A little more than half of Americans will have a cup of tea every day. In 2019 this totaled over 3.8 billion gallons. As the most consumed prepared drink in the world tea is everywhere.
On this week’s stream we’re humbled to be joined by Ravi Kroesen, the Head Teamaker at Steven Smith Tea, so that we can pull back the curtain a little bit on tea as we have tried to do these last few weeks with coffee.
All of our different types of tea come from the camelia sinensis plant, an evergreen shrub native to southwest China. Our white, green, oolong, and black teas are all grown and harvested the same and take on different colors and flavors depending on the processing applied after picking.
Until the 1840s tea growing and processing was a closely guarded Chinese secret. When the aptly named Robert Fortune was sent to China by the East India Company to try to steal a black tea plant he learned that prior to processing all types of tea were one in the same. His pilfering destroyed China’s tea empire, with India eventually taking over as the world’s biggest producer of tea.
To help differentiate between blends that contain camelia sinensis and those that don’t tea professionals call anything that is not made from the tea plant either a “tisane”, or an herbal infusion.
Two of the key variables that control the final type of tea and the resultant flavor are oxidation and heat. I’ve written about oxidation and coffee before. With roasted coffee we’re concerned with minimizing oxidation to help keep it tasting fresh. Tea, on the other hand, uses oxidation as a tool to control flavor during the processing phase. Oxidation is accelerated by being rolled or pressed and can be halted by adding heat. This halting process is known as “fixing” the tea. To make matters more complicated not all tea of the same type is processed the same way. Different regions and farms take different routes to get to similar destinations.
Green tea is very lightly oxidized, if at all. Soon after harvest the tea leaves are fixed by being heated with either steam or a hot pan. The tea isn’t cooked so much as just enough heat is added to stop the enzymatic breakdown that happens during oxidation, allowing green tea to keep it’s bright color and distinctive flavor.
White teas are withered in the sun after harvest and typically baked to stop oxidation. It the most delicate style of tea and is often floral and sweet.
Oolong tea is allowed to oxidize, but not completely. Anything allowed to oxidize more than green tea is considered oolong until it reaches 100% oxidation. Once oxidized to the desired level the tea might be rolled or pressed into spheres and is generally roasted or baked to halt oxidation. As the most complex process oolong is the most diverse in flavor when it comes to the final cup. The amount of oxidation allowed to occur, and type of heat applied controls flavor in different ways and can produce both smoky full-bodied teas and sweet and fruity more delicate teas as well.
Black teas are oxidized fully and are usually agitated by being rolled or pressed to promote the enzymatic breakdown that encourages oxidation. This process releases tannins from the tea leaves and gives some black tea its distinctive drying quality.
The beauty of tea is its simplicity. Hot water and time are all we need to get a tasty beverage, but there are a few things we can be aware of to optimize our cup of tea.
Have a question or a topic you’d like to see covered? Shoot us an email at [email protected], or tune in to the livestream Wednesdays at 10:30am, Brian and Ravi will be taking questions in the chat!