Photo Credit: Rishi Tea
The main determining factor of tea type is the way the Camellia sinensis leaves are processed after harvest. The variety of Camellia sinensis and the way it is grown (elevation, climate, exposure to sunlight, etc.) can vary from type-to-type. These variables affect the caffeine level, nutrient content, leaf appearance, aroma, liquor (the liquid resulting from when you steep the leaves), and the taste of the tea. For example, like we mentioned in LESSON 2 "What is tea", when Camellia sinensis is grown at higher elevations, the plants grow more slowly and acquire more complexity of flavor. Cultivating, harvesting, and producing tea *is* an art form - and we are geeking out big time at the thought of sharing it with you (!!).
HERE ARE THE FOUR MAIN VARIABLES THAT DETERMINE TEA TYPE
As we mentioned above, the way the tea is processed is the biggest determining factor in categorizing a tea. The short way to explain this is that the longer the Camellia sinensis leaf is left exposed to air (i.e. the longer it's oxidized), the higher the level of caffeine in the leaf, and the darker the color of the leaf and the resulting liquor the leaf produces when steeped. ("Liquor" is what Sommeliers call the liquid produced from steeping tea leaves). Once the leaf is oxidized to the desired extent, the tea maker will heat, steam, or pan-fry the leaf to stop the oxidation process. Oxidation level is not the only determining factor when it comes to tea types - for example, oolong is one of the most complex and labor-intensive teas to process, with a variety of steps involved, and pu-erh is unique in that some types require a post-fermentation “piling” step akin to composting, and some attain their desired characteristics through a gradual aging process over many years.
Two principal varieties of Camellia sinensis are used to produce tea: the small-leaved Chinese variety (C. sinensis sinensis) used for most tea types; and the large-leaved variety native to the Assam region in India (C. sinensis assamica), used mainly for black tea. The sinensis variety thrives in cooler temperatures and high elevations, such as mountainous ares of China, Taiwan, and Japan, and will typically grow to between 5 and 15 feet tall. It usually is kept pruned at waist height, is dormant throughout winter, and yields no more than 5 pluckings each year. The assamica strain thrives in humid climates with warm temperatures and generous rainfall, and it grows to between 30 and 60 feet if left unattended. Under ideal conditions it provides a continuous yield throughout the entire year, and is preferred in Northeast India, Sri Lanka and Africa. The assamica leaf produces strong black teas, as well as pu-erh and certain types of oolongs. Other cultivars and hybrids of these two main varieties exist today, with unique flavors and characteristics making some more ideal for certain tea types than others.
There are optimal growing conditions for different types of tea. Elevation, exposure to sunlight, nutrients in the soil, and the amount of water received play significant roles in the end product. The reason why certain famous teas are only grown in certain regions, and cannot be replicated elsewhere, is because of the concept of terroir, a word commonly used in the wine industry.
Terroir comes from the French word terre (“land”); it is the set of all environmental factors, including type of soil, climate, cultivar, and even cultural influences, which combine to create unique characteristics in the final product.
With tea, the weather conditions during the week or two before harvest are vital to determining how the tea will turn out, and the traditions of the region of origin are also important as they affect how the leaf will be processed.
There are so many factors – both fixed and variable – that contribute to the end tea product, and this is what makes the journey from earth to cup so fascinating.
There are sub-types within each main tea type that are dependent on the season they're harvested in. As mentioned above, the sinensis variety has a more limited harvesting season, with the spring “first flush” general being the most desired plucking, whereas the assamica variety can ideally be harvest continuously throughout the year.
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