What is tea?

Tea grid.jpg

Tea is such a fascinating world. The moment I learned that all true teas come from the same species of plant (Camellia sinensis), my mind was blown. Black, green, white, oolong, puer . All these categories of tea come from the same place. I remember feeling overwhelmed just thinking about all the different flavors of tea I’ve experienced and that they essentially came from the same plant. How? That was the question on my mind. I’ve had teas that taste of the earth. I’ve had teas that taste of the ocean. Some that taste of apricots and honey. Others that taste of chocolate and cherries. Corn and chestnuts. Butter and milk. Spiced raisins. Savory seaweed. It wasn’t until I looked into all these different teas and their flavors that I learned about how they were different. Similar to wine, differences in plant cultivars, terroirs and processing methods play a big role in how a tea tastes. But beyond all that, what is tea?

Camellia sinensis starts as an evergreen shrub, which is usually harvested in spring and early summer by either hand or machine. After picking, the leaves are put out to wither. This process helps break down proteins and increases the amount of caffeine in leaves. From there, teas that will be oxidized will be tossed and tumbled or even rolled and kneaded to break down the cells that release enzymes that start the oxidation process. The leaves are then left to darken. Chlorophyll is broken down and tannins are released. This process is controlled and can be stopped at any time by heating or “fixing” the leaves, deactivating the oxidizing enzymes. Black teas would be fully (100%) oxidized while oolong teas would be oxidized anywhere between 5%-95%. Lower oxidation produces more grassy, floral flavors while higher oxidation yield more winey, malty profiles. The fixing stage, or “kill-green” as the Chinese call it, is usually done by pan-roasting, baking, or steaming. The different methods of fixation and how long they are done affect the flavors of the final product. Most Japanese green teas are steamed quickly which produce grassy, seaweedy flavors while most Chinese green teas are pan roasted which yield nutty, toasty flavors. The last process the tea goes through is a final drying to remove most of the moisture in the leaves and be shelf stable. Each of these steps affects how the final tea tastes.

Tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world, next to water. In almost every culture, there is tea. To some people, tea nothing more than hot leaf juice. But to many others, it is so much more. Tea is a pastime. Tea is an experience. Tea is a tradition. Tea is a culture. From Tibetan butter tea to Indian masala chai. From North African Morrocan mint to South American yerba mate. From the Japanese tea ceremony to the Chinese wedding tea ceremony. From American sweet iced tea to Taiwanese boba milk tea. Tea can mean many things to different people. I am fascinated with the many flavors of tea, but more than that, I love that tea brings people together. For me, tea is getting dim sum with the family, going out for boba with friends, or sharing a cup with somebody else. Whenever I stumble on something amazing, I want to share it with the people I care about. That’s part of how Camellia started, we want to share with others what we feel is the best cup of milk tea.

What do you think of when someone brings up tea? What does tea mean to you?