Overview of Tea
Tea is a popular drink made from the leaves or buds of the tea bush Camellia sinensis. The usual preparation methods for tea imply steeping it in hot or boiling water for a short amount of time, usually a few minutes. The actual word, “tea”, comes from the Chinese language – it is pronounced “te” in the Min Nan dialect. Tea contains caffeine and is prepared for consumption through different processes, usually involving drying, heating and oxidation. Other spices and fruit skins may be added to the tea to enhance its flavor.
The term of herbal tea refers to infusions of fruit or herbs, without containing the actual tea leaves or buds.
The basic composition of tea includes caffeine, polyphenols and essential oils. An average serving of tea contains only ½ to ⅓ of caffeine of the same serving size of coffee. Tea can be consumed hot or iced, and is, thus, a great beverage product both for cold and hot months. In order to improve storage, tea is often compressed, as it retains its flavor better, in time, than loose-leaf tea. On the other hand, loosely packed tea leaves area easier to use and they have excellent flavor when consumed in a relatively short time after they were packaged. The advantage of loose tea is that it allows each person to obtain the tea intensity they like – it can be weaker or stronger tea, depending on how much of it is used.
Tea bags are however the most popular way of enjoying this beverage in the western world. The leaves are packed into paper bags that are steeped into hot water. Although for the majority of the population, the difference between tea coming from a tea bag and loose leafs is insignificant, some tea fanatics prefer to avoid tea bags, as the paper can sometimes alter the taste of the tea.
During the Western Han dynasty, tea became a common beverage. Up until then it was mostly used as an herbal medicine. Monasteries started arranging tea plantations in their vicinity and the popularity of tea grew even further. During the Ming dynasty, the tea trade took became an important part in the economy of the state and the "Tea and Horse Bureau" was set up to supervise tea trade. A Buddhist Monk introduced tea to Japan in the 6th Century and later in the 16th Century a Portuguese missionary introduced it to Europe. Gradually, tea was introduced in European countries and colonies and became popular everywhere it arrived. Tea was traded from tobacco by the Chinese and international tea trade started developing. English traders with the East India Company knew about tea in 1615 and English imports rose from 100 pounds a year to over 5 million pounds per year. Trade was blooming and tea had already become a major branch of Chinese economy.
There are over 15,000 known varieties of tea and you have to be a real connoisseur in order to be able to tell subtle differences between specific tea flavors apart. There are six main categories of tea – four of the oldest categorized by color (black, white, red and green teas) as well as herbal tea and oolong tea. The subtle variations among the same tea category increased their numbers through time, but most of the famous tea types are a few thousand years old. Modern tea making also resorts to biological engineering of tea plants, in order to obtain better flavors, while traditional tea making resorted to selecting only the best tea bushes and improving them in time, through natural methods.
Types of Tea
- Black tea
- Oolong tea
- Green tea
- White tea
- Herbal tea
- Tea blends
- Fruit tisanes
- Medicinal tea
- Pu'erh tea
Out of these types of tea, we will find thousands of variations!
Traditional tea production involves these following procedures: withering, rolling, oxidizing and drying the leaves. The leaves are placed on bamboo racks to be wilted and once they are soft enough, they area rolled in a manner that doesn’t damage or tear the leaf. The withered leaf is rolled so as to make it release the flavors and essential oils that will give the tea its final flavor and coloration. Of course, modern tea production is much faster and efficient, but tea purists believe the way we consume tea today has an effect on the flavor it has. Paper tea bags, for example, are often believed to reduce the flavor of the tea and even impregnate the beverage with a particular paper-like taste. Each main tea category has a slightly different production method – read more below:
By Geographic Area:
- African tea
- Chinese tea
- European tea
- Indian tea
- Japanese tea
- Nepali tea
- North American tea
- South American tea
- Taiwanese tea
- Vietnamese tea
There are five distinct traditional methods for choosing tea – they are called Xin, Gau, Jun, Xiang, and Jing in the Chinese tradition. The Xin method is to choose fresh tea, never using bitter or dull-fragranced teas. Gan means that the tea leaves need to have low moisture content. Jun involves a special process in choosing tea leaves – you have to get the right color and the best tea leaf thickness. Make sure there are no burn marks, moles or crumbs on the tea leaves, regardless what tea category you are looking at. Xiang means the fragrance of the tea should have a soft scent without any burnt or sour smells and Jing means that tea shouldn't contain any foreign substances.
Floral and herbal tea selection also follows some interesting steps. The scent of the floral tea should be intense and fresh. Some floral teas, however, are used only after a year or more after being picked, as their flavor increases. Teas such as Xi-lu-long-jing, Gi-qiang, and Mo-gan-huaug-ya are kept in special containers, for over a year, to improve their flavor.
The water used for tea making is also important. It should be close to neutral levels (about 7ph) and the temperature should be below 25 degrees F. The tea water should meet water safety standards, and it should be clear and without odor.
Preparation Methods for Tea
Although tea preparation methods are different from one continent to another, the most common way to make tea is to place tea leaves in a tea pot with boiling or hot water. Tea bags are the modern way of brewing tea – they are fast and efficient, and the flavor is excellent with well packed teas. Few western people respect the traditional Chinese way of making tea – through a series of infusions, often going up to five different infusions. The temperature at which tea is brewed is also different from one tea type to another. White and green tea require lower temperatures, while oolong and black tea, for example, need to be brewed at temperatures that range around 100 degrees C.
Special Equipment for Tea
There is variety in tea making equipment, as there is variety in the multitude of tea flavors. Clay or ceramic tea sets are among the most appreciated tea accessories. Tea pots may also be manufactured from a wide range of materials, from metal to ceramics. Tea cups and tea trays will help your tea serving moment look more stylish. Electric tea kettles are often used for faster tea production. Other accessories, such as tea carry pouches or tea canisters are also common with people that love their tea.
Tea Rituals and Ceremonies
Tea rituals differ from country to country, and Europeans drink their tea differently than the Chinese or the Americans. In China, tea preparation involves a series of detailed steps. While they had particular preparation methods, serving the tea was also important. For example, tea was often flavored with milk and onions! In Japan, the tea ceremony is a lively custom performed by geishas who learn the exact course of a tea ceremony in special schools. Tea powder is used for this ceremony and the geishas combine it with hot water until the beverage foams. In India, tea is infused with a mixture made from one-third milk and two-thirds water, boiled with sugar. European tea ceremonies include the famous five o’clock tea that is so popular in the UK and other slight variations specific to individual countries.
People in Tea
As there are people who make a hobby out of getting to know the different subtle flavors of wine, there are also people who do the same for tea. For an average person, the difference between two flavors of black tea, for example, might be insignificant. However, a person who enjoys discovering all the varieties of tea will probably be able to point out a few characteristics that set the two flavors apart. Determining which one is your most favorite tea is also a challenge, since you have thousands of flavors to choose from. However, keep in mind that tastes differ, and a tea flavor that is absolutely perfect for you might be less than delicious to another person.
- The Tea Wiki is here .