Tea is made from specific varieties of Camellia, an evergreen bush.
There are 6 different varieties or types of tea - white, green, yellow, oolong, black, puerh.
“Herbal teas” carry the name of teabut are made from herbs and flowers other than Camellia sinensis, such ascamomile or hibiscus. Strictly speaking, these are not tea at all.
Just as different wines are made from different grape varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc)there are more than 400 varieties of tea. Tea grows in many countries including China, India, Taiwan,Japan, Sri Lanka, Africa, Argentina,Georgia and Turkey.Different varieties of camellia suit different climates and processing methods.Small changes in soil and exposure to sunlight affect the flavour of the tea -two fields only a stones throw from one another can yield very different tasting tea.
The way that tea is normally categorised is by type - this refers to the six main production methods which result in Green, White, Yellow, Oolong, Black and Puerh teas. While these methods follow specific procedures, they are open to the unique interpretations of tea masters who have their own personal intentions and methods. Without the knowledge of these tea masters, tea would not be the most varied and consumed beverage on Earth.
The six main production methods are illustrated below.
The production of white tea requires the simplest processing of any tea.
The bud sare picked in early spring, while still immature and covered in down. The buds picked before they contain chlorophyll. As a result, white tea lacks the distinctive vegetal flavour of green tea.
Once picked, if the weather is good the best white tea is made by simply allowing the leaf to dry in the sun. If the weather is poor, drying takes place indoors or by exposure to warm,dry air generated by machines.
High quality green teas are picked early in the spring. These are 'first flush' teas, know in China as tea picked before the Qing Ming (Clear Bright) festival held in early April. These teasare especially prized because their slow growth over the cold winter months affords them the time to absorb nutrients from the local soil. Summer tea grows in warm temperatures with frequent rainfall - these conditions make the leaves grow quickly which generates large volumes of tea but without sufficient time on the tree to develop excellent taste and character.
Once picked, the leaves are left to wither on bamboo trays. This step is crucial because it allows the cell wallsto weaken so that moisture passes smoothly out of the leaf during firing and drying stages. Without withering, moisture will be trapped in the leaf and will create bitterness.
Heating kills the enzymes in the leaf, preventing and chance of oxidation. In China,the leaves are heated by wok-firing or in large machines; in Japan the leaf is steamed. Hand firing allows some moulding or shaping occur.
After initial firing, the leaf is rolled to expose the moisture held deep inside the leaves.
Finally, they are completely dried over heat, the best teas being heated over charcoal. The final moisture content of the leaf should be around 4%.
Processing is similar to green tea.However, after withering, the tea is quickly fired at a high temperature,wrapped in a cow skin paper and then dried slowly over warm charcoal. This removes the grassy, vegetal taste present in most green teas.
The production of oolong tea is much more complex than other types of tea.
After withering, which is coupled with intermittent tossing on bamboo trays, the leaves are turned in a bamboo drum, to bruise the edges of the leaves and encourage oxidation.
Once the desired level of oxidation is achieved, the tea is fired, preventing any further oxidation.
The tea is then repeatedly hand rolled and fired (15-25 times) in order to shape and bring the moisture from the inside of the leaf to the outside. This lowers the moisture content and gives the leaf its unique flavour and character.
One final baking of the leaf gives the tea its finished taste. This is crucial in determining the character of the tea.
After picking and withering, the leaves are bruised by rolling, inducing oxidation. The level of oxidation depends on the specific intentions of the tea master responsible for producing the tea.
The leaves are dried by heating them in an oven until the moisture content is reduced to 2-4%.
Puerh was discovered, by mistake,when tea was carried on horseback from Yunnanto Guangdong.This was a journey which took many months. The tea was carried in baskets and as it moved through humid and tropical climates, it absorbed moisture and fermented. Once the baskets were opened in Guangdong, the change in the tea was noted,enjoyed and the custom of allowing tea to ferment over time in humid open air conditions began.
There are two kinds of Puerh tea:raw and cooked.
Raw - Some people consider an age draw puerh to be the definitive article.
Raw puerh is produced very simply.The tea is picked, withered and fired and then compressed into cakes which are wrapped in paper and allowed to age. The tea slowly ferments as it absorbs moisture from the air.
Raw puerh can taste good when young if it is not too astringent or harsh. In fact, it is much like wine. Some is good young, some improves with age. In choosing a Puerh which will age well, it is important to choose one with assertive taste and aroma but without any unpleasant or unnatural flavours and aromas.
Cooked Puerh - In the 1970’s the concept of cooked puerh was created so that one could enjoy the benefits of aged puerh but without having to wait for ten or twenty years.
After picking and withering, the leaf is allowed to rest in moist conditions for 40 days. This encourages fermentation.
Many Puerh aficionados refuse to drink cooked Puerh, believing it to be inferior to the raw variety. This can be a mistaken view, because when made and aged well,cooked Puerh can be outstanding. The quality of the leaf must be good and the production process must be carried out carefully.
All there is to making tea is to Pick it, Steam it, Pound it, Shape it, Dry it, Tie it and Seal it.