Tea truly is a miracle plant, but if you are new to Cha, it is easy to get overwhelmed with different varieties, origins and flavors. The plant contains a natural caffeine but it is the only one which also contains components that soothes our system as well as stimulates it. There are two main varieties of the tea plant, Camelia sinensis, which provides the sweeter flavor of Chinese teas, and the Indian Camelia assamica. "Its liquor is like the sweetest dew of Heaven" is a Buddhist quote. Only water is more consumed than tea around the world.
Tea covers about six million acres of earth, much less than wine grapes, however tea is harvested every week to ten days through the growing season. Teas picked earlier in the season holds higher esteem for better quality. Early picked teas are referred to as first growth or first flush teas. The best teas in China, for example, are picked before the first rains which is typically before Qing Ming festival on April 5th.
High altitudes with slower and shorter growing seasons, produce more intense flavors. The finest teas grown on mountainsides are difficult to harvest.
Just like in fermentation of grapes, it is all about the process that tea leaves go through from the moment they are picked. As a matter of fact, many parallels can be drawn between wine and tea but on that, some other time.
White Tea (Bai -Cha)
White tea is the least processed of all teas. The flowery pekoe leaf is picked just the day before it opens. The tips are then only steamed and dried and never rolled or flattened. White tea has the least amount of caffeine and polyphenols and it has a more pale appearance and mild and is usually a very smooth.
Green Tea (Lu -Cha)
Green tea is unfermented and is the most widely produced tea in China. It most resembles the tea leaf in its original state after it was plucked. Again, early season pickings are most prized. Traditionally, young shoots are hand-picked, withered, and then fired in hot woks while they roll leaves by hand. There is an art and precision in the process, and the timing has to be precise for the highest quality teas. Tea then goes through a cooling and size grading process.
This is a semi-fermented tea where the tea leaf goes through an oxidation process after they are picked. They are allowed to "sit" and wither until enough water evaporates. Leaves are then rolled without firing in a wok which allows for oxidation to take place. Oxidation for Oolong tea is halted at about the halfway point before it is fired in a wok to stop the oxidation. Hence, it is semi fermented tea. Just like a fine wine maker, a fine tea maker knows the precise moment when to stop and when to start the oxidation process. They know how hot the woks are for firing and how many times the tea leaves need to go through the fermentation and firing process to achieve the desired final product.
Black tea undergoes the same process of fermentation as Oolong where leaves are allowed full oxidation by a withering and rolling/ bruising process before they are fired. Finer black teas are spread out in shade after plucking and are then rolled without splitting the surface of the leaf. Leaves emit a fruity odor. When a withered leaf is rolled, it releases chemicals within the leaf which are essential to the final flavor and color of the tea. Some factories still use the hand-rolling process, but most now use machines. The rolled lumps of tea are then spread out in cool, humid atmosphere for about 3-4 hours to absorb oxygen and they turn from green to a coppery red color. After the full oxidation process, the leaf is fired either in woks but mostly now in hot ovens or hot air tunnels.
Scented teas should not be confused with herbal teas or tisanes and infusions, which do not contain any of Camellia plant. Green, Oolong and black teas are all used to make scented teas. Variety of flavorings are added to teas before teas are packed.