Second only to water, tea is the most commonly drunk beverage across the world. Indeed, it was one of the factors that helped to build the British Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries. Flavours of teas can be a subtle and as varied as wines, and the more a person looks into tea and its culture, the more there is to learn and understand about it. Over the course of the next few weeks we shall give you an education on all things Tea!
What is tea (and what isn’t)?
Tea is an infusion, but not all infusions are tea. An infusion of fresh mint is not a tea, and neither is an infusion of camomile, but both are often mislabelled as tea. Tea itself is an infusion made using the leaves of the tea plant (camellia sinensis), which is an evergreen shrub native to Asia. If the drink that you are enjoying does not include leaves of the tea plant, it is not tea and just an infusion.
History of Tea
Tea originated in China as a medicinal drink. Containers for tea have been found in tombs, dating from the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E. to 220 C.E.), but it was under the Tang dynasty (618 to 906 C.E.) that tea became truly established as the national drink of the land. During this period, Tea and tea drinking was spread to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. In India, it has been drunk for a long (albeit uncertain) period, but this seems to have been concentrated to the Himalayan region, until the British imported it much later.
In the 16th Century, tea was brought back to the west by the Portuguese traders and missionaries who had grown to like the beverage while they were out in the East. However it was first imported as a commercial enterprise by the Dutch at the very start if the 17th Century, from where it soon gained international favour amongst the wealthy elite. They were the only ones who could afford such a luxury product.
Favour for the drink in the UK really blossomed with the marriage of Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese Princess and tea fanatic, to King Charles II in May 1662. The sharp rise in popularity in the drink instigated the trading of tea by the hugely powerful East India Company, which placed its first order in 1664.
Heavy taxation of tea lead to a smuggling trade that grew to outstrip the official tea trade at 7 million lbs as opposed to 5 million lbs in legal trade. In addition, tea was being adulterated by the leaves of other plants, and also by tea leaves that had been previously used and then re-dried, resulting in a poor quality product. By 1784, the government realised that the tax was having a disastrous effect, and the tax rate was slashed from 119% to 12.5%. The tax on tea was only finally abolished in 1964.
Tea was originally mass produced in India by Robert Fortune. Fortune was sent by the East India Company to China in 1848 (between the first and second opium wars) to bring the tea plant back to Great Britain. When the British brought the tea plant to India, it failed to take, but they later discovered that there was a local variety native to the Assam region. Using Chinese cultivation and planting techniques, the British managed to establish a tea industry in India incentivised by offering land to any European who would cultivate it for export.
Tea is produced in a similar way throughout the world. With slight variations in the methods of production you can produce all of the varieties that are available. Once tea is plucked, fungi will quickly grow on the tea unless it is carefully managed in temperature and moisture. This fungus will cause a real fermentation of the leaves that will make them unfit for consumption.
Tea leaves are picked from bushes that are approximately 1.5m high for ease of picking. The bushes are picked whenever the climate is right (which is normally in 2 separate pickings in early spring, and early summer). Bushes can be picked once every 7 to 14 days depending on the climate and altitude. Tea leaves and flushes, which includes a terminal bud and two young leaves, are normally picked by hand for high quality teas, but can also be picked machine, but there tends to be more broken leaves and partial flushes, which can reduce the quality of the tea.
Withering and Wilting
Soon after the leaves are picked, they will start to wilt, and will slowly start to undergo enzymatic oxidation. Withering is used to remove excess water from the leaves and only allows a small amount of oxidisation. The leaves will end up flaccid as the moisture evaporates off the leaves. This is normally done in the sun, at temperatures of about 25-30ºC, and can be gently assisted with warm air fans. This process also helps break down the leaf proteins into free amino acids and increases the availability of freed caffeine, both of which change the taste of the tea.
During this process, the leaves are deliberately bruised or torn to promote and quicken oxidisation. The leaves may be lightly bruised on their edges by tossing in a tray, or tumbling in baskets. More intensive disruption may be done by a machine, which can knead, roll, tear, and crush the leaf. The bruising breaks down the structures of the leaf cells, allowing more oxidisation occur, and allows the oxidisation to happen quicker. It also releases some of the remaining water in the leaves, altering the flavour of the tea.
There are two standards ways to disrupt leaves. These are termed as ‘Orthodox’ and ‘Unorthodox’, and both methods describe the process as well as the machinery used in the disruption.
The ‘Orthodox’ tea leaves are rolled either by hand, or be mechanically. It produces large particles of leaf, that are called grades, and their size and quality is graded using the Orange Pekoe grading system.
‘Unorthodox’ tea leaves are also CTC (cut, tear, curl). The CTC method was developed in 1930 by William McKercher, and produces teas that are suitable for tea bags. They have their own grading system.
Both grading systems are described in next week’s article.
Oxidisation or Fermentation
In some teas, the oxidisation is used to change the colour, flavour and strength of the tea. The leaves are left in a climate controlled environment where they turn progressively darker. The leaves are occasionally turned, or agitated, to ensure that the oxidisation is even. The oxidisation breaks down the chlorophyll (resulting in the changes to the colour) and simultaneously releases and transforms the tannins in the tea. For light oolong (or blue) teas the level of oxidisation can be between 5-40%. In darker blue teas, it can reach levels of 60-70%, and for black teas oxidisation reaches 100%
Fixation or Kill-Green
When the desired level of oxidisation has been reached, the process has to be stopped. In the tea industry, this is called fixing or kill-green, and is accomplished by gentle heating the leaves, deactivating the enzymes causing oxidisation, and removing unwanted aromas from the teas. In some teas, fixation and drying can be done simultaneously.
This process is unique to yellow teas. After fixing, the warm and damp leaves are slightly heated in a closed container, which breaks down the chlorophyll, turning the green leaves yellow, and giving a distinct yellow/green colour to the liquid, and a mellow flavour to the tea.
Rolling and shaping
Damp tea leaves are rolled into shape either by hand or by machine. The shaping process causes some of the sap, essential oils, and juices inside of the leaves to ooze out, which further enhances the taste of the tea. Teas can be shaped into any shape: spirals, pellets, balls, cones, spheres, or most commonly strips.
Drying of the tea leaves makes them ready for sale. Although there are many different ways to accomplish this, the most common is baking. Great care must be taken not to overcook the leaves, as this could alter the flavour. The drying process can especially make a difference to green teas.
Ageing or Curing
Some teas are additionally matured, either by a secondary fermentation or baking. Typical examples of this are Pu-erh teas, or blue teas that are fired over charcoal.
Some teas of poorer quality are smoked to add flavour. They are roasted in a bamboo basket called a honglong, which is heated over a burning firewood, contributing to the flavours of dried longan and smoky aromas. The firewood used to make Lapsang Souchong is Pine wood, and contains the characteristic resin aroma and taste.
Next Week – we discuss Grading & Countries of Growth and more…