By Courtney Van Evera
If all tea comes from the same plant, how can it yield so many different flavors, shapes, and colors? For answers, we look to the birthplace of tea, China.
All types of tea come from the same plant: Camellia sinensis. There are different varieties and cultivars of tea plants; cultivars are tea plants, typically hybrids, that are tended for specific outcomes such us flavor, drought or pest resistance or yield. Terroir or the environmental conditions (ex. climate, environment, soil-type, elevation) surrounding these tea gardens are partly responsible for the flavor variances across different teas. The other player in tea flavor is the production process, particularly oxidation level, which is what separates the white, green, oolong, black, and dark teas.
To see how the production process varies the flavor of tea, let’s examine a Chinese variety from each of the five tea categories:
Jasmine Silver Needle White Tea – Young downy tea buds are infused with a soft touch of jasmine. All the appeal and softly sweet nuances of a classic Silver Needle tea, enhanced with the aroma of night-blooming jasmine flowers. The quiet nature of this tea ensures enjoyment.
- Picking – White tea is usually picked in early spring, in particular either exclusively bud or in bud and leaf combinations.
- Withering – After tea is plucked, it’s left to dry for 26 to 35 hours depending on the variety. A little oxidation may occur during this step, but the key feature of white tea is that the enzymes are never activated.
- Tea leaves are infused with jasmine scent as the flowers open. This usually happens during the summer, after the flowers are harvested.
- Sorting – separating the good, bad, and ugly tea leaves for selling and consumption!
China Dragonwell “Long Jing” Tea – Grown near the famed West Lake in Hangzhou, Dragonwell has been honored since the Tang Dynasty. The leaves are hand roasted in small woks. Using precise hand movements to press the tea on the side of the wok, the leaves gain a flat, shiny, jade appearance. The aroma is rich and nutty, reminiscent of roasted chestnuts with a smooth, vegetal, earthy flavor.
- Picking – Depending on the variety, tea pickers are required to gather different bud and leaf combinations.
- Withering – Oxidation begins as chemical compounds in the tea leaves react with oxygen as they dry outside.
- Heating – Tea leaves are heated to deactivate the enzymes that begin oxidation reactions, thus ending oxidation.
- Shaping – Dragonwell tea is flattened against the side of a wok, and its cell walls are broken down to further oxidation.
- Drying – Ends oxidation and aromatic oils become preserved in the leaves.
- Sifting – Getting rid of broken leaves for selling and consumption.
China Huang Zhi Xiang “Fragrant Yellow Sprig” Dan Cong Oolong – There are several varieties of Dan Cong oolongs. While the Chinese name more directly translates as “Emperor’s Yellow Twig Fragrant,” we’ve simplified its translation for ease of pronunciation. The aroma is thick and perfume-y, with notes of stone fruit. The liquor has a thick and viscous mouth-feel with wonderful fruit flavors, reminiscent of grilled peach and honeysuckle.
- Picking – Mature leaves are picked for oolong tea from Phoenix Mountain, which is 1000 meters in altitude. The leaves are picked from trees as opposed to bushes.
- Oxidation – Process begun by stirring by hand or being turned in mechanical cylinders.
- Shaping – Tea leaves are rolled, curled, or twisted.
- Drying and firing – Intense heat removes moisture and can also give leaves a lightly smokey taste and aroma.
China Golden Monkey Black Tea – The tea term “monkey” in China refers to the fuzzy, golden down on the leaves. The beautifully twisted golden leaves are almost as wonderful to look at as to taste. The golden down provides texture and smoothness to the brew. The flavor is uplifting; it is a full bodied brew with honey sweetness and a very pleasant aftertaste. Golden Monkey is also known as “Panyong Wang,” the king of high grade black teas.
- Picking – Black teas are picked several times during the year.
- Oxidation – Black teas are fully oxidized!
- Sorting, sifting
- Optional firing
China Jinggu Sheng 2008 Pu’er Tea – Harvested from ancient tea trees in what is considered the birthplace of tea, this pu’er is a rare treat. Beautiful large but tender leaves indicate younger growth from an older tree. This combination of age and youth is ideal for high end pu’er; the tea has a deep, complex character while staying delicate. Quality raw pu’er has bitterness in the initial sip that transitions to sweetness. The liquor is orange in color and is quite transparent. This is a result of the cake being aged long enough for the tannin to break down, a benefit of aging tea. We recommend re-brewing the leaves 10 times or more starting with a short 10-15 second steep time.
- Picking – Tea leaves used for pu’er tea production are those of the C. sinensis sinensis species.
- Fixation – Called Sha qing, or kill green, in Chinese. The tea leaves are kept at a low temperature to maintain needed enzymes that will later cause fermentation.
- Fermentation – There are two options! See below!
Aging – the fermentation process continues as the tea is usually wrapped in special paper (made of mulberry tree bark) which allows gasses to escape while protecting the tea from contaminants. The fermentation process can continue for another 50 years if environmental conditions allow.
From the fermentation stage, pu’er tea falls into one of two categories: sheng or shou. Microorganisms ferment the sheng tea as it ages for 10 to 50 years, where the fermentation of the shou tea is accelerated by a cooking process.
This is merely a starting point for your own discovery of all the variances of Chinese tea. Happy Lucky’s is up to the challenge of keeping you learning!
Foundations of Tea: Level Two, Specialty Tea Institute: 2010.
Gascony, Marchand, Desharnas, & Americi (2011). Tea: History Terroirs Varieties, Firefly Books Ltd: Quebec