Tea is the most popular beverage in the world, aside from plain water. In Canada, tea consumption in all categories is rising- especially in the area of green teas and specialty teas. There are literally thousands of different teas available, and the more you learn about them, the more you realize how much more there is to know! The following is a summary of useful tea info that we have prepared to help you learn about the complexities of this amazing beverage.
Where does tea come from?
All tea comes from the Camellia Sinensis bush, known as the Tea Plant. The leaves and buds of the tea plants are plucked several times per year, usually by hand. The different pickings are referred to as "flushes", so you will notice that some teas are sold as "second flush" etc. to indicate when they were picked. The different flushes will have different flavour characteristics. Once picked, the tea can be processed into black tea, oolong tea, green tea or white tea.
Black tea was developed in China in the Ming dynasty as a way to keep tea fresh when it was being exported long distances. As tea had a long distance to travel before reaching Canada, it's not surprising that we mostly consume black tea. (In fact, 76% of the Canadian tea market is still black tea today.) However, most of the world consumes green tea. Many Canadians are beginning to branch out and enjoy teas from all categories, and green tea drinking is especially on the rise! The main difference between the categories of tea is based on oxidization. Basically, oxidization is the process where the tealeaf interacts with oxygen and turns dark. (You can think of this process as similar to what happens when you take a bite out of an apple, and the inside turns dark.) Green tea is unoxidized, black tea is oxidized, and oolong tea is semi-oxidized. Some older tea literature may refer to the oxidization process as "fermentation", but this is an incorrect term for the process that is actually occurring. Here is an oversimplification of the tea-making process: To make black tea, the leaf is crushed up a bit to allow the juices to interact with the oxygen, and the leaf is left to sit for several hours. Then, the tealeaf is heated up, to halt the oxidization process. To make green tea, the leaf is heated soon after picking, to prevent oxidization from occurring. Oolong tea is semi-oxidized, so the leaf is allowed to sit for maybe 2-4 hours, before being heated up to halt oxidization. The amount of oxidization will affect the flavour and appearance of the tea. Longer oxidization will make an oolong darker, and more similar in taste to a black tea, and shorter oxidization will make an oolong more similar in nature to a green tea. White tea is the least processed of all teas. Only the unopened buds are used, and they are merely withered and dried.
There are a couple of major differences between Chinese green tea and Japanese green tea. First of all China makes a far wider range of tea, Japan doesn’t technically produce any black tea for example. They do some roasted/toasted teas but no oolongs and no black teas. Production is very limited in Japan, as it is such a small country and they concentrate on great green teas, including matcha. If you like fresh green vegetal tasting teas, try Japanese, if you don’t, stick to Chinese green teas OR try Genmaicha or Hojicha Japanese teas.
Although herbal tea is prepared in a similar way to regular tea, it is not really "tea" at all. To truly be tea, the leaves must come from the Camellia Sinensis bush. Herbal teas usually contain herbs, fruits, spices, flowers or leaves from other plants, but no leaves from the true tea plant. As a result, herbal teas are more properly called infusions, or tisanes. Because herbal teas do not contain any tealeaves, they are nearly always caffeine free. Also, herbal teas do not necessarily have the same health benefits as regular tea. Rooibos, the African red bush, is also in this category as it is not from the Camellia Sinensis bush. These infuse to a reddish cup and are tend to be a little sweeter. They also often come flavoured and have no caffeine.
All tea naturally contains caffeine, whether it's green, black, oolong or white tea. Since all tea comes from the same plant, it's not surprising that all tea shares similar characteristics. The exact caffeine content of tea is unfortunately, a matter still up for debate. On average, green teas have slightly less caffeine than black. However, any specific green tea could have more or less caffeine than any specific black tea. Some sources site dramatic caffeine differences between the different categories of teas, greatly confusing the matter. A great resource for scientific research of this nature is The Canadian Tea Council. Check out their website at http://www.tea.ca/ . Luckily, all the research seems to agree that tea contains only about 1/3 of the caffeine found in coffee. Antioxidants are properties found in some foods that can reduce your risk of getting cancer and heart disease. All tea is high in antioxidants, but there is still debate over whether certain teas contain more antioxidants than others. Some studies say that white tea contains the most, followed by green tea, and then black tea. Other studies say that the antioxidant benefits are similar between categories. Again, you can read about all the most recent antioxidant research at http://www.tea.ca/ .
Sometimes tea is sold by the estate, or the tea garden it originates from. The advantage of purchasing by estate is twofold. First, you know that if a tea is being sold pure and unblended, it is considered a high quality tea, and good enough to "stand on its own". Second, different gardens will produce teas with different characteristics and reputations. Knowing the garden may make it easier for you to pick out a tea that you will enjoy. Keep in mind that some countries, such as China and Japan rarely sell by estate, but usually sell by type of tea- sencha, gunpowder etc.
You have probably noticed that some teas, usually the pure estate teas, have a jumble of letters following the name of the garden. This jumble is the leaf grading that has been assigned to that particular tea. After a black tea has been processed, it may be separated into leaf sizes. The smallest bits of tea, called dust and fannings, are usually used in teabags. The larger sized leaves will often be sold on their own. Orange Pekoe, or OP, is the leaf grading for a full-sized tealeaf. Better leaf gradings generally require more letters. For example, TGFOP stands for "Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe", indicating a full-sized leaf with golden end-tips. So, Orange Pekoe is not a flavour of tea, although the term has been so misused that to most of us it means little more than "unflavoured black tea blend of medium strength." If you are looking for this style of tea, try English Breakfast, Ceylon, Nilgiri or any blend of Indian and Sri Lankan teas. Most Asian teas are not sold by leaf grade, nor are green, oolong and white teas.
Organic means that the tea was grown without the use of any artificial pesticides and herbicides, and that the estate has gone through a certification process to ensure you of this fact. Sometimes organic teas cost more than non-organic teas. The difference is in the flavour, but also due to the fact that organic crops are often smaller than non-organic crops, and because organic gardens have undergone more expenses to meet the certification requirements.
Decaffeinated tea is different from herbal tea. Herbal tea is usually naturally caffeine free. Decaffeinated tea is regular tea (usually green or black) that has undergone processing to have most of the caffeine removed from it. Unfortunately, decaffeination often removes some of the tea's natural flavour along with the caffeine. Most teas are decaffeinated through a chemical-free process called the CO&s process. Many consider the ethyl acetate process to be natural as well, since tea naturally contains ethyl acetate. Keep in mind that there is no "Swiss Water" method of decaffeinating tea- that is a method used for coffee only.
Generally there are a few things to remember when brewing loose leaf tea:
1. First start with cold, great tasting, water. If your tap water does not taste good, then use filtered or bottled water. (I say to use cold water because a typical hot water heater will often add contaminants and reduce the amount of oxygen in the water, which is needed for flavour extraction).
2. Put approximately 2 grams or 1 tsp. of black tea leaves or 1 Tbsp. for white tea leaves per 6-8 oz. of water into a pre-heated pot or cup (pre-heating will allow the tea to steep at the proper temperature).
3. Ensure you are using a strainer that is big enough for the tea leaves to unfurl, especially large leaf, twisted or oolong teas!
4. See the recommended steep times and temperatures by tea type:
The amount of time that the tea steeps will determine its strength. I enjoy different teas at varying strengths. I would suggest that when you buy a new tea, as it is steeping, check the taste every minute with a spoon. This way you can blow on it so you won't burn your tongue!Let the first cup steep until it's either too strong or you notice bitter elements that are unpleasant. Then take note of when the tea tastes best to you and write it on the package. Besides, who can tell you how you like your tea better than you!