All about Tea – Part 1
This is the first of several blogs about tea. Look for future installments coming over the next few weeks. Did you know that, technically speaking, all tea comes from ONE plant ~ camellia sinensis? Beverages made from anything else (herbs, fruit, etc.) is not actually not tea, but tisane. However, most people consider all of these drinks part of the tea family.
The color and flavor of the tea depends on the degree of oxidation that takes place as the tea is processed. Science time: Oxidation occurs when enzymes in the leaves are exposed to air, causing the leaves to change color and flavors to develop. Oxidation is sometimes, incorrectly, called fermentation.
Another factor in determining the character of tea is where it is grown. Although camellia sinensis can grow anywhere, it only produces tea of acceptable quality in tropical or subtropical climates, with adequate rainfall, and at an altitude of one to seven thousand feet above sea level. Variations in altitude, soil composition, rainfall and exposure to sun all play a part in the characteristics of the final product.
With very rare exceptions, all tea is cultivated, not harvested in the wild. Tea originated in the mountains of China and was successfully transplanted to the mountain regions of India, Japan, Thailand, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and the Southeast Asia and Kenya. Like wine, tea is very sensitive to the soils in which it grows and, also as with wine grapes, many varieties and hybrids have been developed over the centuries. Just as there are single vineyard wines, there are single garden teas that can command very high prices. Each culture that produces tea has developed its own traditions of processing the leaves, resulting in a huge variety of styles and sub-styles.
When tea became popular in Europe, merchants invented their own names for their products. Thus Assam tea became known as Irish Breakfast and Keemun became known as English Breakfast. In addition, a system for designating quality was developed. In general, the best teas are those with leaves that have been left intact, and the gradations reflect this. Whole leaves take longer to infuse into hot water, creating a fuller, more complex flavor before the unpleasant, bitter tannin in the leaf dissolves into the water. Smaller leaf fragments color the water faster, but they release their tannin faster, as well.
Merchants use letters to indicate the grades of tea, which include, in ascending order:
- Dust (D) – the lowest grade, this is the powdery residue at the bottom of a crate of tea
- Fannings (F) – tiny broken leaf fragments. It is an unfortunate fact that dust and fannings are the two grades in most teabags
- Cut Torn and Curled (CTC) – refers to a mechanical process that creates a standardized product
- Pekoe (P) –whole leaf tea of high quality (often used misleadingly on teabags)
- Orange Pekoe (OP) – a higher grade. It is not orange in color, nor orange flavored, but was named by Dutch merchants for the Royal family of the Netherlands, the House of Orange, to denote the highest quality
An elaborate system of initials indicates further grades of Pekoe. These will sometimes appear on labels to assure the buyer of quality. In general, the more initials, the more rarified the tea, as long as the final letter is P for Pekoe. For example Darjeeling SFTGFOP is very good tea, indeed.
At The Bookend Café, we have high quality Orange Pekoe in a variety of flavors. Stop in and give them a try!