunlight is shortened to less than eleven hours, it will become dormant and will not produce any new shoots until more daylight is available. This may mean that fewer new leaves are produced over the course of the year, but the quality of the tea produced after the plant has been dormant is excellent.
Camellia sinensis produces beautiful white, intensely fragrant flowers in the fall. For a wonderful variation of tea harvest these flowers and use them, fresh or dried, in addition to the leaves.
Feed the plants a nitrogen-rich feed, such as liquid seaweed, homemade nettle fertilizer, or worm tea, in the early spring and then again in May or June. (For more on fertilizer, see here). It will take about five years to grow a plant of a sufficient size to produce regular harvests. You can take cuttings of your camellias in the late summer.
To Take Cuttings
Cuttings should be taken from a developed leaf that is growing from a green stem.
1. Fill a pot with a mix of 50 percent horticultural silver sand and 50 percent ericaceous compost or acidic soil. Give the pot five taps on a flat surface to fill any air pockets within the soil. Make sure the pot is full of soil to the very top, adding more if necessary.
3. Cut the stem about ½ inch (1 cm) above the leaf, and about 1½ inches (4 cm) of stem below the leaf joint (node). Use a sharp knife and cut at an angle.
Using a toothpick, make a hole in the soil about ½ inch (1 cm) deep.
4. Hold the cutting at the node and insert it into the hole in the soil. Push down until your fingertips touch the soil. Make sure the leafstalk does not touch the soil.
5. The cutting should be planted so the leaf is almost vertical, so that over time it will not touch the soil, as this could cause it to rot.
Compact the soil tightly around the base of the cutting.
Lightly water the cutting.
6. Place a plastic bag over the top of the pot, supported on the outside by small canes or sticks — the bag should not touch the leaf. Secure it with a rubber band around the edge of the pot. Once you can see new growth developing you can remove the bag.
Keep the potted cutting somewhere warm and out of direct sunlight.
White tea, also called bud tea, is made with the soft, hairy tips of the Camellia sinensis plant. There is only one bud on each stem, and it must be harvested while it is still tightly twisted. The new buds are pale gray with silvery white hairs, hence the name "white tea." These precious thin buds are plucked carefully by hand to keep as many silver hairs attached as possible. The newest growth is the sweetest and subtlest tasting of all the teas. This may explain why white teas are so revered and can be so expensive.
Famous white teas include Yin Zhen or Silver Needles from Fujian Province, China. Regional variations in humidity, temperature, and soil conditions are some of the factors that contribute to the differing tastes of teas, so do not expect to achieve the level and depth of flavor of white tea as what is grown and produced by tea masters in ideal tea climates. You will be able to produce your own unique-tasting white tea, which will be mild, but sweet and delicious.
White tea is antibacterial and has high levels of antioxidants. It is also a stimulant, and it promotes a relaxed body and mind and can help with concentration. It is one of the most refreshing of all teas.
The pale gray, hairy leaf buds will only appear for a short time at the start of each growing season so be sure to keep an eye on your plants. Pluck the new leaf buds off while they are tightly bound.
Spread the buds out on a tray or a fine mesh and leave them somewhere warm and well ventilated for a few hours to lightly wither them.
Place the buds in a dehydrator or a very low-temperature oven to remove the remaining moisture. Drying will not take long, so make sure you do not over-dry the buds. The buds should be moved about throughout drying so that they dry evenly. To avoid overdrying, I set my oven to 122°F (50°C), and when it is up to temperature I turn it off and then put the buds in to dry for about 20 minutes, moving them around every five minutes. (For more on drying, see here).
To Make Tea
Fill the kettle with fresh water. Bring the water to a boil, then pour some into your teapot or teacup to warm it up. Discard the water. Put two or three pinches of buds (or more for a stronger flavor) into a tea bag or into the warmed teapot. Pour the water (which should be between 176 to 185°F/80 to 85°C) over the tea and cover it with a lid. Allow the tea to steep for three minutes. Remove the lid and the tea bag, or pour your tea from the teapot using a tea strainer. You should have a very pale yellow tea. This is a subtle, sweet, and delicious tea — one for a special occasion. Be sure to use the buds again for subsequent cups.
Thousands of years ago in China, green tea was taken as a medicinal drink. It was the tea of choice in Britain until the middle of the eighteenth century, and it is still the most popular tea in China and Japan. It is enjoyed for its medicinal properties and for the stimulating effect it has on the body.
To make green tea, camellia leaves are heated before they can oxidize, so they retain their wonderful fresh green color and high levels of antioxidants. After this, there is a variety of ways to process the tea further. Buddhist monks developed a complex grinding process to make a powdered green tea known as matcha. In Japan there is a famous matcha tea ceremony, in which the powdered tea is whisked into a froth, poured, and consumed with great reverence.
Green tea is a stimulant and a diuretic, and is also antibacterial. It contains the highest levels of antioxidants of all the Camellia sinensis teas. It does contain a certain amount of caffeine, but the caffeine in tea is released slowly (unlike in coffee) so that it actually benefits the body and mind. Green tea also contains vitamins and iron and may help lower cholesterol and slow the aging process.
To make green tea, harvest the first burst of leaf growth from your Camellia sinensis plant. Your plants will put on new growth in the springtime when the weather warms, after the plant has been dormant over the winter. The new growth will have light green stems, and the prior year's growth will have brown stems. Pluck the top two leaves and leaf bud from the tea plants.
Heating the leaf will kill the enzymes within so that no oxidation can occur. This keeps the leaves greener. You can steam the leaves using a metal or bamboo steamer insert and a saucepan. Pour about ½ inch (1 cm) depth of water into the pan and set in the steamer insert. Cover with a lid and bring the water to a boil. When the water has come to a boil, remove the lid, drop the leaves into the steamer, and re-cover it. Steam the tea leaves for 1 to 2 minutes, until they start to turn an olive green color. Remove the pan from the heat and immediately run the leaves under a cold tap to stop the heating process and to retain as much green color as possible.
The leaves will be very soft and flexible and ready to be rolled. Rolling is the method of styling and shaping the leaf. To do this, simply roll the tea in your hands. Experiment with the shape you like. I like gently rolling the leaves in a sushi-rolling mat — you can get lovely even tubes this way. Place the leaves in the center of a bamboo sushi-rolling mat. Fold the mat in half over the leaves and, holding down the edge of the bottom half with one hand, push up on the top half of the mat with your other hand to roll the mat over the leaves. Roll the mat back and forth gently until the leaves are tightly rolled.
You can even try to roll your own green tea pearls! The highest quality gunpowder tea and jasmine pearl tea are still rolled by hand into tiny balls. If you have plucked the very freshest young new growth, rolling will only take 2 to 3 minutes, but if you have used older and harder leaves, it will take much longer.
Immediately after rolling, spread the leaves out in a single layer on a baking dish or baking tray and place them in a preheated 212 to 230°F (100 to 110°C) oven for 10 to 12 minutes. After 5 minutes, give them a gentle turn to ensure uniform drying. When the leaves are totally dry and crispy, they are done. The green tea is ready to be used immediately or can be stored in a sealed glass container in a dry, dark cupboard until needed.
How to Make Tea
It is good to keep the temperatures of all the vessels used to make the tea as constant as possible. Fill the kettle with fresh water. Bring the water to a boil, then pour some into your teapot or teacup to warm it up. Discard the water. Put six leaves of green tea into a tea bag or teapot — use more as necessary according to the number of people you are making tea for. Pour the water (which should be between 176 to 185°F/80 to 85°C) over the tea and cover it with a lid. Allow the tea to steep for three minutes. Remove the tea bag and set it on a saucer so that you can repeat the process for a second cup. Or pour your tea from your teapot, using a tea strainer. Enjoy the fresh sweet taste and the relaxing sensation of homegrown green tea.
Black tea is made from completely oxidized leaves of the Camellia sinensisplant. The tea is a dark color and has a strong rich flavor. Camellia sinensis var. assamica is the variety of camellia preferred for the production of black tea. Its leaves are bigger than those of Camelia sinensis var. sinensis and have greater surface area, allowing more oxidation to take place. It is the oxidation or fermentation that makes the leaves turn dark brown or black, as the name suggests.
Antioxidants found in black tea are believed to help prevent heart disease, some cancers, and strokes. It may also help with circulation and reduce fatigue. Black tea is a diuretic so it helps to detoxify the body.
When tea is grown at a high altitude in countries like India, plucking of tea traditionally takes place early in the morning, before the sun has a chance to heat and dry the morning mist covering the leaves.
Pluck the top two leaves and bud to make into black tea. Make sure you only pick a few leaves at a time if your plants are small. The leaves make the plant's food, so if you take too many in one go, the plant will struggle to survive.
Spread the leaves on a mesh screen or a tray and set them inside or outside on a cool, dry day. Allow them to wilt for up to twenty hours after which the leaves will have lost about 60 percent of their moisture. You can weigh the leaves to be exact, but as long as the leaves look and feel limp this is fine.
You can roll the leaves between the palms of your hands. This rolling ruptures the cells of the leaves, so that all the juices and natural chemicals combine with each other. This reaction turns the leaf brown, and is called oxidation or fermentation. I like using a sushi-rolling mat to roll the tea on, as you can get lovely tubes of tea. Place the leaves in the center of a bamboo sushi-rolling mat. Fold the mat in half over the leaves and, holding down the edge of the bottom half with one hand, push up on the top half of the mat with your other hand to roll the mat over the leaves. Roll the mat back and forth gently until the leaves are tightly rolled.
Immediately after rolling, spread the leaves out in a single layer on a tray or baking dish. Leave them to oxidize at room temperature, ideally between 69 to 75°F (21 to 24°C), for up to three hours. The leaves will turn brown as they oxidize.
Excerpted from Homegrown Tea by Cassie Liversidge. Copyright © 2014 Cassie Liversidge. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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