Tea has been a preferred beverage for thousands of years and the humble cup of tea is considered a soothing and calming drink especially by the British! Whether it’s a cup of brewed tea, with milk or without, with sugar or without, hot, lukewarm or cold, the choice is yours.
Tea, in its original form, comes from the leaves of the camellia sinensis plant, which is native to Southeast Asia and now grows in tea-friendly climates around the world. Two broad varieties exist with the mellower and milder flavoured teas grown in China and Southeast Asia, whereas stronger, full-bodied flavours of the Assam Teas grow in India. More varieties have emerged due to regional hybrids (depending upon the tea shrub), local climate, soil conditions and the process used to cure the leaves. The process of curing, whether through oxidation or fermentation determines the ‘colour’ of the tea leaves, and as a result their name.
The leaves are green when harvested and become wrinkled and black when processed through oxidation. Conventionally, black tea, as the English consumed it, was served hot with milk and sugar. The leaves were brewed in a teapot, covered with a tea cosy to retain the warmth and then poured into teacups with a saucer and teaspoon on the side. Milk and sugar were added as required. In China, black tea has always been drunk without milk or sugar, and therefore the brew is a tad bitter. The longer the tea leaves steep in the water, the stronger the flavour. Black tea is also the basic ingredient of the popular Japanese milk tea.
Called ‘hong cha’ (red tea) in China, this simple name derives from the dark red hue that is produced when the tea leaves are brewed. The leaves are like black tea except the leaves are less oxidised during processing due to a reduction in the amount of heat applied. This processing lends a lighter colour and a sweeter, milder flavour.
As the name denotes, the leaves are silvery-white! This is achieved through early harvesting of leaves whilst they are not fully opened and still have a ‘hairy fuzz’ which looks like silver needles. The leaves are minimally processed and undergo a fermentation process whereby they are left to wither, and then dried. Excessive heat is avoided so that there is no oxidation. White tea is native to China and popular varieties are Fujian Silver Needle and White Peony. White tea is mild with sweeter and grassier flavours than oxidised teas. Although they are brewed in the same way, the brewing time is best kept at 3-5 minutes before bitterness develops.
Green tea originated in China and Japan. The more the tea leaves are oxidised, the darker they become. As Green leaves are the least processed, they retain their bright green colour. Green tea is considered to contain higher antioxidant levels compared to other teas resulting in many health benefits, however, this tea may not suit some individuals due to the tannins it contains, and its grassy flavour. Traditionally, green tea leaves are steeped in hot water and sipped slowly. The longer the leaves are brewed, the stronger and more bitter the flavour becomes. However, nowadays, different ways of preparation, such as green bubble teas and green tea lattes, have become increasingly fashionable beverages!
Known as ‘huángchá’ in China, and ‘hwang cha’ in Korea, yellow tea is like green tea but milder in flavour with a less grassy in taste. The tea leaves undergo low levels of oxidation followed by fermentation. The process involves drying the leaves, roasting them slightly, then wrapping them in cloth to aid fermentation. These steps are repeated twice which results in leaves with a yellow hue and a yellow liquid when prepared. To enjoy the full flavour of yellow tea, care must be taken to ensure the leaves are brewed in water that is below boiling point as boiling water can result in undesirable bitterness. Due to its elaborate processing, the quality of the leaves and buds used, as well as the rarity of yellow tea in general, it comes at an increased price. If you are a tea connoisseur, it’s a must-try!
Belonging to the same tea plant, oolong tea lies between green tea and black tea when it comes to flavour. It is more oxidised than green tea but less so than black tea. Oolong undergoes a process whereby the leaves are dried in the sun, rather than roasted, and are crushed slightly to aid the oxidation. Its low caffeine content and prevalence of antioxidants are believed beneficial to health. Oolong is a great option for those who wish to lower their caffeine intake and prefer a milder and sweeter version of green tea.
Just like aged wine, ‘puer’ tea (pu-erh) is better as it ages! This tea leaves undergo a process that allows the microbes in this tea (considered good bacteria) to grow, and aids fermentation enhancing the the taste of the tea. Hailing from the province of Yunnan in China, this tea is favoured among tea masters. The price increases by age and is often traded based on its age. The processing is very different from that of the other teas listed above. The largest leaves of the sub-species of the camellia sinensis var assamica plant is selected, hand-tossed in large woks to undergo an oxidation process, and dried in the sun. A certain amount of moisture is retained so that bacteria is still present, which helps continue the fermentation process. These large leaves are then steamed and placed layer by layer, and moulded into cakes of different shapes (circular, concave, square, frisbee-shaped) before being wrapped in paper on which the date/year is stamped as a record. To brew the tea, leaves are chipped off the block and steeped in water. As the tea-cake ages, the taste of the tea leaves matures and becomes more robust. The earlier brews are often mellow tasting with sweet notes, and then become stronger and sharper in flavour, albeit not as strong as black/red teas. Cups of tea made from the same cake over a period will not taste the same every time!
Matcha is a green tea powder traditionally from Japan but nowadays popular around the world. It is also called shaded tea as the powder is produced from special tea plants that are shaded for a minimum of three weeks prior to harvesting. This shading process increases the chlorophyll in the plants, and gives the leaves a deep emerald green colour. Matcha powder is whisked into hot water, and it is not steeped and removed from the water like other teas. Matcha is gaining in popularity and is often used in other drinks and baking.
Tips for brewing tea
- It is essential to store tea correctly to avoid rancid and stale tea. Tin or glass containers are perfect to maintain tea dry. Fermented teas like ‘puer’ are usually stored in round clay containers that allow the fermentation and ageing process to continue.
- Not every tea is brewed or steeped in the same way. Different processes bring out different flavours. For Chinese teas, there are temperature guidelines to be followed – warm to hot (not boiling) water is preferred.
- Rinse the tea cups with warm or hot water before serving the tea. This action helps bring the cup temperature closer to the temperature of the tea. Hot tea in a cold cup will reduce the drinking temperature and have an influence on the flavour as well.