Often overlooked, tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world following water, more than beer, wine, coffee, or Coca-Cola. It’s a drink with ancient roots and an out-sized influence on the world. It can enjoyed in a variety of ways today: iced or hot, with or without milk, sweetened or unsweetened; and it has been fuel for some of the most unique minds in history.
Chinese writer Lin Yutang claimed that “there is something in the nature of tea that leads us into a world of quiet contemplation of life,” while Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsyk kept tea close to his heart, saying “let the world go to hell, but I should always have my tea.” But tea isn’t just for sad Russian novelists and Chinese philosophers. Even rock star Mick Jagger drinks tea, saying “I got nasty habits; I take tea at three.”
There are plenty of misconceptions about tea. For one, all tea, whether its green or black, comes from the plant Camellia Sinensis, an evergreen shrub native to East Asia. It is the leaves of this plant that tea is made from. The leaves are harvested and then allowed to oxidize and dry to various stages, or are steamed in the case of Green Tea. The tea leaves can also be mixed with other spices and herbs like jasmine or ginger, and are sometimes smoked or fermented to impart subtle or strong flavor profiles.
Another misconception is that some drinks that are called tea are really not tea at all. Again, tea comes from one plant, Camellia Sinensis . That mint tea, rooibois, or yerba mate you enjoy isn’t really tea; they just gets lumped in with tea since they are also leaves brewed in hot water.
The last misconception about tea is that it is somehow a boring drink — something for librarians, philosophers and people with colds. Well that couldn’t be more wrong. For one, there are not many beverages that can lay claim to helping to start a war However, tea can.
The Opium Wars in China were in large part a result of the trading deficit that Britain had with China thanks to Brits’ remarkable tea consumption. Wanting to balance things out, the British started importing opium to China and, well, the rest is history. As far as I can tell, nobody has started a war over a nice Zinfandel or the last can of La Croix (yet).
Tea can still be enjoyed today the same as it was hundreds of years ago. Let’s take a look at some of the basic varieties of tea.
When most people think of tea, black tea is what they are thinking of. From Lipton to Earl Grey, it is the most common variety of tea drunk in the Western World. Black tea generally has a stronger flavor profile than other varieties of tea, due to its longer oxidation process. Black tea also lasts longer than other varieties, keeping its flavor for years. In fact, the leaves preserve so well, and thus hold their value, that black tea was historically used as currency in parts of Mongolia, Siberia, China, Tibet and other parts of Central Asia.
Black tea can have remarkably different flavor profiles depending on the way it is grown, stored and processed. For example, Russian Caravan, a style of black tea whose name is derived from the camel caravans that used to carry it from China to Russia, is smoky and intense, where something like Darjeeling, grown in West Bengal, India, is more floral with signature notes of “muscatel.”
Black Tea also blends well with other flavoring agents. bergamot oil is added to black tea to make Earl Grey, and spices like green cardamom, cinnamon, star anis, ground ginger and peppercorns are blended with an Assam black tea to make Masala Chai.
Notable Styles to Try: Darjeeling, English Breakfast, Russian Caravan, Early Grey, Masala Chai, Assam
Recommended Brewing: Steep two tablespoons for 3-5 minutes in 190 – 210° F water.
Green tea has been the most popular tea variety in China, the world’s leading tea producer in both modern and ancient times, since the Southern Song Dynasty, some 1000 years ago. Green tea does not undergo the same oxidation and withering process as black tea. Leaves are instead steamed and dried, preserving their green color. Green tea is best consumed soon after preparation, as it does not have the same shelf life as black or oolong teas.
Green teas tend to have a fresher, grassier flavor profile. The tea requires brewing at lower temperatures to prevent overwhelming astringency and bitterness. Matcha is a style of green tea originating in Japan, typically used in a Japanese Tea Ceremony. As part of the ceremony, the Matcha green tea leaves are ground to a fine powder and then mixed with hot water, creating a frothy top layer.
Green tea is said to have numerous health benefits, including everything from cancer treatment to weight loss; however, scientists have so far shown most of these beliefs to be unfounded. Still, green tea is delicious and provides a mellower caffeine kick (in my totally subjetive opinion) than black tea or coffee.
Notable Styles to Try: Sencha, Longjing Dragonwell, Gunpowder, Matcha, Jasmine
Recommended Brewing: Steep two tablespoons for 1-2 minutes in 170 -180° F water.
Oolong is the semi-oxidized tea variety that is curled and twisted in carefully controlled time and temperature environments to produce teas of high quality. Oxidation can range from 8 – 85%, resulting in probably the most varied flavor profiles of any tea variety.Oolong tea can range from sweet and fruity, to woody and dense, to herbal and green.
The Chinese word “oolong,” has been adopted in the West, but the direct translation actually means “black dragon tea.” One theory on the origin of oolong tea goes like this: a hunter was distracted by a deer after a long day of picking leaves; upon returning from his hunt, he found tea leaves he had picked earlier had already begun to oxidize.
Most of the flavor in oolong tea comes from the way the tea is cultivated and processed. Most oolong teas come from specific cultivars, bred specifically for their flavor qualities. While only making up 2% of worldwide tea production, oolong teas have special ceremonial importance in Chinese culture, and make up some of the most expensive and exclusive teas available
Notable Styles to Try: Dan Chong, Ti Kuan Yin, Jin Xuan
Recommended Brewing: Steep two tablespoons for 3-5 minutes in 170 -180° F water.
By Aldo Moreno