A tea briefer, part one

I’d like to work on building up educational content on this blog over time. There is a wealth of information about Chinese tea online, but it is spread across innumerable blogs, forum threads and YouTube channels. It’s good to have many different sources of information to give a sense of the full range of opinions and practices that are out there, but organized places where you can learn a lot quickly without having to scour around are few. There are some good examples of rich sources, of course, such as teadb.org and (for better or worse) the Meileaf YouTube channel, but there isn’t one written by me yet with all of my opinions!

To kick off a series of educational posts, I wanted to throw together a briefer to lay out some basic foundations and dispel some common myths.

1. All tea comes from the same plant*

A common misconception is that black tea, green tea, oolong tea, white tea, etc. come from different plants. This is what you might consider the ‘chocolate milk cow’ fallacy. All tea types are processed from one species of plant, camellia sinensis. There are two main varieties, camellia sinensis assamica and camellia sinensis sinensis (a bit redundant). Generally, assamica encompasses large-leaf varietals and s. sinensis the small-leafed teas. Of those major categories, there are thousands of varietals with distinct characteristics. I like a dog analogy – the breeds are very diverse in appearance, size and behavior but all belong to the same species.

Var. sinensis vs. var. assamica (source)

With one tea tree, you could produce black tea, green tea, oolong, etc. Those categories correspond to processing styles. There are varietals of tea that may be more suited to one processing style or another, but it isn’t uncommon for farmers to produce multiple styles of tea from the same plantation or garden.

* There are some other significant species, such as camellia taliensis and camellia crassicolumna that are ‘wild’ relatives of C. sinensis. They are also cultivated and used to make tea, though on a smaller scale.

2. The main types of tea

Here is a list of the main categories of teas by processing style and the steps usually involved after harvesting the leaves:

    • Black tea (called red tea in Mandarin) – Withering (like any leaf you pull off of a plant will do if you leave it sitting somewhere), rolling, oxidation, drying.
    • Green tea – No withering, then steamed, pan-fried or sun-dried to fix tea in green state.
    • Oolong tea – Similar to black tea but subjected to differing durations of the steps to achieve a different level of oxidation, some oolong teas are roasted as a final step. Oolong teas may be ‘ball-rolled’ or left in their natural loose shape.
    • Puer tea, a post-fermented tea produced in Yunnan Province, China, has two main types:
      • Sheng (raw) puer – withering, dry-roasting in a wok, rolling and drying.
      • Shou (ripe) puer – same steps as sheng and then fermented in large wet piles of carefully controlled temperature and humidity, essentially composted to artificially ‘age’ the tea.
      • Puer tea is often steamed and compressed into shapes (most commonly a disc-shaped ‘cake’) but this is not necessary to complete processing. Puer tea is also often aged over a period of time before consumption, though you can drink it right away.
A shou (ripe) puer tea cake (source)

3. Tea is simple – but you can make it complicated

One thing I appreciate about tea is the ease with which you can prepare it. Throwing tea leaves in a mug with hot water will do just fine —  this method is actually common among casual drinkers in China (search ‘grandpa-style brewing’ for more on this). However, there are many factors you can experiment with to get your ideal brew. All of the following can make a significant difference in the drinking experience:

  • Water temperature
  • Water quality
  • Duration of steeping
  • Ratio of water to leaf
  • Brewing vessel
  • Drinking vessel (if separate from brewing vessel)
  • Tea temperature when consumed

These are probably pretty straightforward. But you should also take a step back and consider all the factors that went into the cultivation, picking and processing of the tea leaves you’re using, since they also all play a role in the taste, aroma and texture of your brew:

  • Varietal of tea plant
  • Geographic location & microclimate
  • Weather patterns during growth of plant
  • Cultivation style – is the tea from a massive plantation or a small wild garden? Were pesticides used? What about fertilizers? Were the plants meticulously tended or left to grow naturally?
  • Manner of picking / harvest – “one bud and two leaves” is a common grade for handpicking. However, there are also machines that use rotating blades to harvest much more quickly at the cost of quality
  • Processing style – not just the type of tea being made, but the choices along the way – was the process done more by hand or by machine? Were the workers experienced or new? What were the personal opinions of the person making the big decisions?  
  • Storage – where was the tea kept after processing? Was it intentionally put in conditions to age it in a desirable way or kept totally sealed to preserve freshness? Was it allowed to dry out or get too damp?

I could think of more, but you get the point. Learning about tea is always fresh because you can just keep going deeper into the rabbit hole and there is always more experimenting to do.

4. Myth: Green tea has more caffeine than black tea

Bigelow’s caffeine meter (source)

One common belief, which is often used in marketing, is that green tea has less caffeine than black tea. There are other claims like this about caffeine – white tea is claimed to have either very little or a whole lot of caffeine, etc. Commodity tea like that found in tea bags is blended from tea grown in various places in extremely large batches and then carefully mixed to get a perfectly consistent taste and strength across each package. While teabags from the supermarket may be blended in a way to achieve the ‘caffeine level’ on the box, when it comes to loose-leaf tea it is much more difficult to make these kinds of generalizations. There can be a ton of variance in the caffeine contents in any given batch of loose-leaf tea based on many factors. However, there are some basic guidelines you can follow about caffeine and tea:

  • There is more caffeine in the buds than the leaves, and more in the smaller, younger leaves than the larger, older leaves further down the stalk. Sometimes this can mean that ‘higher grade’ tea has more caffeine, as productions with more buds and fewer big leaves are generally priced higher, but this does not apply to all types of tea.
  • Tea that has been aged a long time does seem to decline in caffeine content.
  • You can roughly calculate the caffeine in most teas at 2-3% by weight.

I hope some of the information here has been useful for you – I’ll continue this series soon. Please let me know if you have any questions and I’d be happy to address them in future posts.

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