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The origins of tea have been debated for centuries; however, the most commonly accepted belief is that tea bushes (Camellia Sinensis), were discovered in China nearly 5,000 years ago. According to Chinese legend, in the year 2737 b.c., emperor Shen Nung was traveling with his court to view his distant lands. As the caravan stopped for rest, the servants boiled water for the court to consume. Dried tea leaves from a nearby bush had fallen into the boiling water. As a renowned scholar, the emperor was curious in this new infusion. To his delight, he discovered a pleasant tasting beverage in what is now known as tea.
Camellia Sinensis is indigenous to China and parts of India. Tea is now grown throughout the world including Japan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Kenya, Pakistan, Argentina and Australia. In the tea trade, Sri Lanka and Taiwan are still referred to by their former names of Ceylon and Formosa, respectively. Tea can reference either the plant itself or an infusion made by steeping the dried leaves or buds of this evergreen shrub in hot water. The word tea is also loosely used to describe infusions made from herbs, spices, and dried fruits. Examples include: rooibos, honeybush, or chamomile & mint. Herbal varieties do not contain actual tea leaves and are referred to as tisanes or herbal teas to avoid confusion with beverages made from the actual tea plant.
This page is dedicated to the tea plant Camellia Sinensis and the process to convert the tea plant to dried leaf suitable for consumption. The wild tea plant can develop into a tree as high as 30 meters. Under cultivation, Camellia Sinensis is kept to a height of approximately 3-5 feet for easier harvesting and increased yields. Tea from individual plantations develop their own characteristics, depending on soil type, amount of sunshine, rainfall, and even the weather conditions at the time of plucking. Tea character is also affected by which leaves are used, direction of the growing slope and the altitude the tea is grown.
Tea is classified into three basic types:
1) Green Tea
2) Black Tea
3) Oolong Tea
Black tea is fully oxidized and often yields a full-bodied amber brew. It undergoes five basic manufacturing stages: withering, rolling, fermenting, firing and sorting.
What are the different types of tea?
All tea comes from the evergreen tea bush (Camellia Sinensis). The following terms only describe tea leaves after they are harvested from the tea bush and processed for consumption.
Oxidization is a chemical reaction that takes place when tea leaves are picked and begin to wither and die. Green tea is not allowed to oxidize and is quickly dried, pan-fried or oven fired to dehydrate the tea leaves for storage. This process retains many of the polyphenols, catechins, and flavonoids that are associated with the health benefits of drinking green tea.
Black tea is allowed to oxidize which “ripens” the tea and creates a deep, rich, robust
flavor with uniqueness based on the tea grower’s knowledge and skill. The oxidation process is commonly referred to as fermentation. This is technically incorrect because "fermentation" is a process in which yeast is converted into alcohol and sugar is converted to and released as carbon dioxide gas.
Oolong tea falls somewhere between green tea and black tea in the amount of time the tea leaves are allowed to oxidize. Two terms often used to describe oolong tea are “green” and “amber” style. The “amber” styles are allowed to oxidize slightly more than the “green style” oolong tea. This results in a variety of smooth teas available that bear the makers style and tradition.
White tea can really be thought of as a subset of green tea. White tea is picked before the leaf buds fully open and are still covered with fine silky hairs. The delicate buds are quickly air dried to produce some of the rarest and most expensive tea available. White tea is said to have three time more antioxidants than green or black tea. Researchers for some of the large cosmetic companies have become very interested in white tea in recent years. The polyphenols in white tea have been shown to be very effective in mopping up free radicals that can lead to aging, and wrinkles, and sagging skin but at Imperial Tea Garden, we offer green teas and black teas with equally high levels of antioxidants.
Pu-erh tea comes from the Yunnan province in China. Pu-erh tea has a distinct earthy aroma. This type of tea differs from other formed black tea because it is allowed to grow a thin layer of mold on the leaves. Of course these are harmless cultures and are reputably known in China for their medicinal effects. This makes sense because the antibiotic penicillin was first discovered through mold cultures.
FORMED or COMPRESSED TEA
This could either refer to green tea or black tea that is pressed into tea bricks, medallions, balls or other impressions. In ancient times, this was necessary to keep compact for storage on long voyages by ship or camel. It also preserved the tea during these long journeys because the tea was so tightly packed that it sealed out air that would otherwise degrade the tea.
Flavored tea is typically a black tea that's soaked in natural or artificial flavors. Today there are too many flavors to list. The most notable is Earl Grey,which is flavored with the oil of bergamot. Flavored green teas and herbal tisanes are also now available and gaining popularity.
Herbal tea or herb tea is not really tea at all, since they do not contain leaves from the tea bush (Camellia Sinensis). Herbal teas are made from seeds, roots, flowers, or other parts of plants and herbs. They are often blended to make unique tasting infusions and more formally known as tisanes. Medicinal teas are herbal teas that are used for the treatment of ailments. These teas are gaining acceptance in western culture.
Cultivation, Processing and Classification
Young plants are raised from cuttings obtained from a mother bush and they are carefully rooted and cared for in special nurseries until they are 1 to 2 years of age. The mother bush is carefully selected for propagation based on individual properties and yield. The tea plants can then be transplanted out in the tea fields. This process is known as cloning. Tea can also be grown from seed, however, due to the degree of difficulty, cloning is the most widely used method of cultivating tea. Tea bushes are planted from three to four feet apart and planted in rows which follow the natural contour of the landscape. Tea is also grown on specially prepared terraces to help irrigation and to prevent soil erosion.
Pruning and Plucking
When the tea plants reach a height of about one to two feet above ground, it is cut back and pruned to within a few inches off the ground. Trimming back encourages new shoots to form and increases yield. Regular 2 to 3 year pruning cycles encourages a fresh supply of new shoots and further increases yield.
Harvesting fresh young shoots from the mature tea bushes is known as plucking. The location of the leaves relative to the tea bush greatly determines the quality of the finished product. The youngest emerging buds are often reserved for the finest quality teas and are graded as flowery pekoe or more commonly known as tips. The next set of leaves from the end of the growing stem are classified as orange pekoe and pekoe respectively. The older and largest leaves closes to the main stem are called souchong. Although this initial grading during the plucking phase can determine the final product value, it is the handling and manufacturing techniques that will weigh in the most when determining market price at auction.
Harvesting is carried out throughout the growing season and is referred to as the "flush" of a particular tea. The flush of a particular tea is determined at the time of plucking. "First flush" is known as the early spring plucking of new shoots. "Second flush" is harvested from late spring through early summer, yielding teas with more body and fuller flavor. While autumnal flush is the late season harvest. Harvesting is a skilled job traditionally carried out by women and done by hand. Expert care is taken while plucking the shoots. The leaves are carefully pinched and twisted when removed from the tea bush. Handfuls of shoots are then placed into the carrier baskets resting on their backs. After the tea is harvested in the fields, it is brought directly to the tea factory where it is further processed.
Withering and Rolling
The withering process begins by evenly spreading the shoots out on trays, or fine meshed screens. Withering takes place in open air room utilizing the effect of natural breezes to wilt the leaves or, in special facilities with controlled heating and ventilating equipment. Regardless of the facilities used, the withering process effectively reduces the moisture content to about 50% of its natural state. The leaves become limp and flaccid, and are now suitable for rolling.
The purpose of rolling is to rupture the cells. During this process, plant enzymes are released and begin a chemical reaction when exposed to oxygen. This process can be done mechanically or for high grade teas, rolling is still done by hand. A wide range of equipment can be used for this process, including the traditional orthodox method or the C.T.C method. After rolling the tea leaves are prepared to go through to the next stage of processing. This is the point at which tea classifications such as green tea, black tea, and oolong tea differ based upon the amount of time allowed for the plant enzymes to chemically react with the open air. This chemical reaction is known as oxidization.
Oxidization, commonly referred to as "fermentation", is the most important stage in the manufacturing of oolong and black teas. This process makes it uniquely different from green tea which is not allowed to oxidize. Green tea skips this process and proceeds directly to the firing ovens to reduce the moisture content. Oxidization is carried out in
custom designed facilities. Depending on the temperature, technique and the style of tea desired, oxidization time can range from 45 minutes to many hours. The characteristic color and aroma determine the completion of this process based on tradition and knowledge. Great skill is needed during this phase because it can dramatically affect the finished product if proper timing and air circulation are not followed.
Firing and Sorting
Firing halts the oxidization process by subjecting the leaves to a stream of hot air. Temperatures between 190–210 degrees Fahrenheit are required for about 20-30 minutes to produce black tea with a moisture content of 2-3 %. The dried tea is sorted into different grades by passing it over a series of vibrating screens of different mesh sizes. The passage of teas through this system produces a number of grades with evenly sized particles. Teas are then packaged according to particle size and sold as dust, fannings, broken leaf, or whole leaf grades.
Exporters are provided samples from tea brokers in preparation for auction. Specific lot numbers reference each plantation's product for tracking purposes. The teas are judged based on appearance, aroma, and flavor. The samples are carefully examined by professional tea tasters. Each lot of tea is sampled before leaving the factory. The visual appearance of the leaves is judged before tasting begins. Now the tea is brewed and ready to taste. The brewed leaves are set on top of the brewing cups so that their color and aroma can also be observed. Aroma plays a major role in the sense of taste. The tester inhales the bouquet of the freshly brewed tea before tasting it. The tea is then swirled in the mouth and then spit out. Specific tea terms have been adapted to describe the teas in various stages.