Last time we went through an all too brief study on tea; its introduction, history, influence on human events and its effect on language. Interesting stuff to be sure. Today our focus turns to tea processing, and the various tea types, along with a little tea "primer." Due to the overwhelming volume of information surrounding the subject, rather than having an overlong article, I have decided to conclude with the health benefits of tea next week. Thank you for your forbearance.
Time would fail us to describe all of the various and sundry varieties of teas that are available in the world. The same can be said for the nuances in the processing of each type that evokes its own special or signature flavor. While each tea has its own property that sets it apart, whether it be taste, color, smell, or appearance, the processing steps used are generally universal, with the addition or omission of a step or two depending on tea type. These steps are:
Plucking - Proper harvesting of the first two tea leaves and the terminal bud. Done by hand by experienced pickers for highest quality tea, as improper picking reduces the quality of the tea produced.
Whithering/Wilting - Controlled evaporation of moisture which allows the leaf proteins to break down into freed amino acids and increases the availability of freed caffeine.
Disruption - Bruising or tearing of the leaves to mingle tea enzymes and hasten the onset of oxidation.
Oxidation/Fermentation - The most defining step of tea processing. Leaves are placed in a climate controlled environment and agitated while their chlorophyll content breaks them down, turning them gradually darker over time. The amount of time spent in this state, coupled with the environmental conditions is what gives tea its strength, color, taste and briskness.
Fixation/Killgreen - Heating the leaves at the proper time to halt the oxidation process, holding their flavor/appearance at a “fixed” point. Sweltering/Yellowing - Unique to Yellow Teas, the leaves are placed in containers and lightly heated to change their green color to yellow, mellowing their taste.
Rolling/Shaping - A step taken with teas like Oolong where the damp leaves are rolled, flattened and cut into strips which causes the tea’s sap, essential oils and juices to seep, and impart additional flavor. These strips are sometimes woven into elaborate and aesthetically pleasing forms and shapes.
Drying - Generally the final process that “finishes” the tea for sale.
Aging/Curing - a special step taken for certain teas to impart additional taste or to further mellow their flavor. This includes repeat oxidation, additional baking/heating, and/or the inclusion of additional flavorings from other sources. For our purposes in this article, we will simplify matters by breaking tea down into its six major categories. These are broadly defined according to the amount of fermentation or oxidation that the tea leaves are subjected to.
Types of Tea
White Tea - Shou Mei, Bai Mudan (White Peony) etc. Named for the silvery white hairs on the unopened bud of the tea plant. (The tea beverage is actually a pale yellow) The leaves are slightly withered then baked dry. Buds shielded from sun to prevent chlorophyll formation. The minimal processing imparts a more delicate flavor.
Yellow Tea - Huang Tang, Huoshan Huangya, etc. Similarly processed like green but not immediately dried after fixation. Mellow flavor.
Oolong (Black Dragon) Tea - Da Hong Pao (red robe), Shui Jin Gui (Gold Turtle), etc. Semi-oxidized semi brisk with fruity or woodsy qualities.
Black Tea - Assam, Nepal, Darjeeling, Nilgiri, Turkish and Ceylon. Fully oxidized. Brisk bold flavor.
Post Fermented Teas - Secondary processed teas like Pu-erh (the most common), Liu’an and Liu’bao, or teas with additive like bergamot (Earl Grey), vanilla or caramel.
Now for what I am sure you've all been waiting for… How to properly prepare your cup of tea.
Keep in mind that while there are certain variation depending on specific tea types, the information given below is generally accurate. This is assuming the use of an 8 oz mug/cup.
The best temperature for brewing tea depends on what type it is. Teas that have a lower amount of oxidation such as white, green, and yellow teas are best brewed at lower temperatures between 149 - 176 degrees Fahrenheit, while oolong, black and post fermented teas should be brewed with boiling water (212 degrees) with post fermented teas requiring a longer steeping time. All tea contains tannin which is bitter. While tannin add character to and is expected in Oolong, Black and Post Fermented tea, they are unpleasant in the more delicately flavored lighter teas. Do not overheat or over steep white, green and yellow teas!
In Chinese culture tea preparations have what are called infusions or the number of times the leaves can be reused. Typically the first infusion is used to clean out the leaves, and is thrown away without drinking. Then the second and subsequent infusions are consumed. The third and later infusions are typically thought of as the best tasting and most pleasant cups of tea.
NOTE: For “stronger” tea, never increase the steeping time. This only releases more tannin into the tea, making it bitter. Instead add more tea to your cup, or start with a darker tea.
I have included a handy-dandy table to help you in your quest for the perfect cup of tea.
|Type||Water temp.||Steep time||Infusions|
|White tea||65 to 70 °C (149 to 158 °F)||1–2 minutes||3|
|Yellow tea||70 to 75 °C (158 to 167 °F)||1–2 minutes||3|
|Green tea||75 to 80 °C (167 to 176 °F)||1–2 minutes||4–6|
|Oolong tea||80 to 85 °C (176 to 185 °F)||2–3 minutes||4–6|
|Black tea||99 °C (210 °F)||2–3 minutes||2–3|
|Pu'er tea||95 to 100 °C (203 to 212 °F)||Limitless||Several|
|99 °C (210 °F)||3–6 minutes||Varied|
While some folks use a vast array of special tools and accouterments to prepare and enjoy the wonders of tea, this is hardly required, and you do not need to be a connoisseur to appreciate good flavor. Tea is a drink of the people, so whether you use a tea bag, ball or hand strain it, it is easy to enjoy and make a great cup of tea.
Next week: the health benefits of tea (I promise!)