Written by Will

Welcome to tea fundamentals – your introduction to great tea

We’ve had quite a few people join our community recently – welcome all! – and lots of requests for a back-to-basics tea course. So, for the new few weeks, we’ll be sharing everything we know about making your tea drinking experience the best it can be. We’ll cover the different types of tea, its many tastes, flavours and origins, as well as ways of making it, plus lots more. First up, it’s the most essential question of all…

A Camellia Sinensis tea plant growing in the mountains of Taiwan.
A Camellia Sinensis tea plant growing in the mountains of Taiwan.

What is tea?

If you already make loose leaf tea, you’ll hopefully have seen the leaves unfurl as they infuse, releasing their brilliant colours and flavours. If you haven’t watched them, this is one of the many pleasures of great loose leaf tea. As you try different teas, it might also make you wonder…if these leaves are all tea leaves, why do they look so different?

Well, let’s use wine as a simple analogy. Wine and tea each come from one plant: for wine, it’s the grape vine; for tea, it’s the Camellia sinensis. Wines, as you’ll have noticed, have distinctive – and often starkly contrasting – taste, colour and appearance. This might be because of the specific varietal of the vine; how the fruit have been processed; where they’ve been grown; or who’s done the processing and at what time of year. It’s exactly the same for tea. Like wine, the final taste of tea can also be changed by how you treat it after production: how it’s stored, how old it is, how you prepare it and so on.

Not so keen on wine? Olive oil works in the same way. It all comes from the olive tree but can have many different tastes.

Thinking specifically of tea, the full list of factors that contribute to the unique taste of the loose leaf tea in your cup is:

  • Varietal/cultivar
  • Location
  • Picking season
  • How it is processed
  • How fresh it is
  • How you store it
  • How you prepare it
Mr. Ishiyama, inspects the picking of a bud and young leaves used to make Sencha geen tea.
Mr. Ishiyama, inspects the picking of a bud and young leaves used to make Sencha geen tea.
Knowing what to pick and when takes great skill and experience.
Knowing what to pick and when takes great skill and experience.

Meet Camellia sinensis and its many cultivars…

All tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant, an evergreen shrub that’s native to various parts of south and east Asia. It was first discovered and cultivated in China where it has been used to produce delicious teas (and medicine) for thousands of years.

Other dried herbs, plants and flowers can be used for infusions or in blends but are not strictly ‘tea’ because they’re not from the Camellia sinensis. Instead, they are herbal infusions. (Find out more about them here.)

Over the centuries, tea farmers across Asia have crafted teas with a variety of aromas, flavours and textures – or, simply, tastes. As soon as a farmer decides which of the many cultivars and varietals of the Camellia sinensis to plant, they set their tea on a path to a unique final taste. Next, they must choose how to process the leaves. There’s an overview of the main styles of processing here, but our focus in this piece is on the plant itself…

The different parts of the Camellia sinensis tea plant.

Height

Camellia sinensis tea plants can vary in height depending on maintenance, cultivar (more on that later in this series) and age. You can find tightly pruned, waist-high tea bushes of just five years old, up to tall, wild tea trees that are supposedly more than 1,000 years old – and lots in between.

Contrasting-waist-high,-neatly-cultivated-tea-bushes-in-Japan
Contrasting waist high, neatly cultivated tea bushes in Japan.
Wild tea trees in Yunnan
Wild tea trees in Yunnan.

Leaf Buds & Young Leaves

Fresh buds appear at the tips of the tea plant and open up to reveal new, young leaves as the plant grows. The thick, juicy buds are packed with nutrients, while the youngest leaves are full of vibrant, fresh flavour. Both can be picked in early spring during what’s often called the ‘first flush’ and are perfect for creating highly prized teas like Silver Needle white tea or Dragon Well green tea.

Stem

The stem is removed during the production of most teas. This is not the case for some Taiwanese oolongs, where the leaves are rolled up into balls while still attached to the stem. Some Japanese teas, including kukicha or hojicha, are also made from the leftover stems of the tea plant.

Lower Leaf

The thicker lower leaves are older than the young buds and fresh leaves. These can be picked for making more robust teas like our Wuyi Oolong, for which both the younger and lower leaves are picked, then withered and baked.

So, even before you get to harvesting a tea plant, there’s plenty for a farmer to consider. Indeed, knowing which leaves to pick and when to begin processing them is something only a true tea master can know.

Ali Shan, a Taiwanese ball-rolled oolong is made from the stem and the leaf.
Dragon Well, a Chinese green tea is made from just buds
Dragon Well, a Chinese green tea is made from just buds.

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