The Glorious World of Tea
How times have changed! Premium tea is enjoying the spotlight today in ways unimagined just a few short years ago. Until the 1990s, retail purveyors of premium tea in the United States could be counted on one hand, and specialty food stores stocked just a tame selection of humdrum black tea blends. At best, these selections were marked by country of origin, with perhaps a simple attribution to style of tea or country of production. Unlike today, little detailed information was available to tea drinkers, and most people did not even know what questions to ask. For many, tea was, well, not very exciting, but something that you could count on Grandma to have on hand.
Today, we are learning how enticing and pleasingly distinctive premium tea really is. Tea can be subtle and alluring, bold and bracing, sweet and fresh, young and full of vigor, or rich and matured. It is always fragrant and welcoming at all times. Premium teas once unknown in the West are now becoming familiar, and new tea shops and tea houses are opening for business across the country. For tea enthusiasts, this offers a superb opportunity to travel the world of tea one delicious cup at a time.
Crafting fine tea requires a highly developed sense of perception for touch, sight, and sound that no machine can replicate. And every tea—from Taiwan’s Ali Shan High Mountain gao shan oolong to a brisk and bright Ceylon black tea from the Nuwara Eliya region of Sri Lanka—tells a story in the cup about the soil and air that nurtured it and the tea-making skills that transformed and shaped it.
So get ready to explore the world of premium tea, with information to decipher tea lists, tea labels, and tea menus and to purchase a varied selection of wonderful and delicious tea with assurance.
About Our Book
In our thirty-five years as retailers of premium tea, we have been asked just about every possible question regarding tea, tea steeping, and tea storage. We have kept these questions in mind as we approached the topics in our book.
Right up front, let us say that we define tea in the classic, historic sense as a caffeinated beverage brewed from the leaf of the Camellia sinensis bush. While it is commonplace today to refer to noncaffeinated, herbal beverages such as peppermint, chamomile, and lavender as “tea,” we believe that such beverages should be called by other, more appropriate names, such as herbal teas, herbal infusions, or tisanes. Many of these beverages are delicious and refreshing, but they lie outside the scope of our book, and we leave discussion of them to others.
The world’s best teas comprise a tiny percentage of the yearly worldwide production of tea. Yet to us, these teas are the most significant. Therefore, our book focuses its attention on pure, unblended, premium teas from the tea-producing countries that have made the greatest contributions to the art and science of tea cultivation and manufacture: China, Japan, India, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan. As a result of learning, observing the results, and perfecting their techniques in the tea factories, generations of tea masters in these countries have created the most stunning teas imaginable.
We believe that learning as much as possible about tea and the process of artisan tea manufacture will heighten your enjoyment of each cup you steep. We hope you take delight in our journey through the vibrant world of tea.
A Simple Cup of Tea Is No Simple Matter
Tea is an essential beverage that quenches the collective thirst of millions of people every day. Whereas tea was once grown only in China, today tea is cultivated in forty-one (and counting!) countries of the world, and new tea industries are developing as worldwide demand increases for more various types of tea.
Tea drinking has never gone out of fashion—it has simply changed course and usage with each new generation of tea drinkers. Tea, the most widely consumed beverage on the planet after water, still proudly maintains its title as the world’s oldest beverage. Tea is a wonderfully intricate and complex commodity. There are said to be approximately twenty thousand different distinctions of tea made in the world, a vast number by anybody’s count. Yet, no two teas ever taste exactly alike, and every great tea has a distinctive, trademark flavor. You might even say that tea has a cultural identity.
Yet, all tea is made from the fresh leaf of the Camellia sinensis bush, and its three major varieties:
Camellia sinensis var. sinensis (small-leaf China bush)
Camellia sinensis var. assamica (large-leaf Assam bush)
Camellia sinensis var. cambodi (medium-leaf Java bush)
Additionally, in parts of Burma (known today as Myanmar), China, India, Laos (officially Lao People’s Democratic Republic), Thailand, and Vietnam, strains of indigenous tea bushes and old tea trees coexist with hundreds of local cultivars that have been developed to better meet the needs of tea growers in their specific environments. Since all tea starts as freshly plucked leaf, it is theoretically possible to turn any fresh tea leaf into any of the six classes of tea: green, yellow, white, oolong, black, and Pu-erh.
But tea manufacture is a precise, controlled, and predictable process, and in most tea-producing countries, tea producers focus on only one or two classes of tea. Japan, for instance, produces primarily green teas, but they are very distinctive and taste like no other green teas in Asia. On the other hand, China, the country that unlocked the secrets of tea making and established the manufacturing process for each of the six classes of tea, is the only country that produces all six classes of tea.
What explains the seemingly endless selection of tea available for sale in grocery stores and tea shops? The answer is terroir, or place. Terroir is the culmination of all the reasons why, for example, Chinese green teas are so different from Japanese green teas. The same forces that work to create all of the wonderful wines and cheese that are so distinctive and appealing are also at work in every tea garden around the world. Terroir is not just about the place where a plant grows, but also includes numerous other influences that are responsible for the variation in tea. Let’s take a look at all of them.
Terroir: Why Tea Is Unique
This word terroir has meaning that can fill volumes. By its most simple definition, terroir refers to the place where the roots of a bush or tree or plant nestle into the ground, and the effects that a distinctive environment, including geography, climate, and weather, contributes to the unique character and taste of a food.
However, our visits to tea-producing countries have shown us that other unique particulars also contribute to the overall effects of terroir and the distinctive differences among teas. These include the subvariety or cultivar of tea bush (generally, subvarieties are naturally occuring and cultivars are the result of human intervention), cultivation practices, the season of the pluck, the method of leaf manufacture, and the craft of tea making.
Tea that is grown in the high, thin air of the Himalaya in eastern Nepal will invariably taste different than tea that is grown in the low-lying, hot, and humid river valley region of Assam, India. What is it like where the particular tea bushes grow? Do the bushes go dormant over the winter or produce new leaf year-round? Are there weather conditions such as monsoon seasons or frost that affect the leaf and subsequently the taste of the tea?
Terroir can have a large connotation, such as tea from India or tea from China, or it can refer to a small, specific geographic connotation, such as tea from the Huang Shan in Anhui Province, China. Terroir distinguishes between locations within the same country as well as between countries.
When we look at all of the tea produced in the regions of any one tea-producing country, we see a composite of teas from north and south, coastal areas, and inland regions. Each terroir has specific tea bush cultivars that contribute leaf of a particular character and style to the teas made in that region. When the elements of place are distinctive and strong, they conspire to keep a particular tea from being able to be duplicated in exactly the same way in other places. The sum total of all of the unique places and teas in any one tea-producing country combines to create the collective regional or national character.
Tea Bush Subvarieties and Cultivars
Three main varieties of Camellia sinensis (and thousands of subvarieties and cultivars) flourish in tea gardens around the world. It is important that a tea bush variety is planted in a place where that bush will thrive. The foibles of the English in the nineteenth century when they first attempted to cultivate tea in India are a perfect example of what happens when the wrong tea bush variety is chosen for a given location. What many may not realize is that the tea bush variety works with terroir to provide the backbone style and to influence the flavor of the tea.
In China, several tea-producing regions in the provinces of Fujian, Guangdong, and Yunnan have native strains of tea bushes and tea trees (some are centuries old) that are not found elsewhere on earth. The fresh leaf from these indigenous varieties is responsible for much of the unique character of the tea from these regions. If you compare tea that is made from old tea tree leaf with one made from the leaf of a modern tea bush cultivar planted nearby, the difference in taste and aroma is quite noticeable.
Tea bush varieties and cultivars look different from one another, too, which means that they act differently during manufacture. Some bushes grow faster or slower; others produce large or small leaves that are thick or thin, less or more serrated on the edges. Tea bush varieties and cultivars have long been overlooked in tea conversations in the West, but this is changing. Many of the nuances of body, fragrance, taste, and aftertaste in tea are influenced by the tea bush variety or cultivar.
Many tea gardens use sustainable farming methods that utilize natural, biodynamic, or organic tea-growing practices. This creates healthier plants by enriching the soil and encouraging the roots of the tea bushes to grow and spread deep into the ground.
To keep the tea bushes healthy and vigorous, ensuring optimal growth and leaf production, and good-tasting tea, workers follow a yearly timetable of scheduled pruning, pest control, fertilizing, and replacing old or damaged tea bushes.
The Season of the Pluck
From the beginning of the tea harvest until the last day of each tea season, millions of tea pluckers fan out into the fields to pluck tender, fresh leaf. Most premium tea is still plucked by hand (with the exception of the mechanical cutters used in Japan and other “modern” tea industries).
In all tea gardens, seasonal changes occur throughout the year. These differences are reflected in the appearance, flavor, and aroma of the tea. The tea-garden manager must set the plucking schedule to accommodate for the rapidly growing tea leaves by the season and the month of the harvest, the weather, and what configuration of fresh leaf needs to be plucked.
Method of Leaf Manufacture
Bringing out desirable tastes and aromas from raw tea leaves requires a delicate balance of creativity; skill; and sound, fresh leaf. The steps of premanufacture, manufacture, and postmanufacture—that which is done to fresh tea leaf after it has been plucked—is the challenge of the tea-factory manager and a team of highly skilled workers.
The tea-factory manager must know the intricacies of the manufacturing process and be able to make adjustments due to weather-related delays, growth spurts in the leaf due to unusually hot weather, and so on. All the effort put into the leaf up to this point can be completely ruined by a misstep during leaf manufacture.
In the simplest terms, leaf manufacture is the process of turning freshly plucked leaf into finished tea. Each class of tea is manufactured according to a well-defined, precise sequence of steps (some manufacture takes longer and is more complicated than others) that is responsible for the differences in green, yellow, white, oolong, black, and Pu-erh tea.
Because the traditional ways of crafting tea differ from region to region, and because humans must work with what nature provides for them on any given day, no two teas will ever be exactly alike. In fact, taking into account all the influences of terroir, no two batches of even the “same” tea will ever be exactly alike.
The Craft of Tea Making: History, Culture, and Custom
The learned and skilled contribution of tea workers permeates every aspect of tea: from the tea garden to the tea factory to the tea table. How people do things and why they do them is the rich stuff of culture and tradition that establishes process and practice.
Crafting premium tea requires the senses of a skilled artisan who relies on his or her senses of sight, smell, touch, and hearing to determine how a tea is progressing. Young tea makers learn by observing the older generation of master tea processors make critical adjustments to the leaf during processing that the masters know are needed but perhaps cannot explain in words: hands feeling the leaf as it changes during the stages of manufacture, eyes watching the progress of the leaf as it yields to the heat and begins to hold its final shape, ears listening for the sounds of leaf responding to the heat of the firing pan, and nose detecting the development of aroma in the leaf as it comes closer to becoming tea.
Cultural habits, customs, and the history of a place also influence the teas made there. In many places, tea-making practices are carried out within the boundaries of established traditions. Much is preserved and little is changed: for great-tasting premium tea, this is a very good thing.
A simple cup of tea is no easy matter. Tea is as rich and intricate a subject as wine is for those who choose to explore its many layers. It appeals to our sense of adventure and the exotic; many books have been written about tea’s scandalous history and glorious culture. In fact, tea drinking can be a great exercise in armchair travel—all that is required is a trip to a tea shop and a desire to explore the wonderful world of tea in your teacup.