All genuine types of tea (black, green, white and Oolong) come from the tea bush Camellia sinensis. This occurs in two varieties: Camellia sinensis, originally from China, and Camellia assamica, originally from India. Hybrids are now often cultivated, to get the best elements of each plant.
The tea bush flourishes in tropical and subtropical conditions, and the best tea is grown at elevations of 叩 to 2,500 metres above sea level.
Two leaves and one bud are harvested to make the finest quality tea.
Black teas are fermented (oxidised) whereas green teas are not. Oolongs are partially fermented.
Orthodox production involves handprocessing of tea leaves and comprises five steps: withering, rolling, fermenting, drying and sorting.
WITHERING: the tea leaves are spread out after harvesting in large withering troughs, for anything from eight to twelve hours, depending on the climate. During this time, the leaves lose up to 60 per cent of their moisture.
ROLLING: the leaves are carefully rolled in large machines for up to 30 minutes, depending on the variety. This breaks down the cell walls and releases the juice from the leaves, which combines with oxygen in the air to initiate the fermentation process, also called oxidation.
FERMENTATION/OXIDATION: this lasts between two and three hours, and results in the tea leaves turning a reddish colour. It is at this stage that the tea develops its distinctive aroma, and the length of oxidation will ultimately dictate the colour and quality of the tea. Less-fermented tea is paler in the cup, and lighter on the palate, while strongly flavoured dark teas are fermented longer. Oxidation is where the real artistry of tea making resides: it really can make or break the flavour of a cup of tea.
DRYING: moisture is removed from the leaves so that, by the end of the process, only three per cent of their original moisture remains. This takes place at a temperature of 90 degrees Celsius and takes about 20 minutes. During this process, which is closely monitored, the tea leaves take on an even darker hue.
SORTING: in the final stage, the tea is placed on riddle screens and sorted into four grades. These are leaf tea, broken tea, fannings and dust.
Leaf tea: whole tea leaves
Broken tea: broken pieces of tea leaf fannings: smaller broken pieces of tea leaf
Dust: tiny little pieces
Whole-leaf tea takes longer to brew, but has complex aromas that are characterised by their delicacy. This is regarded as the finest quality tea. Lower-grade tea leaves often generate stronger aromas, but are less complex, while fannings are used in some tea bags. Dust is also used in tea bags, but not by premium tea makers, who restrict their teas to the first three leaf grades.
GREEN TEA IS DIFFERENT
Green tea is not fermented, so it does not undergo the oxidation process. In China, it is heated in large woks, whereas Japanese green tea is steamed in drums. Then the leaves are rolled, dried and sorted.
READING THE TEA LEAVES
It's an old wives' tale that the future can be seen in tea leaves. But tea drinkers with an eye on the present can nonetheless derive much of interest from a survey of the leaves in their cup - or from the packaging around those leaves, at any rate. In addition to the four grades of tea leaf already discussed, tea makers provide information about the tea itself and the flavours that can be expected from it. A series of letters is used to help with this, as follows:
F - Finest: this designation pretty much speaks for itself!
T - Tippy: this shows that the tea is made from the palest tips of the tea leaves and is pale in colour, with a delicate flavour.
G - Golden: this designates tea made out of leaf tips with a bright, light colour from yellow to glowing gold.
F - Flowery: this indicates the floral aroma and taste of a particular tea.
0 - Orange: traces back to the Royal House of Orange and means particularly good,as in "royal".
P - Pekoe: the Chinese word for white fluff or down and refers to the white hairs on the young and tender tea leaves.
Whole-leaf teas have various assortments of these letters, such as "FOP" for a Flowery Orange Pekoe. They point to the quality of the tea and give experts an at-a-glance indication of its provenance. In Darjeeling circles, the finest of all teas would carry the designation: SFTGFOP 1. The "S" means "Special", and shows that this is tea of the highest possible quality. The "1" at the end points to its exclusive quality, and indicates that this is the sovereign of all teas, taken from a very select harvest.