Tea is almost 5,000 years old. According to Chinese legend, the Emperor Shen Nung discovered tea in the year 2737 B.C. when leaves from a wild tea tree blew into his pot of boiling water. The pleasant scent from the resulting brew invited him to taste. Shen Nung described a warmth passing through him when he drank the newly-discovered brew, as if the liquid was investigating every part of his body. So he named the brew chai, the same word as the Chinese character meaning to check or investigate.
The Tea Plant
Tea comes from the evergreen bush Camellia Sinensis. It requires a warm, wet climate of the tropics with a considerable amount of rainfall. The highest yield is obtained from teas grown in the lower altitudes; it is the teas that are grown in high altitudes that have the finest quality. While the tea plant is easy to grow, its quality and characteristics depend on soil quality, garden management, rainfall, elevation, manufacture and a host of other factors. All the different types of tea (Black, Oolong, Green and White) come from the same plant.
Tea Types and Processing
Black Tea (Fully Oxidized)
Four Basic Steps: Withering, Rolling, Oxidizing and Drying (or firing)
The tea leaves are first withered on conveyor belts for several hours until they are limp enough to be rolled without cracking. They are then rolled on machines, the rolling of the leaves give them their future form. The rolling also bruises the leaves enough to be oxidized. The rolled leaves are then spread out in a cool place. The leaves absorb the oxygen in the air which activates the enzymes to created essential oils. This process is called oxidation or fermentation. The leaves are then fired in large ovens with temperatures up to 194 degrees. They are then graded and packed into chests.
Oolong Tea (Partly Oxidized)
The tea leaves undergo a short oxidation process which places them halfway between black and green tea. Oolongs are mainly made in South China and Formosa. Oolongs are considered by the Chinese to be the most health-giving teas. The world's finest Oolongs, however, are manufactured in Formosa. The quality of a Oolong depends upon the knowledge of the Tea maker to manage the oxidation process. The fermentation process can be manipulated to create extraordinary teas. The higher the percentage of oxidation, the stronger the strength of the tea when steeped. Recently, Oolongs have also been manufactured out of the Darjeeling and Nilgiri regions of India.
Green Tea (Unoxidized)
Green tea is dried and rolled, but not oxidized. The leaves are rolled or twisted in a variety of ways. The most commonly known green tea is gunpowder green. China still remains the leader in the process of manufacturing green teas. Japan produces green teas such as Bancha, Sencha and Matcha. Genmaicha is Bancha blended with toasted rice and popcorn, giving the tea a nutty flavor. Gyokuro (meaning "Pearl Dew") is Japan's most renowned and prized Green tea. Leaf used for Gyokuro is partly grown in the shade, giving the leaf a darker color, more complex flavor and higher caffeine content. Green teas from Japan are steamed, not pan-fried and are known for their bright green liquor. Roasted Bancha is called Houjicha.
Matcha (Green Tea Powder)
Four weeks before the annual harvest, the tea plants are covered with tarps to shade the plants. This increases the chlorophyll content in the plants leaves. The hand-picked leaves are steamed, dried and its veins and stems are removed. The tea leaves are slowly ground using granite grinding wheels, yielding one ounce of Matcha per wheel per hour. Matcha is the oldest variety of shade-grown Japanese green tea, traditionally used in Zen Buddhist ceremonies for over 800 years.
The art of manufacturing white tea has been mastered by the Chinese; hence the best white teas come from China. This tea is a collection of only the buds with white hairy downs. Very little processing is done in the manufacture of white tea. The tea leaves are mostly sun dried and then slightly steamed. The tea steeps a very delicate, light cup with vegetative flavor. The tea, as it sounds, looks white and is probably the most prestigious and romantic of all the different types of teas. White tea is produced in small quantities and since it is very labor intensive it is one of the highest-priced teas.
Herbs and Fruit Tisanes
Fruits, herbs and edible plants when infused in boiling water can make wonderful "tea like" beverages. Although these are often called "herbal teas" it is more correct to call them herbal infusions or tisanes or simply "herbals," since they are not made from the leaf of the tea plant.
Rooibos Tea - "Red Bush"
Rooibos means "red bush" the color of the fine, needle-like leaves of South Africa's Aspalathus linearis plant which makes a tasty, aromatic infusion. Rooibos looks and tastes much like tea and can be drunk hot or cold. Unique among herbs, it goes well with milk and blends well with fruits and other herbs. Rooibos is 100% caffeine-free and is rich in vitamin C, mineral salts, proteins, and has even more anti-oxidants than green tea.
Yerba Mate Tea
Yerba Mate or Green Mate comes from South America where it is an everyday drink of the people in Argentina and Brazil. It is a highly stimulating herb and works wonders on the nervous system, far more stimulating than a shot of Espresso. Roasting gives it a nuttier flavor.