The place your tea comes from can define its look, taste, aroma and even its texture. In the same way that we get to know good wines, coffee and now chocolate through their origin, understanding where the leaves in your cup once called home can help you navigate the rich world of tea and find your favourites.
Every tea origin is unique, and within each origin, every tea garden is unique. Each one can receive different amounts of sun, or have its own soil minerality, or enjoy something else that’s all its own – you can even find distinct microclimates or micro-terroirs within a single garden. After years of visiting gardens and working with producers across the world, we think there are five key factors that determine the taste of an origin and its high quality:
Tea bushes can live happily anywhere from just 60m above sea level to vertiginous altitudes of around 2,500m. Above 1,500m, the conditions become more difficult for the tea bush to grow. The reasons for this include: an increase in range of temperatures between day and night; longer, cooler winters; more mist, so less sunlight; and steep slopes, which mean rainwater runs off the surface quicker, so the roots must dig deeper for hydration. For all these reasons, tea bushes grow slower at higher elevations, so they have more time to develop a wider range of concentrations of the plant compounds and amino acids that eventually define the taste and texture of the tea we drink.
One of our favourite examples of high mountain tea is Taiwan’s Ali Shan, which is grown between 1,600m and 2,000m. Looking at the leaves you can see they are large and there are long gaps between them indicating their slow growth. Local tea makers who know the environment and use the right varietals can nurture the tea bushes of Ali Shan to produce
thick, fruity, creamy, refreshing and quenching teas – with taste combinations that cannot be found anywhere else.
In the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, the tea bushes of Darjeeling live through long and cool winters. Each year, they get an extended rest during which the roots work hard underground, going deep in their search for nutrients. When spring comes and the first shoots and leaves are picked for production, the teas contain all the nutrients and energy the bushes have built up over the winter. Even better, the altitude means the days are still cool, so when the leaves are bruised during processing (i.e. gently rolled to break their skins and let oxygen in to concentrate their flavours), they oxidise very slowly. These are the conditions in which skilled producers can create the (unique) partially oxidised first flush the region is known for.
The nutrients that nourish any plant are taken by the roots from the soil. In general, high quality tea gardens will have a mineral-rich, slightly acidic soil made up of clay, silt and sand particles. Individual variations in the make-up of the soil, its nutrients, and surrounding plant life will define the flavour of a single origin tea.
Teas from Wuyishan in south-eastern China are sometimes given the name Yancha or ‘rock tea’, which derives from the rocky terrain and mineral-rich soil in which they grow and that gives them their unique and celebrated minerality. This minerality is as good as tasting the rocky, wild mountains of Wuyishan in its tea.
Many traditional tea-growing regions are affected by monsoon rain. At altitude, tropical and sub-tropical climates are high in humidity, a damp mist forms over the tea bushes, protecting them from sunlight and hydrating them. How much water the bushes get – and when – affects the flavour of your tea. Too much water and they will grow fast, meaning their roots stay shallow and don’t bring up the best nutrients. As a result, flavours will be less refined and more diluted.
In north-eastern India, the second flush season is when Assam’s most distinctive and sought-after tea is produced. This brief period is usually the first couple of weeks in June, when there’s a sweet spot between the spring flush and the monsoon rains. Because Assam’s tea gardens are predominantly low lying and clustered around the Brahmaputra river, the climate is humid, and they are often flooded by heavy monsoon rains. Excess water dilutes or washes out intensity from the tea leaves when they are growing. That’s why the skilled producers keep ahead of the rains. After processing, the best tea buds and leaves will have golden tips that indicate the rich, malty and dried fruit flavours Assam is known for.
When they were first discovered in the wild, tea trees were growing around the borders of dense forests, using larger neighbouring trees as shade to get an even dispersion of indirect sunlight. Too much direct sun causes tea leaves to produce more of the bitter and astringent chemical compounds the bushes need to protect themselves from this harsh light and damaging UV rays. At high altitudes, where the tea plants could be more exposed to the sun, they’re often protected by mist.
In Japan, farmers producing Gyokuro green tea go to great lengths to shade their tea bushes for up to three weeks before the leaves are picked. Starving the leaves of sunlight encourages them to produce chlorophyll and an amino acid called L-theanine. The chlorophyll gives the leaves their characteristic rich green colour, while the shading also concentrates amino acids in the leaves. L-theanine is one of the plant compounds that
contributes to umami – the taste that producers of Gyokuro are looking to celebrate.
The individuals and communities who grow tea have a huge impact on its taste. High quality teas are produced with understanding and appreciation for the local environment. We’ve found that respect for origin exists most strongly in small-scale producers who have often farmed in a particular area for generations. The techniques they use have been handed down through families and can be intuited rather than taught. The choices these producers continue to make mean they are a crucial part of any origin. Today, with increased chemical intervention in agriculture, the choices farmers make around which fertilisers to use and how they manage pests also have a long-term impact on their plants’ natural ecosystem.
Yong Luo, who learnt to love tea from his grandfather, is a master producer of Phoenix Honey Orchid tea. His garden is on Shuang Ji Niang, a remote mountain in China’s Phoenix range where there’s a subtropical oceanic monsoon climate, which basically means it rains a lot! The soil is rich and volcanic, and a primeval forest surrounds his garden. As he explains, “To protect our place, I’ve chosen organic and ecological planting methods. It means I can’t produce as much tea and that my costs are higher, but my tea feels full of life. This is the only way to capture the appeal of Shuang Ji Niang mountain and its original flavours for drinkers. I want them to taste Shuang Ji Niang mountain with its wet days, lush forest and volcanic history.”
How to identify high quality tea
Now you know what origin encompasses and why it’s so important, but how do you go about finding the teas that make the most of their origin? Easy: just look for teas that answer four simple questions…
WHERE has it come from?
Think of high quality teas like wines: get to know the countries and regions they come from, then you can start to explore single gardens. Only single origin or single garden teas can give you the true, distinctive taste of their home. Is the tea you’re considering proud of its origin? Is that origin known for its high quality tea? Or does it at least offer the altitude, soil and climate for growing high quality tea?
WHO produced it?
Has it been mass produced? Or grown and processed by a tea maker who understands and works in harmony with their origin’s natural terroir? You can probably guess which one we’d recommend.
HOW has it been produced?
Is the producer using conventional or organic practices? Organic production safeguards the natural terroir of an origin. It’s a good indicator of whether your tea was made by a responsible producer – though there are also responsible producers who are not certified organic.
WHEN was it produced?
Season is key. A high quality tea should tell you which season it was produced in and why this matters.