Tea is one of the most sought after beverages in the world. It's consumed across the globe from Asia to California. There are thousands of different types of tea and hundreds of regions that produce the leaves, flowers, and spices that make their way into teacups. The tea growing process is carefully monitored and tailored to produce quality tea with specific flavor profiles.
Tea artisans control the tea process from the moment the tea seeds are sown to the instant the aroma hits your olfactory senses. Each step along the way ensures the best tea possible and is essential to producing different types of tea.
There are two main categories of tea: true teas and herbal tisanes. True teas are made using the leaves of the tea plant known as Camellia sinensis. Herbal teas are made from a variety of flowers, spices, and herbs, but don't contain any leaves of the tea plant. Flavored teas are infusions of herbal tisanes with true tea leaves. In order to understand how tea is grown and produced, it's easiest to focus on the true teas.
There are four types of true teas including white tea, green tea, oolong tea, and black tea. Some experts include rooibos tea and pu-erh tea as true teas. However, the production and growing methods of these two types are slightly different. Rooibos tea comes from a red tea bush native to South Africa. Pu-erh comes from the Camellia sinensis plant, but is post-oxidized. For simplicity, we'll focus on the main four types.
All four types of true teas are derived from the same exact leaves. The difference in these teas arises during the production process. Some teas such as black tea are oxidized while others like white tea are simply sun-dried. These minor differences result in big flavor and color differences. Tea, like wine, also varies depending on terroir—the notion that region, soil, climate, and growing conditions affect flavor.
Tea plants grow best in cooler climates with rainfall amounts of at least 40 inches per year. These plants prefer acidic soils and can be cultivated at different altitudes. The plants are currently grown at sea level and up to altitudes of 7,000 feet. Plants at higher elevations grow more slowly and develop more complex flavor profiles.
Dozens of countries including Taiwan, Indonesia, and the United States cultivate tea. The main producers of tea are China, India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya. China and India produced more than 60% of the world's tea in 2016. There are two principal varieties of the tea plant used in tea cultivation: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis and C. sinensis var assamica. The former is typical in Chinese and Japanese teas while the latter is more popular in Indian teas.
True teas are often classified by their growing region. India is famous for black tea varieties including Assam and Darjeeling. Production of these teas was ramped up in India during the period of British colonial rule. It was during this period that tea estates popped up along the countryside. India was catapulted into the tea trade and became the main competitor to China in tea production. Sri Lanka is famous for Ceylon tea, which reflects the countries previous title.
Both the Chinese and Japanese are famous for green tea cultivation. In Japan, the Shizuoka prefecture is the most active in tea production. The most famous Chinese tea production regions include the Fujian, Anhui, and Hainan provinces. The difference in terroir and production processes results in distinctive green tea blends. Chinese green teas are roasted and tend to have a smokier flavor while Japanese green teas are steamed and thus more vegetal in flavor.
Tea plants must reach an age of three years before leaves can be harvested for tea use. Tea is harvested mainly by hand because it preserves the quality of the leaves. Machines were used for many years, but tea growers found they were too rough and damaged the delicate tea leaves. Harvests typically occur twice per year. The first harvest is known as the 'first flush' and occurs each spring. The second harvest takes place in the summer and is referred to as the 'second flush'.
The plants are constantly pruned throughout the year by picking just the top two leaves and buds. This keeps the plants in early growth stages, promotes new shoots, and maximizes harvest outcomes.
Tea harvesters work by had to remove the tea leaves and place them in large wicker baskets. Once the baskets are full, they are transported to a tea processing plant on the tea plantation. Tea processing centers are located on site because the leaves begin to undergo oxidation as soon as they are harvested. Different levels of oxidation are the key to different types of true teas.
Oxidation is essential in the production of true teas. Oxygen reacts on a cellular level with organic matter and results in changes in appearance and taste. It's the same process that causes bananas to turn brown or metal to develop rust. In tea production, tea experts closely control the oxidation process to create their desired type of tea.
White tea is the least processed of the true teas. The leaves are harvested and simply sun dried. This preserves the chemical compounds in the leaves and results in a light colored tea. The minimal production process results in a delicate flavor profile.
Tea leaves are withered for 72 hours on large bamboo mats. Depending on the type of white tea, leaves are dried in direct sun or under sun shades.
Tea leaves are dried at temperatures of 110 F to stop the oxidation process from taking place. Some white teas are dried using a steaming process while others are subjected to blasts of hot air.
Green tea is a partially processed tea that is light yellow or green in color. It comes in many popular varieties including sencha green tea and matcha green tea. The flavors of green tea can vary from nutty to grassy depending on the production process. All green teas undergo the following three steps, but steps 2 and 3 can be repeated to elicit certain flavor profiles.
As mentioned, green tea flavors can be altered by using either steam or pan-firing methods. Japanese green teas are subjected to steaming where hot air is applied in a humid environment to prevent oxidation. In Chinese teas, the leaves are roasted in pans over open fires or in large ovens to prevent oxidation.
Green tea leaves are rolled into shapes including long twigs, small pellets, and cakes or balls. Many green teas such as Formosa Gunpowder are identifiable by their distinctive shape. The tea leaves are not allowed to oxidize after rolling. This preserves the green color of the leaves and earthy flavors.
The leaves are immediately dried and sorted by grade and shape for sale.
Both oolong tea and black tea undergo the same basic production process. The difference arises in the amount of time during which the leaves are allow to oxidize. Oolong tea is only semi-oxidized. That means it is oxidized, but only for a short period of time.
The tea leaves are withered just like white and green tea leaves.
The wilted leaves are rolled to release more enzymes that encourage oxidation. During this stage, the oolong tea leaves are rolled into distinctive shapes depending on the type of oolong tea.
Experts at the tea factories oxidize leaves to predetermined levels. Oolong teas have oxidation levels that range from 8% to 80%. This results in a wide range of colors and flavors. Once the tea leaves reach these oxidation levels, they are subjected to drying.
Roasting or pan-firing the leaves ends the oxidation process. The leaves are then sorted for sale.
Black tea is extremely popular and includes varieties such as Earl Grey and breakfast teas. Black tea is the most oxidized of the true tea varieties. It has a dark brown or maroon black color and offers a bold taste similar to coffee. Black tea is produced through two methods: the orthodox method or the CTC method. The orthodox method is entirely done by hand while the CTC method uses machines. CTC stands for cut-tear-curl, which describes the mechanical process used to process the leaves. Both methods use the same steps when producing black tea.
Freshly harvested leaves are withered in direct sunlight. The leaves are typically spread out on large bamboo mats and left in the sun until the leaves become limp.
Once the leaves are pliable, they are rolled to release moisture and enzymes that will react with oxygen in the next step. Leaves produced with the orthodox method maintain their complete shape while the CTC method produces tea dust and fannings. The orthodox method involves rolling the leaves on sharp bamboo mats or hard surfaces. The CTC method rolls the leaves in giant metal drums with sharp teeth. The CTC method is often preferred for tea destined for use in tea bags.
This is the key step in the process that differentiates a black tea from white, green or oolong. The tea leaves are spread across bamboo mats in a cool, humid environment. They are left to oxidize until the leaves turn deep brown in color.
The oxidized leaves are dried using a variety of methods. Some leaves are steamed while others
The tea experience doesn't start when you begin drinking tea. It begins with centuries-old traditions and methods that fine-tune the flavor profiles and appearance of each leaf. The experience is about appreciating how the tea leaves are grown, harvested, and produced in pain-staking processes. Tea isn't just unique based on the plant used to make it. Minor adjustments to the production process can take the same leaves and create exquisite and contrasting flavor profiles. The next time you brew tea, take a second to relish how much time and effort went into your steaming mug.
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