All tea comes from the same plant - Camellia sinensis. It is native to China, India, Cambodia and Burma. Indigenous plants from each of these regions display their own characteristics, and many varietals have been identified by botanists. But it must be emphasised: all five of the main types of tea come from the Camellia sinensis plant. Those distinct differences in taste and appearance are due only to how the leaf is treated during production. In the wild, the plant can reach heights of 20 metres. Such wild trees are known to exist in Yunnan province, China, and some are thought to be 1500 years old. In commercial gardens, tea plants are regularly pruned to a height and size that is comfortable for the people who pluck the tea leaves.
Hmmm... is it really... Tea
A common misconception appears to have been created by the English language. The word ‘tea’ is used quite loosely to describe any hot beverage.
Strictly speaking only the leaves and unopened leaf buds from the plant Camellia sinensis are tea. The French use the word tisane to distinguish between Tea and the infusions of herbs or flowers. Perhaps the term herbal infusion is a more accurate description than herbal tea. Often I hear customers say, "I particularly like peppermint tea, I find it really refreshing"; or "In the evening, I like camomile tea". But, really only tea is tea. Everything else is ... something else.
Since the 1940s, the yields of many agricultural products have been boosted by the liberal application of chemical fertilisers and insecticides. The tea industry was no exception. However, in the past seven years, many tea gardens have whole-heartedly embraced biodynamic and organic farming methods. During the process of conversion from inorganic to organic production the yield of the tea bush drops by around 30%. Organic teas have a greater concentration of flavour than inorganic teas due to the lower yield of the bushes.
Water is important. Always use fresh water and if you are drinking a very good quality speciality tea without milk you could even try bottled water.
For 'normal' or broken leaf teas, first try one level teaspoon of tea for each cup – and place in a pre-warmed teapot. Bring the water to a furious boil, pour over the leaves and infuse for at least three minutes to draw out the full flavour. Anything less than three minutes merely colours the water. Even teabags will benefit from a three-minute infusion and you get a far better result if you brew them in a pot.
Full leaf teas may need an even longer infusion time.
For Green teas, the Chinese recommend water no hotter than 70°C. They believe hotter water encourages the release of astringent and bitter flavours. Some Green, Oolongs and White teas may require an even longer infusion.
It is vitally important that the water temperature does not cool too rapidly during brewing. A tea cosy is great for keeping pots warm, but if that seems a little too mumsy, use a tea towel or something similar to insulate the pot.
Once a tea is infused and you're happy with the taste, remove the leaves from contact with the tea. Teapots which offer a removable infuser (ceramic or wire mesh) are a good solution. Another option is to decant the tea into another teapot.
STUFF FOR BUFFS
Take time to get to know your tea
Each speciality or top grade single estate tea has its own personality. Every invoice or batch is unique. If you are brewing such a tea for the first time, try this: Infuse the tea for three minutes then pour one cup from the pot. A minute later, pour another cup. And a minute later, pour a third cup. The tea in each cup will be quite different. Simply choose the one you like best. The three minute cup might be best taken black and the five minute one may taste better with milk. Whenever you buy a new batch repeat this exercise.
What's what with pots...
L&T aficionado David Thompson gives his views:
"Because it holds heat well, I use a white china pot for those black teas - broken leaf or CTC breakfast styles - that take time to give up their full flavour. Metal and glass pots lose heat too quickly. If I really need to see the colour of the tea in the pot, I lift the lid. Once I get to know a tea, I watch the colour rather than my watch."
"However, I prefer glass for many Chinese teas. Apart from the pleasure of watching the leaves open, I can check the colour of the tea to control the strength of the brew. Loss of heat is not such an issue here because infusion times are usually far shorter."
"With flower teas, of course, glass is essential for those 'grand openings'."
... and spoons?
"Despite their name, teaspoons are not too good at measuring tea because they vary in size – and a level teaspoon of a broken leaf tea will pack more punch than a level teaspoon of a well-twisted full leaf tea. It all comes down to knowing the tea you are drinking at that time."
Too darned hot
David Thompson again: "I think people drink their black, green, oolong and Chinese white teas too hot. Once tea starts to cool, you can better appreciate its aroma and taste. Experiment, too, by reinfusing the same leaves again and again with freshly boiled water. You can get a lot more from most teas and each reinfusion tastes different."
White with one or black with none?
David says certain teas are designed to be drunk with milk while others are best taken as they come from the pot. Such teas are known in the trade as self-drinking. All tea from Darjeeling in North East India is self-drinking tea as is Chinese white tea, all green teas and oolong tea.
He says milk should be added to CTC (cut, torn and curled) teas and many grades of orthodox broken leaf teas. These teas are high liquoring with deep colour, good strength and lots of flavour- and they really need milk to make them palatable. "I don't think it really matters whether the milk is put first or last. I prefer full-cream milk with the breakfast teas and masala tea I make. But that's just my preference."
Just as some teas are self-drinking and others are designed to take milk, the addition of a little sugar can improve the taste of some teas. The same goes for lemon/lime. It all depends on your palate and your preferences.
Tea has all the complexity of wine appreciation, but there's no hangover!