What makes for the Quality and Flavour of loose leave tea?
To truly explore tea drinking and experience its culture, throw away those tea-bags! The diversity and nuances of tea flavours are beyond the typical teas found in local supermarkets.
All tea comes from the leave and buds of the plant Camellia Sinensis. The most expensive and best of tea comes from Sri-Lanka, China, India, Taiwan and Japan; however most teas are cultivated in subtropical regions. The quality and flavor of tea is based on factors such as place of origin, elevation, rainfall, pruning and plucking methods, varietals, type of flushes, method of plucking and degree of oxidation.
Too little of rain causes inadequate nutrition, and too much rainfall causes the leaves to grow too rapidly and they lose their complex and nuanced flavors.
The higher the elevation at which the tree plant is grown the better the flavor due to the slower rate of growth. The temperature and the moisture are affected by the elevation at which it is grown. These factors may influence the flavor and chemical structure. In high regions such as misty mountains, the tea plant is exposed to less moisture and less direct sunlight; this allows the tea plant to grow slower and in a unique way thus creating an interesting and complex flavor profile.
The Camellia Sinensis comes in 1500 different varietals all accounting for the various flavor profiles. The type of tea such as White, Green, Oolong and Black are determined by the varietal used and the degree of oxidation. Assam and Darjeeling teas are grown in the region of India region and are typically used for black tea (100% oxidation). Teas grown in the China region are typically used for Green tea (0-5% oxidation).
The tea plant first produces a bud during the early spring season. As the plant and leaves grow the chemical content and flavor changes. Tea flush refers to a certain period during the tea growing seasons. During a growing season there are several flushes, and at every flush or plucking the characteristics and flavor profile changes. The best of teas are picked during the first and second flush due to the lengthy period of time it took to store the nutrients; older and coarser leaves are from the late season harvest.
Pruning and plucking
Mass produced, low quality, tea-bag tea are normally machine picked rather than hand-picked from the optimal portion of the plant. The more expensive teas are handpicked like it was done thousands of years ago. A skilled picker must select the right leaves or bud, and pick them using a special method of twisting and plucking to prevent any damage. The method of fine plucking is from the bud and top two leaves. The tea picker will choose the leaves according to the type of tea that is being produced.
Taking a look at tea cultivation
Teas are cultivated in many different ways, the dissimilarity in these methods allow for the tea to produce diverse flavours. One commonality across the teas is that the majority of teas come from the Camellia Sinensis bush.
It is this variation in processing methods that classifies the teas into the different varieties. Some teas are simply steamed after plucking, while others are bruised to change the leaves chemistry, mainly to promote oxidation. Other teas’ are allowed to ferment at varying levels, for a long periods of time.
The main varieties of tea are discussed below:
Black tea is produced by plucking the tea leaves by hand and there after they are left out in the sun until they are pliable enough to be rolled without the leaf splitting. The leaves are then put into a mechanical tumbler and rolled. This process causes the leaves’ juices to react with the air and then oxidize. The green leaves turn black and are then fired in huge drying ovens to produce the final product.
Fresh tea leaves are carefully placed on large bamboo trays and allowed to dry in the sunlight. The leaves are then placed into small hot roasting pans and quickly moved about. They are continuously rolled into balls and then re-roasted for several hours at a time. This process stops the chemical changes from occurring in the leaf by never allowing it to ferment.
After plucking, this type of tea is allowed to wilt in direct sunlight and is then shaken in bamboo baskets to lightly bruise the leaf. Oolong tea is referred to as a “semi-fermented” tea and is principally manufactured in China and Taiwan.
The chemicals in the leaf react with the air, producing a reddish leaf colour. After a desired amount of time, the leaf is fired and the fermentation process is halted.
Pu-erh is made from fermented Yunnan Black tea. After picking, Pu-erh is created by piling the tea for lengthy periods, allowing true internal fermentation of the leaf to occur.
White tea is plucked by hand within two days between the time the first buds become fully mature and the time in which the leaf unfurls. The leaves are then allowed to wither, allowing the natural moisture to evaporate before being dried.
Herbal tea is commonly referred to as tisane since it does not contain any leaves from the Camellia plant family. Herbal teas are generally broken into three categories which are rooibos teas, mate teas, and herbal infusions. Herbal infusions consist of pure herbs, flowers, and fruits. They can be delicious hot or iced.
Fruit tea may be black or green teas flavoured with a natural essence of fruit. They mostly contain black tea as a base that can be of Indian origin like Assam, Darjeeling. Indian teas make a better base for fruit tea as they have higher flavour intensity.