Saturday, September 18, 2010
More than you want to know about tea.
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.
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.
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.