Tea is made from infusing dried tea leaves over hot water. In America, 85% of tea consumed is actually iced. Tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world next to water. Found in 80% of U.S. households, the largest drinkers of tea are concentrated in the South, and Northeast regions of the country.
Camellia sinensis is the plant grown and harvested to make tea. Camellia sinensis is grown in tropical and subtropical climates. The plants are ready to be harvested three years after planting and can live for more than a hundred years. Once harvested, leaves are dried and ready for export. Tea is largely grown in China, India, Japan and their surrounding regions. Like wine growers, teas have expanded beyond its old world regions, and are now cultivated in Kenya, Vietnam and other parts of the new world.
Different teas are all cultivated from the same plant, what distinguishes them from green, black, white, oolong and pu’erh is the processing of the leaves.
This tea plant is robust and versatile. It can survive temperatures below -11C for prolonged periods of time, at any altitudes. The best teas are grown in higher elevation on steep slopes. Higher elevation slows the plants growth, and helps to develop more flavors. Different cultivars include; Benifuuki, Fushun, Kanayamidori, Meiryoku, Saemidori, Okumidori, and Yabukita.
Fermentation is the process of oxidizing tea leaves, turning green teas into oolong, and black teas. Tea leaves are withered by dry air for a period of time. During this chemical process, tea leaves begin to change in color from its natural state to darker shades of brown, giving fermented teas a naturally dark color. Partially oxidized teas are found in oolong, and fully oxidized teas are black.
Plucking - Tea leaves are plucked by hand and consist of the bud, and two young leaves of the Camellia sinensis. Teas are plucked twice a year, once in the early spring, and the second in late spring.
Withering or Wilting - Tea leaves wither immediately after they are picked. Withering removes excess water from tea leaves.
Disruption - Tea leaves are bruised or torn to promote oxidation.
Oxidation or Fermentation - Teas that require oxidation are left to dry, and progressively darken. Oolong teas range from 5% - 70%, and black teas 100%.
Fixation - Stops tea oxidation by heating the leaves, either by steam or baking.
Rolling or Shaping - Tea leaves are rolled, and formed into strips to be shaped.
Drying - Tea leaves are dried either by air, baked or pan fired, and ready for export.
Aging or Curing - This process is commonly done for pu’erh teas, where a secondary curing takes place after drying.
Orthodox method for teas is largely done by hand, and follows traditional methods for processing teas. Often these teas are commonly found in the loose leaf variety.
Unorthodox methods use CTC machines (crush, tear, curl). These machines reduce large whole leafs into finer bits. This method has a higher output, and often found in tea bags.
Processing black tea involves 100% oxidation of the leaves. After tea leaves have been plucked, they are withered upto 24 hours to remove moisture. Tea leaves are then rolled and broken up to accelerate oxidation and given time to turn the leaves from green to a black color. They are then roasted to seal in flavors.
Green tea involves very little oxidation to preserve its natural green colors. To prevent oxidation, green teas are steamed or slightly roasted depending on style.
Oolong teas are processed immediately. Oolongs teas are oxidized from light 5%-40% to darker oolongs ranging from 41%-70%. To prevent further oxidation, oolongs can be slightly roasted.
White teas consist of buds, and do not go through an oxidation process. To prevent oxidation, white teas are lightly steamed or pan fired. White teas contain more antioxidants, and other health benefits because of the little processing these teas undergo (except matcha).
Pu’erh teas go through an additional aging/curing process after being dried. They are aged from years, to decades, and often priced higher than other teas.
Tea consists of caffeine, polyphenols and essential oils. The oxidation process, and drying of leaves largely influence the flavor compounds that give tea its unique taste. Tea processing also determines how much caffeine and polyphenols such as ECCG are contained. These powerful antioxidants help to remove free radicals.