Tea is a magical and mysterious drink that produces an extraordinary mood of enjoyment, relaxation and attentiveness – a drink treasured by emperors, warriors, poets, holy men and revolutionaries, as well as all the unsung heroes of everyday life. For nearly 5,000 years this fascinating plant has been a source of medicine, meditation, adventure, congregation, and creative expression. After water, it is the world’s most popular beverage. But what is it really? Where does it come from and how is it made?
A member of the camellia family, the tea bush (Camellia sinensis) is a botanical cousin of the horticultural camellia (Camellia japonica). Historians trace the origins of this sub-tropical evergreen plant to the valleys and mountain
sides of South-West China and North-East India, where the two principal varieties were first discovered: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis (China bush) and Camellia sinensis var. assamica (Assam bush). Today tea is cultivated around the world – from small Himalayan gardens to vast Kenyan estates. And due to cross-breeding (both natural and initiated by man) there are now believed to be over 600 types of tea bush, each with its own characteristics.
This enormous diversity of varieties partially explains how the humble Camellia sinensis
plant is capable of producing such an extraordinary breadth of tastes, colours and sensations. Indeed, many tea lovers are surprised to learn that white, green, oolong, black and pu’er teas all come from just one same plant species!
But in addition to bush variety, there are several other factors that contribute to the characteristics of a particular tea: the growing environment, the harvest practices and the tea making process are some of the important ones.
Every tea crop is hugely affected by temperature and rainfall, shadow and light, and the quality of the soil and water. As with wine, the importance of ‘terroir’ means that the same bush can yield vastly different results from region to region, year to year, and even from week to week. The timing of the harvest is key, as is the type of pluck – the tender buds of the spring ‘flush’ are typically the most sought after, whereas the larger leaves of the summer tend to be used in more everyday teas.
Once harvested, it is the specific processing of the leaves that determines the style of the tea. Like all vegetable matter, the picked tea leaves immediately begin to dehydrate and a natural process of oxidisation (also called fermentation) sets in. The level of oxidation – which can be hastened by bruising or rolling, and slowed or prevented by drying or baking – ultimately dictates the colour of the final product. So black teas are fully oxidised, oolongs are partially oxidised, and green and white teas experience little or no oxidisation.
Controlling the subtleties of the tea making process is the art of the tea-master. Fine tea-making is an artisan craft that requires great skill and expertise. Tea Masters, similarly to award-winning wine makers, rely on experience, knowledge, good produce, and a great deal of intuition to choose the optimal curing process and coax the perfect flavour, fragrance and character out of the leaves.
Here's an overview on how different teas are produced.