Aside from water, tea is the most popular beverage in the world. It is enjoyed by half of the planetâ€™s population, where coffee is consumed by only a third.
Tea plantations are found on cloud covered mountaintops, in warm and humid environments with rich volcanic soil. Thousands of varieties of tea come from the Camellia sinensis plant, which is a tropical evergreen. Much like wine, the characteristics of tea are determined by climate as well as the qualities of the soil, cultivation, harvest and processing techniques.
Black teas are formed by allowing freshly harvested leaves to dry while spread on trays either in the open air or in rooms where temperatures are raised in order to wither or steam the leaves. The resultant leaves become fully oxidized or fermented. Once cured, the leaves are then either hand rolled and twisted or rolled in a large drum. Both actions gently bruise the leaves, releasing enzymes and turning the leaves black.
In China, black is considered an unlucky color, so often times the tea is referred to as red tea, as the leaves are black, but the tea it produces is red.
Common Indian varieties of black tea are Darjeeling, Ceylon and Assam. Chinese varieties include Keemun and Lapsang Souchong.
Green tea is handled as little as possible after the tender shoots and small young leaves are harvested. The leaves are immediately steamed to bring out a bright emerald color and then dried as quickly as possible in order to preserve both color and flavor. Green tea leaves are not oxidized and are unfermented.
Popular in both Japan and China, some Japanese varieties are Genmaicha, Hojicha, Sencha and Matcha**. (You may have noticed that all end in â€œcha,â€ which translates as tea in Japanese.) A couple of well-known Chinese varieties are Long Jing (Dragonâ€™s Well) and Zhucha (also know as Pearl or Gunpowder.)
Oolong tea is produced in a combination of both black and green tea, so it has some of the characteristics of both teas. When picked the leaves are at peak maturity, and are allowed to oxidize for a shorter time than black tea leaves, resulting in partial fermentation. Then the leaves are rolled in hand or in a drum until a red edge appears, while the interior of the leaves and stems remain green.
Oolong is known as â€œBlack Dragonâ€ in Chinese. Famous types include Formosa and Tieguanyin (Iron Goddess of Mercy.)
Other forms of tea include White tea, which is very smooth tasting and is sun-dried, and flavored teas. The most commonly used flavor is that of jasmine flowers, and has been used since the Song Dynasty. Other forms of flavoring include rose buds, chrysanthemum, orchid, orange blossoms and lychee juice.
**A little more about Matcha: It is said that the best Matcha is grown south of Kyoto in a town called Uji. It is a mountainous region that has a natural protection from frost. Great care is taken in growing and producing Matcha, and among tea connoisseurs, it is know both how the tea was grown and who processed it.
When the first buds appear in April, the tea bushes are covered with a reed matting that is supported by either a wooden or bamboo frame. This protects the tender buds from both unpredictable frosts and over-exposure to the sun. Buds are shaded for 20 days, to allow buds to slowly open to leaves while developing flavor, aroma, color and also an array of polyphenols or antioxidants.
After May 10, the leaves are handpicked and immediately steamed to produce an emerald green color and sweet aroma. Then the leaves are sealed in jars and placed in a cool storehouse for six months to mature in flavor.
In November, the dried leaves are sorted, and the stems, veins and impurities are removed. Afterwards, only one-tenth of the harvest remains. This tea is ground into a fine powder on a stone mill.
Much of the Matcha that is consumed in tea houses is an amalgamation of different harvests as the perfect tea is very hard to produce. Tea that is grown in red soil has a rich, sweet taste, but the color is often too yellow. If grown in sandy soil, the color can be perfect, but the taste can be weak.