The tea plant belongs to the camellia family (Camellia sinensis
), which is indigenous to China and India. It grows at varying altitudes up to 7,000 feet. At higher altitudes the growth of the plants is slower but the quality is generally better. Only the bud and two top leaves from each stalk are picked for processing.
Like wine, each crop reflects the character of the region in which it is grown. China is credited with originating tea cultivation, and tea plants now grow in about 30 countries. The best quality teas, however, still come from Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and India.
Many legends and stories exist about the origins of tea. Whether it was a Buddhist monk, an Emperor or a cultivator of the times, tea was, and still is, used to nurture the body and uplift the soul. The subtle flavours and health benefits of this marvellous plant make it the world's most popular beverage after water.
TYPES OF TEA
It may surprise some, but all teas come from the same plant. The different varieties (black, white, green and oolong) stem from how they are made. The main difference between varieties is how much oxygen the leaves are allowed to absorb during processing. More oxygen produces dark-coloured black teas. Less oxygen results in green tea. Unprocessed leaves are classified as white tea.
Black tea is made from leaves that have been fully oxidized, producing a hearty, deep rich flavour. The oxidation process - oxygen coming into contact with the enzymes in the tea leaf - distinguishes black teas from green. This process is also known as fermentation. Examples of black tea include Darjeeling, English Breakfast, Ceylon and many others.
Most popular in Asia, green tea is not oxidized (fermented). It is withered, immediately steamed or heated to prevent oxidation and then rolled and dried. It is characterized by a delicate taste and light green colour. Green tea has enjoyed resurgence in popularity, thanks to recent scientific findings touting its health benefits. Examples of green tea include Dragon Well (also called Lung Ching), Genmaicha, Gunpowder and many others.
Oolong tea is a "semi-fermented" tea that is principally manufactured in China and Taiwan. Oolong tea falls somewhere between Green and Black teas, and can resemble either depending on the way it's processed. Some oolongs include Ti Kuan Yin, Pouchong, Wuyi and others.
White teas are rare. It is the least processed, with no steaming or pan-firing. White tea employs only the best leaf from each tea plant at each harvest. The gentle, subtle taste of white tea is just becoming known in North America and is mainly found on the shelves of specialty tea stores. Examples of white teas include Pai Mu Tan (or White Peony), Silver Needle and White Darjeeling.
Flavoured teas are generally made by combining the essential oils of the desired flavour with black, green or white tea. Virtually any flavour imaginable can now be blended with tea. Examples include Cherry Blossom White tea, Earl Grey black tea, Citron Green tea and many others.
HERBALS - THE OTHER TEA
Herbal teas usually consist of dried flowers, fruits or herbs. No tea leaves are included. Historically imbibed for medicinal reasons or as a caffeine-free alternative, many herbal teas have found their own popularity outside the tea world. The first and arguably most famous herbal is Chamomile, which finds its roots in ancient Egypt. Used to embalm the dead and cure the sick, Chamomile has endured a lasting fame. This light, sweet, apple-like concoction is still revered for its uncanny (caffeine-free) calming effect. Other common herbals include peppermint, spearmint and lavender.
A popular addition to the herbal scene is Rooibos (pronounced: roy-boss). Also known as "Red Bush Tea," Rooibos is only found in South Africa. It was introduced to the beverage world as a substitute for black tea during the Second World War, when virtually all supplies of Japanese and Chinese teas became unavailable. However, recent health benefits attributed to caffeine-free Rooibos have propelled it to the forefront and are challenging tea in the popularity department. Honeybush, also native to South Africa, is also becoming popular for the same reason.
One other popular drink is Yerba Mate. This South American herbal tea has been lauded as a cultural phenomenon that both energizes and remedies the body. Originally stranded in the obscurity of a niche cultural market, it has now been introduced as a substitute for coffee, as it doesn't contain the toxins, but is still highly stimulating.
TEA QUALITY & GRADING
Most people are familiar with the term "Orange Pekoe" and assume this refers to a kind of tea. But, in fact, this term is used by the tea industry to denote a particular size of black tea leaf. One purpose of grading and sorting is to ensure the uniformity of the leaf size. Drinking whole leaf tea allows one to experience a wide range of complex flavour profiles. This does not imply that smaller, broken leaf tea is of poorer quality, just that a tea's taste and body will vary depending upon leaf size. For example, breakfast tea like English Breakfast is commonly made with smaller broken leaves to ensure that a pungent and robust cup of morning tea results.
For centuries, tea was enjoyed in loose form, but around 1904, tea bags were introduced. Because of the convenience, this resulted in tea bags making up better than 90 per cent of the market. These bags, however, usually contain the lowest grades of tea available, known as "fannings" or "dust." These are the lowest rankings that tea can achieve, and with this as the new standard, it's not surprising that tea faded in popularity. Confirmed tea baggers need not despair, however, the quality has since greatly improved.
TEA AND HEALTH
In recent years, a flood of reports has surfaced, flaunting nearly miraculous effects from drinking green tea. The many diverse benefits of green tea that have, so far, been confirmed by science include cancer prevention, decreased incidents of heart attack, better breath, lower cholesterol, weight loss and general immune strength.
As all teas come from the same plant, the benefits are practically equal. So while white tea may provide a few more antioxidants than black tea, this amount is negligible in relation to the benefits. Both would help build immune strength. In ancient China, tea was considered an elixir and initially consumed for its perceived medicinal properties. Today, more scientific evidence contributes to the belief that tea is a healthy beverage.
The key to receiving health benefits is for people to drink what they like. To obtain full benefits, doctors recommend drinking three to four cups of tea daily. That's a lot of tea, so people need to find one that fits their palate. Although tea found in teabags contains similar benefits, the flavour is compromised. While the full extent of tea's benefits has not been realized, all the information currently available points to one conclusion: "all tea is good for you."