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!


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


Orange Pekoe?

During my 15 years of tea lectures, exhibitions and shows where I’d present information about tea’s origins, types of teas and their unique properties, classics vs flavored, health benefits, steeping instructions, folk lore and traditions, inevitably at the end of the presentation someone would ask me if I sold “orange pekoe” tea.  Aghhhhhhhhhhh!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter a big intake of air, and  s-l-o-w-l-y regaining my composure, I’d say “Yes, I do.  Would you like to purchase some?”

Orange pekoe tea!!
I have Estate teas, Chinese Keemuns and Yunnans, Kenyan teas, Darjeelings and Assams, teas from Sri Lanka and Nepal – all grades!  I have English Breakfast, Irish Breakfast, Scottish Breakfast.  I have blends with Assams and Darjeelings.  I have blends with Keemuns and Assams.  I have blends with Keemuns, Ceylons and Darjeelings, but, no, they want that “orange pekoe”.

I loved my customers and I appreciated each and every purchase.  If they were interested, I really did try to give them a bit more information.  A knowledgeable customer is going to make a more educated purchase (hopefully).  But, how has this name, Orange Pekoe, become synonymous with good quality black tea (and, yes, despite my attempts to educate otherwise, some people do believe it is orange flavored).

Let’s start at the beginning.  Tea originated in China.  But it was the British industrialists who began to capitalize on the burgeoning tea market.  In China, after the tea leaves are plucked, they are withered naturally, rolled and shaped by hand, wok fired and then sorted for size and quality.

Sorting Room in Chinese Factory.

Sorting Room in Chinese Factory.

This was far too slow and time consuming for the British industrialists.  It wasn’t long after the British established plantations in India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) before these innovators created machines to do this work.  Heated tables for withering were invented.  Rolling machines were invented.  But having machines do the work created another problem.  The whole leaf was now broken into particles which required a process to ‘sort’ the different leaf sizes.  This led to a process of using fine screens (much like window screens) of various sizes to separate out these particles by size.  Now there was a need to have a standardized sorting or grading system, which would identify the leaf by its size.  With every solution came another problem.  A grading system had to be created.

The system began quite simply with a single letter representing the descriptive grade.  Today, however, the grading system is much more complicated with all types of fancy add-ons.  Again, this grading system is not for Chinese teas, but only for teas from India, Sri Lanka, Kenya, etc. The letters are:

S = Special
F = Fancy
T = Tippy
G = Golden
F = Flowery
B = Broken
O = Orange
P = Pekoe

Oops, did I say “O = Orange and P = Pekoe”?  Could it be that “orange pekoe” is a grade or size of tea, such as “tippy golden”?  BINGO!

Tea Grades

Tea Grades

Let’s start at the top of the list, assuming SFTG was probably the best ‘grade’, wouldn’t BOP be the lowest?  Hmmmm.  This doesn’t necessarily mean this tea wouldn’t taste good.  It does mean, however, that it was/is the lowest grade of tea.

All the letters seem to have a logical description for a leaf … “special”, “fancy”, “tippy”, “golden”, “flowery”.  But “orange” and “pekoe” … where did these strange terms come from and what exactly do they mean?

A Chinese belief is that the tea was originally scented with orange blossoms, hence the use of the word  “orange”.  Plausible but highly unlikely.  A more likely explanation is the term “orange refers to the Dutch royal House of Orange-Nassau.  Tea was first brought to Europe by the Dutch in 1675 and it is believed that the Dutch tea traders coined the term to imply a higher classification of tea, suitable for their nobility.

The term “pekoe” (which is pronounced peck-o and not peek-o) could be derived from the mispronunciation of the Chinese words for “white hair” which are “bai hao”.  “Bai hao” refers to the downy-like white hairs on the leaf just below the bud, which would be the bai hao leaf or in pidgin English, the pekoe leaf.tprint

The next size down from the pekoe leaf would be the orange leaf; then the souchong leaf.  The more mature the leaf, the less flavor the tea would contain.  As a result, a fine plucking would consist of the unopened bud, or tip, along with the next leaf or two leaves, resulting in “orange pekoe”.  After processing and sorting the leaves, you might end up with BOP, FOP, GFOP, TGFOP, FTGFOP or even SFTGFOP.  The more letters, the better the grade of tea.

All this can be quite fascinating or painfully boring to you.  The real question is how did the average tea lover get to believe that ‘orange pekoe’ tea was the best tea on the market?  For that we have to look at that Scottish marketing genius, Thomas Lipton.

It was 1850, and although still very expensive, Great Britain and the new Americas were now consumed by tea, and Thomas Johnston Lipton is born.  The youngest of five children Thomas Lipton was born in Scotland to Irish immigrants.  Although not an academic, Thomas learned his three R’s and looked to move into the business world for his future.  After a few failed encounters, Thomas found a job he loved, working as a cabin boy.  This love of water and ships would continue throughout his life.  Saving his money, at the age of 15, Lipton booked steerage passage on a steamship bound for New York.  A few directionless jobs later, Lipton managed to secure a position as assistant at a successful grocery store in New York City.  He was fascinated by American advertising and marketing and by how different American grocery stores were compared to the British stores.

Back in Glasgow, Thomas’ parents had opened a small grocery shop.  After three years in NYC, at the age of 18, Thomas now returned to Glasgow to work in his parent’s shop.  It didn’t last long because he wanted to replicate the NYC grocery store he had worked in.  Two years later, Lipton opened his own store.

Thomas  Lipton

Thomas Lipton

Preferring to deal direct with the producers of the food, and not the middlemen, Lipton was soon buying direct from farmers.  His Americanized concept along with eliminating the middleman was successful.  It wasn’t long before he had opened many more grocery stores and with the opening of every new store, Lipton would create outrageous advertising campaigns.  One Christmas Lipton announced that his cheese would contain sovereigns (about 20 shillings or half a one pound note) and half sovereigns.  When the cheese went on sale, within two hours every last piece of cheese was sold. These cheeses became so large and so much a part of Lipton’s annual Christmas displays that the manager of Lipton’s Nottingham shop hired an elephant to transport the cheese through the town.

Vintage advertisement for Lipton Ceylon Tea.

Vintage advertisement for Lipton Ceylon Tea.

With over 300 stores, Thomas now decided to turn his attention to tea.  Continuing with his theory of cutting out the middleman, Lipton decided to visit plantations in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and learn the process himself.  This was the time when the coffee blight struck the coffee plantations in Ceylon and the coffee crops were wiped out.  Within a short period of time, Lipton scooped up five defunct coffee plantations and created tea gardens …. thus becoming the grower, the producer, the middleman, the wholesaler and the retailer!

Lipton was masterful, he made his tea affordable to everyone.  He did not stop with just selling his tea in his own shops, Lipton distributed his tea everywhere, exhibiting Lipton Teas at the London and Paris world fairs, continuing his relationship with American grocers, and opening corporate offices in Hoboken, NJ.

thomas lipton orange pekoe“Direct from the tea garden to the tea pot.”  Who wouldn’t want the freshest tea possible?  Soon the famous goatee and captain’s hat became associated with good quality tea and was found in cupboards all around the World.  And what could he call his tea to make it seem as if it was the best quality available ….. how about calling it “ORANGE PEKOE”.

References:  Liquid Jade by Beatrice Hohenegger,  Mitchell Library, Harney & Sons Guide to Tea, Wikipedia.

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