Despite tea’s ancient roots throughout history, the details of this age-old tonic still remain an obscurity to most of us. Silk & Jade would like to “spill the tea,” demystify popular misconceptions, and serve you with the essentials about our favorite plant-based beverage.
The Real Tea…
Contrary to common misnomers, steeping just any old plant in hot water technically does not qualify the brew as “tea.” Herbal leaves, like rooibos or yerba mate, as well as flowers such as hibiscus or chrysanthemum, are actually what tea masters refer to as “tisanes” or “infusions.”
All tea, regardless of its color, flavor, or unique properties, originates from a single plant – the Camellia Sinensis. The two prominent varieties of this plant used for tea are sinensis and assamica. The sinensis variety grows primarily in China, Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, where climates are cool and foggy; while assamica is known to grow in tropical regions, like India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya.
The magic of this single plant’s ability to produce such a broad array of characteristics lies in the cultivation and processing of the leaf once it is plucked. There are a laborious amount of factors that determine the resulting qualities of the tea, even down to the particular time at which the leaves will be extracted from the plant.
But before any processing begins, the constitution of the land and environment will have a profound influence on how the leaf will ultimately taste in your cup. The plant’s ecosystem, from soil to climate, is known as the terroir (“tare-war”) – a term typically designated for sophisticated wine commentary. Essentially, we are referring to the “earth” or land and other environmental features affecting the plant’s growth, from the amount of sunlight and water it receives, to the mineral content of the soil and degree of elevation.
In today’s cultural context, bubbling with experimental creativity and technology, there is an overflow of nuances being introduced to the standards of traditional tea cultivation and processing, reinventing the way we prepare and consume this ancient libation. Though there is boundless potential for innovation within the process, there are still some fundamental steps required to produce tea.
Vintage Taiwanese Government Tea Educational Poster
First, the leaves must be plucked and set out to wither, removing the leave’s moisture. Next comes the rolling of the leaves – if you’ve ever seen loose leaf oolong teas, commonly rolled into tiny orbital pellets, this is one style of rolling. The purpose of rolling the leaves is to break down the cell walls of the plant, expressing all of the oils and juicy, aromatic goodness that the leaves have to offer.
Production Process of Green Tea
After being rolled, the leaves go through oxidation (think of the way an apple begins to brown after it has been cut and left on the counter). Oxidation technically begins from the moment the leaf is plucked, as the plant begins to absorb oxygen. Traditionally, the leaves are left out to slowly darken over time. However, many methods have been introduced to accelerate this chemical reaction. Leaves can be tumbled in bamboo baskets or even sent through a machine to cut, tear, and curl the plant matter, “bruising” them and increasing the plant’s exposure to oxygen. Oxidation is the defining step for black and oolong teas, responsible for producing that distinct malty, full-bodied quality.
Production Process of Black Tea
White teas, the least processed of them all, as well as green teas, skip the oxidation step to maintain a lighter, fresher finish. Leaves used for green tea undergo firing – exposure to high heat, after being rolled to fix the leaf in its green state and preserve its vegetal flavor. Green teas are commonly steamed before rolling to accentuate this grassy essence. Black and oolong teas are also fired after yielding the preferred level of oxidation to prevent the tea from further transformation.
Lastly, the tea leaves are sorted into different grades, separating all of the various parts. Everything is collected and used accordingly – even the dust of the broken leaves, which is typically used in prepackaged tea bags.
Anji White Tea
Cultivated primarily in China’s Fujian province, white tea is composed of mainly young tea buds plucked in the springtime. White tea is withered and can be baked or subjected to low heat to minimize oxidation.
White tea has low caffeine content and a light, neutral flavor, making it a great pairing with fruits and herbs.
Dragon Well Green Tea
Unlike white tea, green tea leaves grow for a longer duration and are plucked after they have matured. This category of tea is commonly grown in areas of China, Japan, and Korea. Once plucked, the leaves are often steamed, rolled and fired to stop oxidation as noted above.
Green teas tend to have a mild to moderate amount of caffeine and present grassy, vegetal notes (i.e. spinach, asparagus, seaweed).
Mi Xiang Black Tea
In the Far East black tea is referred to as hong cha (“red tea”) due to the red tinted liquor it produces. Black tea is grown in Kenya and other parts of Africa as well as many Asian countries including India and Sri Lanka. The tea’s dark tone denotes its high or “full” level of oxidation.
Black tea has high levels of caffeine and presents a deep, rich flavor often compared to grains like barley.
Jade Oolong (Wen Shan Bao Zhong)
Silk Oolong (Alishan)
Amber Oolong (Oriental Beauty/ Bao Hao Oolong)
Growing on the misty mountainsides of Taiwan and China, this tea is considered “semi-oxidized,” meaning it lies somewhere on the spectrum between green and black tea. Plucked at its peak, the leaf’s degree of oxidation is ultimately determined by the tea master. The spectrum within the semi-oxidation process gives oolong teas the capacity to exude an impressively versatile range in flavor and intensity.
Unlike most other teas, oolong teas may be steeped many times (depending on the teaware), allowing you to experience the depth of the leaf’s flavor and texture in its entirety.
Our very own Tea Master Lily says oolong tea is highly underrated, with an affinity for Oriental Beauty; she doesn’t know why people drink anything else!
“台灣的高山烏龍茶因為天時地利人合, 高海拔島嶼氣候山霧瀰漫無工業汙染, 所以有很多對人體有很大幫助的各種元素…” 葉春蓮老師
“Taiwan's high elevation oolong tea makers cultivate their tea at an ideal time and location, in high-altitude subtropical island climate within mist-filled mountains far away from industrial pollution, resulting in superior quality oolong tea with tremendous health benefits...” – Tea Master Lily
Stay tuned to learn more about the less explored terrain of rare and new types of tea such as yellow, purple & pu’er teas!
Article was written by Mariah Monet