a taxonomy of tea
White tea. Herbal tea. Decaffinated tea. Infusions. Single estate. Blends.
We get easily confused and we thought you might too, so we present our summary of the terminology used - a taxonomy of tea...
"A good woman is like a teabag. You never know her strength until she's in hot water". Nancy Reagan
what is tea made from?
Most of the drinks we know as tea come from the taxonomic species Camellia - either Cameillia sinensis or Camellia assamica.
C. sinensis grows best in high, mountainous regions (like central China and Japan) whilst C. assamica grows best in moist tropical climates (like northeast India). There are hybrids of the 2 species, which have been developed to suit particular conditions. Now branch out further...
where is my tea grown? location, location, location - estates and blends
Teas grown in different locations will taste different. There is an old Chinese saying, "superior tea comes from high mountains". The altitude and mountain mists help shield the plant from too much sunlight and provide the temperature and humidity that allow the leaves to develop slowly and remain tender. So if you see tea marketed as 'misty mountain' - this describes the place the plant grew.
A single estate tea will be grown in one specific and named location (like the infamous Blue Mountain coffee) and this is the territory for tea connoisseurs. Most of us drink blends which a clever person with more tastebuds than is quite frankly normal has assembled for us. The classic 'English Breakfast' is a careful blend of Assam and Ceylon teas. By contrast, Darjeeling comes traditionally purely from plants grown on the slopes of the Himalayan mountains, where the strong mountain and low night temperatures give the tea a distinctive flavour. That explains some of the diversitea... what else?
when is tea picked? timing is everything - first flush
Tea plants grow lots in good weather and tend to just sit there during winter. Tea leaves are picked as new shoots (or "flush") emerge from the plant. In hotter climates tea plants have several flushes and can be picked all year around. In cooler areas and at higher elevations, there is a more distinct harvesting season. Leaves from the earlier flushes (usually in the spring) give what are considered by connoisseurs to be the finest quality teas.
Tea is processed after being picked. It is withered, rolled, oxidised, dried and packaged before being transported to a corner shop near you. Differences in processing produce black, oolong, green or white tea.
Black tea is what we Europeans are most familiar with. Tea leaves have been completely fermented before being dried.
Oolong tea is only partially fermented.
Green tea is produced by steaming fresh-picked leaves before heat-drying them. The tea brewed is weaker and quite refreshing. Note that you drink green tea without milk, and it's made with water just off the boil.
White tea is the least processed. It is not oxidized or rolled, but simply withered and dried by steaming. White tea has an even milder taste than green tea.
Note that all types of tea above naturally contain caffeine - although you can buy brands where the caffeine has been removed by special processes. For more info on tea varieties, see www.food-info.net
fruit teas, herbal teas and infusions
These are made, unsurprisingly enough, from different dried fruits (or fruit peel), from dried herbs (e.g liquorice, rose hips), or from combinations (e.g. orange and cinnamon tea). Fruit teas are generally drunk without milk, although many people add sugar to taste. Brewing them generally makes your room smell lovely, but many have quite a mild taste. Many supermarkets stock a good variety of these.
Herbal Tea or an Infusion: Tea not made from the usual tea plant. Herbal teas do not usually contain caffeine. Some of the more common types of herbal tea include:
Roibos tea - comes from a plant grown in South Africa, this is refreshing and light. It's quite sweet, and can be drank with or without milk.
Camomile tea - this has a mild taste, it's quite sweet, and it's reputed to help you sleep.
Peppermint tea - made (unsurprisingly enough) from mint leaves. This is quite sweet and refreshing, drink again without milk, some people add sugar. You can make your own peppermint tea with a sprig of mint and some boiling water.
Lemon Tea - made (as is rather obvious) from Lemons. Lemon tea is tart and refreshing.
Tea is available with an amazing array of flavourings. For instance, your classic Earl Grey is black tea with orange and bergamont flavourings added. Lapsang Souchong Chinese black tea, flavoured with the smoke from pine tree roots.
how to make your own DIY decaff teas
Make your own refreshing lemon tea - add boiling water to a thick, fresh slice of lemon, rind and all, and boiling water.
Lemongrass tea - a stem of lemon grass and boiling water. Bingo!
Mint tea - add a sprig of fresh garden mint and some boiling water together to create your own minty taste sensation
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