- Tea Pouches
- Loose Tea
- Iced Tea
- Why Mighty Leaf?
September 10, 2005
The Encyclopedia of Food
More than 4,000 years ago, the Chinese discovered that they could make a pleasant drink by infusing the leaves of Camellia sinensis, or the Chinese tea plant, in hot water. Today, more tea is consumed internationally than any other beverage except water. In the United States, unlike any other country, as much as 80 percent of tea consumption is in sweet, diluted iced tea. Nevertheless, connoisseurship is growing here, with specialty tea shops and salons appearing and teas now having their own page on the after-dinner menus at some restaurants.
Most teas are made from the Chinese tea plant and its sister, Camellia assamica, the Assam tea plant grown primarily in India and Sri Lanka. The small-leafed Chinese tea plant grows well at high altitudes and cool climates (not just in China, but also where it has been cultivated in Japan, Korea and beyond), producing lower yields and a more refined drink, with a floral character. The large-leafed Assam tea plant, which generally grows at lower altitudes and gives higher yields, produces a less complex drink, with earthy or malty flavors, though there are a number of high quality Assam teas.
As with premium coffee or wine, high-end tea frequently comes from small farms, where much of the work is done by hand. Tea leaves are processed differently to produce different styles of tea- from delicate white tea to dark, aged Pu-erh tea, and green, oolong and black teas in between. Methods of processing also vary widely depending on the custom of a region or the preference of a specific farm.
White tea is the least processed. The best white teas come from leaves picked before the buds have opened, while they are still covered with silky white hairs. White teas are delicate, with sweet, gentle, grassy aromas and fruity notes. Some have distinctive shapes, such as the Jasmine tea plant, which is a closed, oval bud when dry and a sprawling, purple-centered flower when steeped.
Green tea is only slightly more processed than white tea. It is dried, or “fired,” as soon as it is picked in order to minimize oxidation (which increases caffeine levels), to retain freshness and to preserve high levels of polyphenols, powerful antioxidants that boost the immune system and help to reduce the risk of heart disease and certain forms of cancer. As the name implies, green teas have a grassy, vegetal quality. Dragon-well, one of the best known types from Hangzhou, China, even has asparagus and artichoke notes. Japanese green teas have a more brilliant green color and often exhibit a sea-breeze aroma.
Oolong teas are likely the most varied and interesting. After the leaves are picked, they are gently rolled so that they slowly oxidize, which gently rolled so that they slowly oxidize, which darkens them and adds layers of complexity. Depending on how they are handled, oolongs have a wide range of aromas and tastes, and colors that range from green to black. Taiwan produces the most complex and expensive oolong teas. Oolongs can range from the lovely aromas of lilac and orange blossom and sweet flavors to dark, nutty aromas and full flavors.
Black tea, known as red tea in China, is the most recognizable tea. Its color is a result of complete oxidation, which gives it a more robust flavor. Thus, black teas can handle milk, lemon, sugar or honey- unlike oolong, green and white teas, which are typically consumed without accompaniment.
Darjeeling, a black tea from northern India, can be quite ordinary or remarkably complex, depending on where it is grown and when it is harvested. The first harvest, or “flush” in early spring produces a lighter, greener-tasting tea- a Beaujolais Nouveau, so to speak. The second flush has a rounder, more balanced taste and more of the muscatel flavor for which Darjeeling is known.
Pu-erh tea comes from the province of Yunnan in southern China. The tea is usually inoculated with a bacteria, much the way grape must is with yeast. After fermentation, the tea is formed into flat, round cakes and aged, sometimes as long as 50 years. Some shops in Hong Kong and Taiwan deal only in Pu-erh teas, which can cost upward of $1,000 per pound. After two years, they achieve the color of coffee and will likely be very earthy, slightly smoky, strong and tannic (or bitter).
Teas infused with botanicals, fruits and other flavors have also become popular. Look for everything from mango and raspberry to Moroccan mint. Chai is tea mixed with spices, such as cinnamon, cardamom and ginger, and steeped in milk, or brewed and then blended with milk, and sweetened. Herbal teas are simply teas made from dried herbs, although they are often supplemented with flavorings.
Brewing tea properly involves getting the amount of tea, the water temperature and the steeping time just right. Generally, a light, airy tea such as a white tea requires two heaping teaspoons for an 8-ounce cup. For stronger, more densely packed black teas, use a level teaspoon. White and many green teas should be brewed well below the boiling point, 160? F to 180? F. The stronger and darker the tea, the closer to the boiling point the water should be. Lighter teas steep longer (3 to 5 minutes) than black teas (2 to 3 minutes). Lighter teas may also keep their flavor through multiple steepings. Black teas lose their flavor and much of their caffeine after one or two steepings, although the taste of Pu-erh can last for several.
Don’t forget to warm your teapot and cups by filling them with some of the boiling water- simply pour it our when you’re ready. And store good tea in an airtight, lightproof container in a cool place.
Most premium teas are sold loose, but don’t just dump the leaves in a pot. Put the tea in a mesh basket or other large infuser (tea balls are too confining) so that the leaves can be quickly removed to prevent oversteeping, which makes the tea more tannic. Although premium teas can cost from $40 to more than $400 per pound, a single cup of $400 tea is actually only $3.50, making tea one of life’s most affordable luxuries.
Q & A
Q: When brewing tea, is it OK to reboil any leftover water in the teakettle?
A: No. Always use fresh water (preferably filtered or bottled) because it will have more oxygen to bring out the flavor of the tea leaves.
How to Get Tea
- In Pursuit of Tea
- Mighty Leaf Tea, San Rafael, Calif.
- (877) 698-5323, www.mightyleaf.com
- Peet’s Coffee & Tea
- The Republic of Tea
- Upton Tea Imports
Mighty Leaf Tea Company
136 Mitchell Blvd.
San Rafael, CA 94903