TEA … a Primer

Such a simple word “tea” … which provides us with such a simple beverage.  Why then, oh why, do so many people make it seem so complicated?   Do we really need to know about the origin, production and preparation of the leaf?  Can’t we just enjoy our cuppa without being told its pedigree?  It doesn’t have to be complicated.  But if you want a bit more information, let me break it down for you as simply as possible . . .

All tea comes from one plant, the Camellia Sinensis.  The Camellia Sinensis is an evergreen plant, which resembles its cousin, the azalea bush.  Yes, there are over 3,000 varieties of this plant, but it still is the leaf of this plant which, after plucking, withering, firing and sorting, gives us “tea”.

Although the plant can grow to the height of 25′, for ease of plucking, the plants are kept to a height of 3′ or 4′.  Bending over tea bushes, plucking the new growth can be a ‘back breaking’ job, so the plants are pruned to this reasonable height.   Picking or “plucking” takes place three times a year, taking only the new growth.  This growth is called a “flush” and is referred to as first flush, second flush and autumnal.

Tea is plucked mostly by women – smaller hands and feet and less apt to trample on the plants – who pass this profession on to their daughters.  Men are generally considered too ‘clumsy’ and work in the fields and factories.  Successful plantations today take care of their workers and provide everything from health care to housing, schooling and subsidized food.


So, where is tea grown? 
Like wine, tea grows best at higher altitudes with an afternoon cloud cover.  The soil should be rich with lots of moisture and the climate should be fairly consistent.  The farms where tea is grown are called “plantations” or tea “estates”.  Although tea is grown primarily in China, Japan, India, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Kenya and southern parts of Russia, you’ll find plantations now in South Carolina, Hawaii and even an experimental estate in England.

Types of Tea
Depending on who you talk to, there are between three to seven types of tea.  Those categories are:  white, green, oolong, pouchong, black and pu-erh.   Tisanes are herbal beverages which a lot of people call “tea”, but they really aren’t “tea” because they do not contain any leaves from the Camellia Sinensis plant.  But let’s keep it simple and just talk about the three basic types:  white, green, and black.

Production for each type of tea differs slightly, although the process is the same.  From plucking in the fields, the leaves are then withered to reduce moisture.  From withering, the leaves are heat-fired to stop oxidation.  They may then be crushed, or rolled before being sorted for grading.

Green tea is becoming more and more popular as people realize its health benefits.   Once produced only in China and Japan, green tea is now being produced in India and Sri Lanka as well.  After plucking, the tea is withered slightly to reduce the moisture and then carefully heat treated to stop oxidation.  In Japan, green tea is steamed to stop the oxidation process, keeping its vibrant green color.  This steaming process is why Japanese green teas are more vegetal tasting.  In China, woks are used and this process gives Chinese greens a nuttier, slightly sweeter aftertaste.

Green tea lends itself to scenting or flavoring very nicely.  You’ll find lots of flavored green teas on the market today – from florals to fruity blends, as well as some spices.  If you enjoy your cuppa sweetened, green teas are fine, but, please NO milk!

Black tea is the one that most of us are familiar with.  I’m sure we’ve all grown up with a box of Lipton or Tetley or even Yorkshire Gold tea bags in the cupboard.  Grown mostly in India and Sri Lanka (Ceylon), leaves designated for black teas are spread out to dry (withered) after plucking to remove most of the moisture.  The leaves are then heat treated, rolled and ready for sorting.

Black teas are sold as “orthodox” (large, unbroken leaves) or as “ctc” (smaller particles called “cut, torn, curled”).   Black teas can be from a specific estate or blended, as in English Breakfast, or flavored.  The most popular flavored black tea is, of course, Earl Grey.  Black teas are generally enjoyed with milk and sugar.

White tea is very delicate and generally plucked from the finest bushes.  Only the top buds of the plant are plucked – before dawn, before the buds open.   As a result, White tea can be very rare and can be very expensive.  At one time, white tea was thought to be most appreciated in its purest form and not scented or blended.  Today, however, you’ll find all sorts of scented white teas available from tea purveyors.

Chinese emperors would only allow young virginal girls with gloved hands
to pluck their teas, placing them in a solid gold bowl.
These became ‘tribute’ teas or ‘imperial’ teas and reserved
only for emperors and visiting dignitaries. 

 

Caffeine Content
First of all, did you know that caffeine is a natural substance produced by the plant to ward off parasites?  Also, the caffeine content can be manipulated somewhat by the grower.  Nigel Melican, research scientist and President of the European Tea Association, states, “Caffeine varies in the fresh green leaf depending on the fineness of the pluck.  For any tea, be it black, green or white, the caffeine is highest in the bud.  Silver needle (white tea) is 100% bud and has the highest caffeine content.”

Over 85% of Americans consume significant amounts of caffeine every day.  The Mayo Clinic claims that most adults can handle up to 400 milligrams of caffeine a day without any side effects.  But if you are prone to medical problems, or sleep issues, and would like to cut down on your caffeine intake, you might want to know just how much caffeine you’re drinking.  On average, keep in mind tea has half the caffeine that coffee has and herbal tisanes have no caffeine.

Is caffeine addictive?  Research says “no”, but caffeine does stimulate the nervous system and most of us do crave that alert feeling that comes after having it.  I believe it’s better to understand the caffeine content in a cuppa if we start with coffee …

On average an 8oz. cup of Starbucks coffee has 180 mg of caffeine.  Dunkin Donuts has a little less with 150 mg of caffeine.  Black tea, on average, has 48 mg of caffeine, while green tea has even less caffeine than black tea, with an average of 28 mg.  White tea can be deceiving with more caffeine than green, but less than black.  Again, these numbers are for 8oz.  The average person uses a 14oz. mug, so increase the numbers.

Loose Leaf vs Tea Bags?  
Some people think loose leaf tea is too expensive.  Loose leaf tea may seem to cost a bit more, but when you break down the price per cup, its actually less expensive than you think.  And, if like me, you get a second infusion (and sometimes a third) from your leaf, that cuts the cost in half.  The secret, of course, is to start with good quality tea.

Prices for bagged teas can be all over the place.  And there are some beautifully packaged ‘bagged’ teas available.  But remember, you are also paying for the packaging.  As a result, your cost per cup may be more than loose leaf tea.

Is loose leaf tea more difficult to prepare?  I don’t think so at all.  The process is exactly the same except for one thing.  With loose leaf tea, you have to put the “tea” into something to infuse it.  The bagged tea is already “in” something.  That’s the only difference.  Temperature of the water should be the same.  Steeping time should be the same.  But with loose leaf tea you are going to get a better tasting cuppa.

How to Make the Perfect Cup
Hopefully, now that you have some basic information about tea, you’ll want to start enjoying it.  No, its not complicated.  Want to know more?  Just click on the link … A Perfect Cuppa.

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Once upon a time in a land far, far away, legend says that in China 5000 years ago the then Emperor Shen Nung, who was referred to as the emperor of agriculture, was sitting in his garden boiling his drinking water.  Emperor Nung believed that boiling drinking water destroyed the bacteria that made people sick, and 5000 years ago that was quite a radical way of thinking.  Some people thought he was a bit strange, but he was, after all, an emperor, so people followed his beliefs.  As he was sitting under this large, beautiful tree boiling his water, the wind picked up and a few leaves blew into the pot.  He watched them for a few moments, contemplated it, and always eager to try new things, he tasted it.  And that was how tea was discovered!

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Want to learn even more? You might be interested in how “tea” got its name …  “What’s In a Name”

 

DARJEELING

Before I became involved with tea, I have to admit I’d never heard of Darjeeling … not the tea, nor the place.  When, on the few occasions I bought tea, which was just scanning the boxes on the supermarket shelves and picking up a familiar brand name, or whatever was on sale, never would I buy a tea from a region or country, or even a particular type of tea.  That all changed, however, when I became immersed in TEA … its culture, its history, its variety and the passion which surrounds it.  And it began when I started visiting these countries which produce it.

One of the most memorable places I had the privilege to visit was Darjeeling in India.  Yes, Darjeeling is a tea, but it is also a place.  “The Land of the Thunderbolt” or Dorje-Ling is what it is called in Tibetan.  Situated in the northeast corner of India, high in the Himalayan mountains and bordered by Tibet, Butan and China, this is a place of magnificent beauty.  With its slightly acidic, but rich soil, abundant rainfall, high elevation and afternoon cloud cover, its no wonder that some of the best teas in the world are grown here.  Known as the “Champagne of Tea”, Darjeeling teas can command some very high price tags.

I’m sure the numbers have changed since I visited, but at that time there were approximately 80 tea gardens in the Darjeeling region.  They ranged in size from small family-run estates to large corporate-owned plantations.  I had the opportunity to visit quite a few estates at that time and was astounded at how each one was unique, with its own energy, and philosophy, notwithstanding the pride that comes from working with people who share a single passion.

Jayshree Tea Estate, Darjeeling

Of course, we were visitors from the United States who were interested in buying tea and, because of that, were treated as rock stars.  I won’t deny that.  But we were also able to experience the beauty of the land, the generosity and warmth of its people and the vibrancy of the area.

Strolling through any of the estates, the landscape is breathtakingly beautiful.  An undulating, almost rolling typography of tea bushes surround you, sloping down the terrain.  And the majesty of the snow-capped mountains in the distance is magical.

The work is difficult and the days are long for those who work in the tea industry.  With their nimble fingers, the tea pluckers are generally women, who go into the fields in the morning, some with little ones in tow.  Quite a few are armed with umbrellas, most wear “Wellies” on their feet and all have baskets strapped around their heads.  They work til noon, break for lunch, and then are back adeptly plucking two-leaves and a bud at the waist-high bushes until 5pm.  They wait on the dirt paths for the trucks to come and weigh their baskets, before they go home, hot and tired from a long day in the fields.

A very proud plantation worker displaying his commemorative buckle.

Men are most often in the fields, pruning, planting and tending to the tea plants, or in the laboratories and factories, weighing, withering, sorting and packaging the teas for market.  And children, for the most part, are in estate-provided schools.  Life as a plantation worker is not easy.  The pay is relatively small when you consider the selling price of the tea.  Although the plantations were started by the British, the plantations are now owned by Indians.  Housing is provided for the workers with each home having a garden plot to grow veggies.  In addition to their wage, workers receive a small allowance to purchase food and supplies.

The history of tea in this area goes back to the early 1800s when the East India Company lost its monopoly on the China tea trade.  The whole of Great Britain was, by now, addicted to tea, and the British government had to do something.  Desperately trying to establish tea gardens in the northern regions of India, the East India Company (aka the John Company),  with Camellia Sinensis seeds, started planting.  By 1866, there were 39 British-owned and operated tea gardens.  Following Indian Independence in 1947, the British began to sell their gardens to Indians and the Tea Act in 1953 regulated the industry.

Authentic Darjeeling tea is unique and cannot be grown or manufactured anywhere else in the world.  And now Darjeeling tea has a ‘Protected Geographical status’ within the European Union, USA and Australia.  As Roquefort is to cheese and Champagne is to wine, Darjeeling now is to tea. These products with their individual characteristics specific to the particular region in which they are produced have been awarded a certificate protecting them from exploitation.   Consumers knowing this can now be guaranteed that they are getting genuine Darjeeling. This helps in ensuring the production and sale of Darjeeling tea all over the world.  And to identify authentic Darjeelings, a logo was also created showing the profile of a woman holding two leaves and a bud.

To keep up with the changing marketplace, today you’ll find a lot of the tea estates have become organic, biodynamic and/or Fair Trade, with certifications from the Tea Board of India.  Whether you call them tea gardens, estates or plantations, here is the list for you of the currently operating tea estates.  Quite a few, are now offering “home stays”, tea tours and camping opportunities.  If you are interested in adventure travel and experiencing something other than the familiar, I couldn’t recommend a trip to Darjeeling more highly.  It’s an experience  you will never forget.

When I started tasting different teas, from different countries, and different regions within those countries, I was changed forever.  Although tea is the most popular beverage in the world, except for water, of course, it doesn’t stop at that.  With its unique terroir, Darjeelings have earned the name “The Champagne of Teas” for a reason.  With their medium body, identifiable muscatel flavor and hint of spice, they are exceptional.  And, I haven’t even touched on the nuances from the first flush to the autumnals.  From which estate, do I think grows the best tea?  You’ll just have to try them all yourself to find out.

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Darjeeling East:  Arya Tea Estate, Chongtong Tea Estate , Dhooteriah Tea Estate , Kalej Valley Tea Estate , Liza Hill Tea Estate , Lingia Tea Estate, Marybong Tea Estate , Mim Tea Estate, Darjeeling Mim, Orange Valley (Bloomfield Tea Estate) , Pussimbing Tea Estate , Risheehat Tea Estate, Rungmook / Cedars Tea Estate , Tumsong Tea Estate

Darjeeling West:  Badamtam Tea Estate, Bannockburn Tea Estate , Barnesbeg Tea Estate , Ging Tea Estate , Happy Valley Tea Estate, North Tukvar, Pandam Tea Estate , Phoobshering Tea Estate, Puttabong Tea Estate , Rangaroon Tea Estate, Rungneet Tea Estate, Singtom Tea Estate, Soom Tea Estate, Steinthal Tea Estate

Kurseong (North):  Ambootia Tea Garden, Balasun Tea Garden, Eden Vale Tea Garden, Dilaram Tea Garden, Margaret’s Hope Tea Garden, Moondakotee Tea Garde, Oaks Tea Garden, Ringtong Tea Garden, Springside Tea Garden

Kurseong South:  Castleton Tea Garden, Giddapahar Tea Garden, Goomtee Tea Garden, Jogmaya Tea Garden, Jungpana Tea Garden, Longview (High Lands) Tea Garden, Mahalderam Tea Garden, Makaibari Tea Garden, Mohan Majhua Tea Garden, Monteviot Tea Garden, Mullootar Tea Garden, Narbada Majhua Tea Garden, Nurbong Tea Garden, Rohini Tea Garden, Selim Hill Tea Garden, Seepoydhura Tea Garden, Sivitar Tea Garden, Tindharia Tea Garden

Mirik:  Gopaldhara Tea Estate, Ghayabaree and Millikthong Tea Estate, Okayti Tea Estate, Phuguri Tea Estate, Seeyok Tea Estate, Singbulli Tea Estate, Thurbo Tea Estate

Upper Fagu:  Avongrove Tea Garden, Chamong Tea Garden, Dhajea Tea Garden, Nagri Tea Garden, Nagri Farm Tea Garden, Selimbong Tea Garden, Sungma Tea Garden, Turzum Tea Garden, Teesta Valley Tea Garden, Tukdah Tea Garden, Upper Fagu Tea Garden

Teesta:  Ambiok (Hillton), Gielle Tea Garden, Glenburn Tea Garden, Kumai (Snow View) Tea Garden, Lopchu Peshok Tea Garden, Namring and upper Namring Tea Garden, Runglee Rungliot Tea Garden, Samebeong Tea Garden

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References:  Margaret’s Hope Estate, Makaibari Estate, Wikipedia, Tea Board of India, Intelligent Legal Protection, Inside Darjeeling, Darjeeling Tourism,

“A Sort of Tea from China”

The Natural History Museum in London has just uncovered a box of tea …. how uninteresting you’re thinking …. except this small cardboard box with the glass lid has been sitting in the basement of the museum lying among other ‘botanical collections’ for more than 300 years!

The dried tea leaves found in London’s Natural History Museum.

The dried tea leaves found in London’s Natural History Museum.

Labelled “a sort of tea from China” it is believed this tea was donated to the museum by Dr. Hans Sloane in the early 1700’s.   But where did it come from and why was it donated to the museum?

A Scottish surgeon employed by the British East India Company, James Cuninghame, is best known for being a passionate botanist, and an extremely unlucky one at that.  During his trips to China and Southeast Asia in 1698 and 1705 with the trading company, he was able to collect and send back to Britain over 600 Chinese botanical specimens. Among his many samples were leaves from the Camellia Sinensis plant, both on the branch and processed.

At that time, western traders were limited by the Chinese to the ports on the island of Zhoushan, and Canton (now known as Guangzhou).  In 1703, the Chinese forced the closing of the Zhoushan trading settlement, which was subsequently moved to an island off the coast of Vietnam.  Driven by the spice trade since the early sixteenth century, this was a very important multi-ethnic port, with populations of seafarers, explorers and tradesmen. Commercial revenues were strong and in return patronage and protection were given.  But on March 15, 1705 Malaysian soldiers, hired to protect the trading settlement, rebelled and set fire to the settlement, killing sixteen men.  The survivors turned to the local authorities for help.  Help came, but shortly after capturing and executing the Malaysian soldiers, they also turned against the English.  Only Cuninghame and a few others survived.

In a letter dated May 4, 1705, Cuninghame provided a personal account of his treatment and trial following these traumatic events.  Appearing before officials, he was made to answer charges against the English.  His defense failed to impress his captors and he was held captive for another two years.  Following his release, Cuninghame’s misfortunes continued.  He narrowly escaped yet another massacre in Borneo and eventually died in 1709 on a voyage from Bengal to England.

Sample box of Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753), from the British Museum.

Sample box of Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753), from the British Museum.

During his trips, Cuninghame corresponded with an even more passionate plant collector Dr. Hans Sloane.  Dr. Sloane is actually credited with introducing England to another very popular brew – drinking chocolate.  Sloane discovered that by adding milk to ground cocoa beans, the bitterness was reduced, and made the cocoa drinkable.  Like tea, chocolate was first promoted for its medicinal value.

Among the botanical specimens that James Cuninghame sent back was this sample box of tea.  Dr. Sloane labeled it #857 and cataloged it in his herbarium among his “vegetable substances” collection.

His collections grew so vast they became the basis for the botanical studies of both the British Museum and the Natural History Museum, which is where “a sort of tea from China” ended up.

Matthew Mauger, left, and Richard Coulton, the lecturers who found the oldest tea in England. Photograph: Graham Turner

Matthew Mauger and Richard Coulton are the researchers who found the oldest tea in England.  Photograph: Graham Turner

Historians from the Queen Mary University of London, who are doing research for an upcoming book, were able to identify the sample as the oldest physical remnant of Britain’s favorite drink – TEA!

Although they wanted to taste it, they weren’t even allowed to touch it. The curators of the museum lifted the glass lid off the small cardboard box and they were only allowed to sniff  the contents.  “It had a very very faint scent of hay,” Matthew Mauger, said. “In the 18th century, writers struggling to describe this exotic new drink do refer to the smell of hay,” his co-author Richard Coulton said.  However, he added: “Fresh tea really doesn’t last very long – I doubt very much that it would be drinkable.”

I know I’d love to give it a taste.  How about you?

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References:  British Library, Wikipedia.UK,  The Guardian,  Natural History Museum of London
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