If you enjoy tea, and you’d like to learn more about the different types, and different countries of origin that might suit your palate, then learning a little more about tea production should set you on your way.
In England, nearly all the tea we drink is in blended tea in teabag form, and this is showing little tendency to change despite a range of speciality teas becoming available. Drinking blended tea in bags is rather like being a wine drinker who never explored beyond the cheapest bottle of table wine from the supermarket.
There are four stages in the tea production process, and it’s worth having a brief look at each to help you decide where to start if you’d like to explore tea drinking beyond step one. The four stages are growing, processing, flavouring and brewing up.
There are two varieties of tea plant, China Tea (Camellia sinensis) and Assam, although the majority of production is the former. Although some strains can tolerate temperate climates, both varieties grow best in tropical and sub-tropical locations, and also need high rainfall. High altitude teas grow more slowly, and like high altitude coffees are considered by many people to be of a higher quality. While most teas are of the same variety, there are hundreds of different producers and each produce tea with different characteristics depending on the soil type, altitude, and hours of sun, temperature and humidity of the growing environment.
There are four main types of tea resulting from different processing techniques, these being white, yellow, green and black. Black tea is by far the most commonly consumed in Europe. Once picked, teas are left to oxidise, and the longer this process continues the darker the tea will be. When the desired state is reached the tea is dried out in the sun, or using various air drying machines.
Many flavoured teas are now widely available. They don’t represent a different type of tea, but rather the flavour is added by additional processing. Tea is very receptive to the addition of flavours and aromas which allows for a vast range of variants, from traditional products like Earl Gray, to more recent additions like fruit and herb flavours.
There can be a great deal of ceremony around the preparation and drinking of tea in some cultures, although in many modern societies much of this has been lost due to the widespread use of the tea bag.
The traditional method of making a cup of tea is to put loose tea leaves into a pot and pour on boiled water. After a few minutes infusion time the tea is served, sometimes using a strainer to keep tea leaves out of the cup.
Darker teas will normally infuse in about a minute, while the lighter teas will require longer, perhaps as long as five or even ten minutes. The strength of tea can also be varied by changing the amount of tea leaves used. Lighter teas will also infuse at lower temperatures, with white teas needing only about 70 to 75 degrees centigrade. Black tea, as most people know, is best infused at 100 degrees using freshly boiled water.
So now you know a little more about tea, why not take a small step by making a different choice next time you find yourself in the tea section of your local supermarket.