Saturday, September 18, 2010

More than you want to know about tea.

Tea comes from the tea plant (Camellia sinensis). This may sound a little obvious, but it underlines the fact that anything made of something else -- no matter how much it looks like tea -- isn't tea. Of course, it doesn't pay to be pedantic about it; it sounds pretty dorky to say "Hi, may I have a peppermit tisane please?" So I think it's fine to play fast and loose with the word "tea" as long as you know what you're doing.

The "sinensis" part of the latin name for the tea plant indicates that it's a native of China (from Sino). Although you can't always count on this, since they named the habanero pepper species Capsicum sinensis even though it's a native of somewhere around Bolivia (someone made a guess, everyone believed it, and here we are). So, the tea plant is native to China, but it's grown all over the place now: India, Japan, parts of Africa, etc. Different varieties of tea are created depending on the age of harvest, the way the leaves are treated before drying, how they are dried, and what gets done to them after they are dried. According to one legend, people have been making infusions from this plant since 2737 B.C (give or take 3 minutes).

Tea leaves can be picked at different stages of maturity. White teas are picked when the tea plant first starts sprouting little fuzzy leaves after it's dormant period. These leaves are dried immediatley and yield a tea that some people can't distinguish from plain water (it is a little subtle). Older leaves get treated in one of several ways, yielding teas that run the spectrum from green to black. The darker the tea, the more the leaves have been allowed to sit around before they are finally dried. Green teas are dried before the leaves have a chance to oxidise (rot, basically), whereas black teas are allowed to oxidise all the way. If you've ever tried to dry mint and had it turn all brown, this is exactly what happens to tea leaves. If they are dried fast or are kept in an arid environment, they stay green; if they're kept in a humid environment for long enough, the leaves start breaking down and turn brown. This can be a good thing, since it creates new flavours; a black tea has quite a different taste profile from a green one, for example. If it's too humid for too long, you get a slimy mass of mould, so you clearly have to be careful here.

Halfway (more-or-less) between black and green teas are the oolongs. These are teas whose leaves have been allowed to oxidise to a greater or lesser extent to produce a whole new combination of flavours. Oolongs are my favourites, but it is easy to buy crappy ones that will make you think: "what's Joe's problem, this sucks!"

Japanese green teas are in a class of their own. The leaves of the most common of these, sencha, are steamed soon after harvest. This prevents the leaf from oxidising, and allows it to be dried in a way that preserves its green colour more than the Chinese methods which heat the leaves with dry heat (often in a wok or something similar). I'm not a big fan of these teas (except for genmaicha, which I like a lot) because to me they taste like that green gunk in the back of a lobster.

Here are some green teas. The one on the left is a Chinese new harvest. In the middle is Chinese "dragon well" which is dried in such a way that the leaves stay flat, and on the right is a Japanese genmaicha which is a sencha tea combined with popped rice.

Green teas are nice to brew in a ceramic teapot,

or in a cool cast iron Japanese-made tetsubin.

Here are a bunch of different oolong teas. The leaves are rolled into balls before heating and drying, and they all look pretty much the same, but once they open up in the teapot you can see varying degrees of oxidation in the leaves -- some have a tinge of red on the rim, others are much darker. These varying treatments can yield some surprisingly different flavours, and they can have a real thickness (I can't think of a better word to describe the taste).

Oolong teas are traditionally brewed in Yixing teapots. These are made of clay from a certain region of China. The walls of these pots are porous, and gradually absorb the flavour of the teas brewed in them. There are many cool varieties of these, and I owe a debt of gratitude to my long suffering colleagues at work who have let me duck into every teapot store I come across whenever we get shipped off to China. If you're in the market for one of these, make sure it's a real one (these cost around $40 and up) since there are cheap-o knock-offs out there that won't pour properly and will be made out of who knows what.

Here's another oolong. See how the leaves are whole? Not the crumbled up dust in a typical teabag. Keeping them this way takes special handling and is part of the cost of a fine tea.

Finally a couple of dark teas. On the left is a darjeeling from India (which can be green or black depending on the variety). On the right is some Kusmi tea from the local tea shop -- this one has spices and other things in it to add a whole 'nother dimension to the tea experience.

Ceramic pots are great for these teas, since the different flavours don't seep into the pot.

Dedicated tea shops are good places to look for quality tea. Expect to pay more than $10 for 50g-100g for decent stuff. Teaopia, which has been springing up in malls lately, has sold me some nice oolong. If you're in Montreal, check out Camellia sinensis -- they have a cafe on the side where you can try their offerings. These shops will also be able to advise you how much to put in a pot, how hot the water should be, and how long it should brew. I'm pretty lazy about all this though, and pretty much use a palm full of tea, near boiling water, and three minutes for everything. But then again, I am a wild and crazy guy.

And, if you happen to be in Beijing near the silk market, check-out this guy across the street. He is the gem of all gem tea purveyors (in my humble estimation!).

Happy brewing!

If you want even MORE info (believe it or not, we've only scratched the surface here), check out Fun Alliance -- a great site with info on brewing, pictures of cool Yixing pots, and lots and lots of tea.


  1. Nice post!
    The newly-opened World of Tea (298 Richmond Road) is worth a visit too for Ottawans who can't get to Beijing.

  2. Thanks! Funny, but I put this post up the day before I finally checked-out that tea shop. It's a brilliant store, and I've dropped more coin there than I probably should have since!

    I hope your cider did well at the Fair!