About Tea

When we think of tea, many people have an experience limited only to the teabags that are found on supermarket shelves. There is, however, a vast world of tea, culture and tradition that can only be unlocked and explored through tea in its loose leaf form. The word "tea" is used to refer to dried leaves and the resulting beverage that is created from infusing the leaves in hot water. In this respect, a "tea" can be created from the leaves, flowers, fruit, or roots of any plant. "True teas" are derived only from the Camellia sinensis plant; "teas" created from other plants are herbal infusions or tisanes. Blends can be created by combining "true teas" with ingredients from other plants.

Camellia sinensis prefers to grow in a sub-tropical climate and it is believed to have originated in Southeast Asia, around present-day Yunnan Province in China and the Assam Region of India. The five traditional tea-producing countries are China, Japan, Taiwan, India, and Sri Lanka; however, tea is currently grown around the world. Many other countries produce tea, some of which include South Korea, Vietnam, Nepal, Kenya, Malawi, Bolivia, Turkey, and USA (Hawaii and South Carolina).

Camellia sinensis has three main varietals and hundreds of sub-varietals. Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, also known as the China tea plant, is the small leaf varietal that grows well in cooler climates and higher elevations. Tea made from its leaves tend to be aromatic and not particularly full-bodied. Camellia sinensis var. assamica, also known as the Assam tea plant, is the large leaf varietal that grows well in hotter and wetter tropical climates. Tea made from its leaves tend to be strong, robust and full-bodied. Camellia sinensis var. cambodiensis, also known as the Java tea plant, tends to have medium-sized leaves and grows well in subtropical climates. Tea made from its leaves have characteristics similar to those of the Assam varietal. There is debate as to whether this varietal is a hybrid of the other two varietals or is a sub-varietal of the Assam.

Left to grow in the wild, Camellia sinensis will grow to the height of a 30-60 foot tree (depending on the varietal); however, when cultivated in a tea garden, the plant is pruned to the size of a bush. The bushes, known as the tea table, are kept at a height of no more than three feet, which allow for easy hand-plucking of the leaves. It is these leaves that are used to produce the teas that fall into one of six different categories: black; oolong; green; white; yellow; and Pu'er. After the tea leaves are plucked, a sequence of steps is used to manufacture them into the dried loose leaf form. The category to which the finished tea belongs is dependent upon the steps that are implemented, with the primary difference being whether or not the leaves go through an oxidation step (sometimes may be referred to as fermentation).

Tea has general characteristics that are typical of each tea category. For example, black teas are generally dark in color, strong in flavor and full-bodied; green teas tend to be light in color, with more delicate flavor and lighter-bodied. These basic differences result from black tea leaves being fully oxidized, while green tea leaves are un-oxidized. Each specific tea, like a fine wine, has unique characteristics that are determined by several different factors. Among these factors are: country/region of origin; varietal of Camellia sinensis; how the tea is grown and the climatic conditions that affect the plant; time of year tea leaves were plucked; how the tea leaves are manufactured to produce the particular tea. Please refer to the tea categories and/or particular teas for specific characteristics.

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