What is tea?

We are glad you asked! Tea is the second most consumed drink in the world, surpassed only by water. Did you think it was coffee? I know, we were shocked too. Did you know that all teas (Black, Green, Oolong, White, and Pu’erh) come from the same plant? The scientific name of this versatile plant is Camellia sinensis. Camellia sinensis is a sub-tropical, evergreen plant native to Asia but is now grown around the world. The tea plant grows best in loose, deep soil, at high altitudes, and in sub-tropical climates. So, in short, “tea” is anything derived from the Camellia sinensis plant. Anything else, while sometimes called “tea”, is not really “tea” at all. It is more accurately referred to as herbal tea or tisane. Tisanes include chamomile, rooibos and fruit teas. We’ll learn about those later on.

How is it grown?
The tea plant, which grows naturally in the wild throughout much of Asia, is cultivated in a variety of settings, from small family gardens to giant estates covering thousands of acres. The best tea is usually grown at higher elevations and often on steep slopes. The terrain requires these premium teas to be hand-plucked and it takes approximately 2,000 tiny leaves to make just one pound of finished tea. If that sounds crazy, keep in mind these methods have been around for hundreds of years. Many of the teas produced for large scale commercial production are grown on flat, lowland areas to allow for machine harvesting. However, it should be noted that some of the finest, hand-plucked teas in the world come from flat fields and lower altitude. So, how the tea is grown is just one of many factors to be considered.

Teas which are processed in the traditional fashion are called Orthodox teas. Orthodox teas generally contain only the top two tender leaves and an unopened leaf bud, which are plucked carefully by hand and then processed using five basic steps, creating the thousands of varieties of tea we know and love today. Most Orthodox tea production these days involves a unique combination of age-old methods, such as bamboo trays, to allow the leaves to wither on, and modern, innovative machinery, like leaf rollers carefully calibrated to mimic motions that were originally done by hand. A true art form, the tea is handled by artisans often with generations of training from the moment of plucking to when the tea is finished. For some teas, one batch can take several days of work.

The other way of making tea is the Unorthodox method, of which the most common type is CTC (crush-tear-curl). This much faster style of production was specifically created for black tea. These teas may or may not be plucked by hand. For commercial production, large machine harvesters are used to “mow” the top of the bushes to get the new leaves. CTC production uses a leaf shredder which macerates the leaves (crushing, tearing, and curling them, hence the name) into fine pieces. They are then rolled into little balls. The result looks quite a bit like Grape Nuts cereal, actually. These teas will brew very quickly and produce a bold, powerful cup of tea. Crush-tear-curl is usually used primarily in the tea bag industry, as well as in India to create Masala Chai blends (due to their strength and color).

What is in tea?
The three primary components of brewed tea are: 
1. Essential Oils – these provide tea’s delicious aromas and flavors. 
2. Polyphenols – these provide the “briskness” or astringency in the mouth and are the components that also carry most of the health benefits of tea. 
3. Caffeine – found naturally in coffee, chocolate, tea and Yerba Mate, caffeine provides tea’s natural energy boost.

How the leaves are processed will determine their final classification as black, green, etc. We’ll discuss these styles of tea in the next lesson.

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