If you had told me 1 ½ years ago that I would be writing a Beginner’s Guide to tea, I would have laughed. To me, tea wasn’t a “thing.” Sure I drank it when I went to Chinese or Japanese restaurants, or I’d brew up a fruity, herbal tea when I wasn’t feeling well during the long, cold winter months, and of course, during summer there is always a pitcher of iced tea in the fridge, but that was about the extent of tea in my life. Then one day I wandered into a tea shop in the mall. There, on the back wall, were tin after tin of loose leaf teas with names such as Monkey Picked Oolong, Silver Yin Zhen Pearls, Dragonwell, and Jasmine Dragon Phoenix Pearls. How could I not be intrigued? $70 dollars, and a bag full of teas later, I started on my journey of exploration of tea.
I don’t claim to be an expert, or even all that knowledgeable on the subject tea. That would be impossible in just 1 ½ years. But I have learned a thing or two over the last 18 months, the greatest of which is that there is a lot of information out there, much of it contradictory and confusing. The second is that the tea world, just like the wine world, is full of snobs that will tell you that they know best and if you listen to anything that anyone else says you will never brew a great cup of tea. But while it’s easy to encounter these snobs as they tend to be the most vocal and visible out there, they are easily outnumbered by lots of others willing to share their meager knowledge to help a newbie navigate the world of tea. And that is what I hope to accomplish here. I want to demystify the world of tea for the beginner. This series of articles will help get you started on your own journey. In it I will talk about the various types of tea, the best way to steep tea, how to store it and other things that are important for beginners to know. I will not get into all the regional variations of the types of teas, except in the most general of ways. Once you have read all I have to say hopefully you will have enough knowledge to, at least, help you better enjoy tea, and then it will be up to you to decide how far you want to go with it. Like with wine, you can spend a lifetime learning all you can about the various plantations and the product they produce, and how it differs from those around it.
So what is tea? All tea, with the exception of herbal “teas” comes from the same plant, the Camellia sinensis. It is estimated that the plant has been used for making tea for over 5000 years and has been cultivated for at least the last 3000. The plant itself is an evergreen shrub or tree that is trimmed to keep it approximately 2-3 meters 6-9 feet) high. The leaves, or leaf buds are picked at different stages, and processed in different ways to produce the different varieties of tea. Much like wine, tea can exhibit “terroir,” those characteristics of the soil, geography, climate, etc. which can shape and influence the flavor of a tea. That is why a green tea from Japan can taste significantly different from a green tea from China even if processed the same way. And just like with wines, the geographical leap does not need to be that huge. Plantations that are right next to each other can produce teas with differing flavor profiles depending on the soil composition and the micro climates.
Much of what makes one tea different from another is in how it is processed after it is picked. All teas go through a drying process at some point, but some such as black and Oolong teas, will go through a process to partially or completely oxidize the leaf. Some leaves will be steamed, some roasted, some rolled into tiny balls (called pearls) or into twists. And some will even go through a partial fermentation process and be aged for years and years before it is ready to drink.
To further add complexity to an already complex issue, tea can also be scented or flavored with a wide range of things. Many classic Asian style teas are not flavored at all while others a lightly scented, most often, with various flowers, Jasmine being one of the most popular. In contrast, tea can merely be the vessel used to carry a myriad of flavors such as Indian Chai, redolent with spices such as cinnamon, clove, cardamom, and ginger, or modern Western tea blends full of sweet fruity flavors.
In Part 2 we will look at purchasing, storing, and brewing tea. The remaining parts of this series will then briefly explore the major styles of tea; white, green, oolong, black, pu-reh and herbal teas. We’ll also touch on a couple of special styles of tea that I think are worthy of an extra mention. I hope that you will join me for this journey to explore the world of tea.
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