Organic teas have been sold since the 1980s when the organic craze began. In spite of this, the take up has not been as big as was expected.
Many suppliers use the Organic claim in the hope that it will generate more sales of their product, not realising that it is a narrow and specific market.
Organic coffees have also been sold and recently the authorities stopped bottled water companies from using the word organic to describe their product.
Many products (and teas) claimed as organic are falsely labelled.
If someone wants to buy organic teas how does one do so? Firstly make sure that the teas are from a reputed company, then look for the proper organic certification on their labelling.
Organic teas come from only a few certified plantations and are not widely produced. So buyer beware!
Learning to evaluate tea (or examine and taste it as the experts do), is not difficult.
However, it will require the use of all your senses, except hearing!
The 7 step process:
- Visual appearance of the dry tea leaf. It must generally be uniform in colour and size.
- The touch and feel of the dry leaf. Not too dried out or crumbly.
- Aroma of the leaf – fresh not stale and must reinforce the character of the tea.
- The colour and appearance of the infusion (the liquor), generally bright in colour.
- Aroma of the infused tea – fresh, pleasant and display the characteristics of the tea.
- Appearance, shape and the colour of the infused (or wet) leaf.
- Finally and most importantly the taste and flavour. Slurping and swilling is allowed.
Of course the type of tea being evaluated will determine many of the characteristics. A single estate Darjeeling tea will be very different to a strong blend of Ceylon tea.
You can use this process for testing the best quality leaf teas as well as for tea bags. Tear a couple of teabags up and evaluate the tea in them. Better still compare the various teabags on offer and see if they meet the claims they make.
Although all tea is derived from species of the Camellia plant (mainly Camellia Sinensis), as distinct from fruit and herbal infusions, the method of processing the leaves gives rise to six types, colours or classes of tea.
Black Tea: produced by the orthodox (drying, rolling, withering, firing) or CTC (crush, tear, curl) method. These teas are popular in the western world such as English Breakfast, Darjeeling, Ceylon etc. In some Chinese dialects it is also referred to as ‘red tea’ because of the colour after infusion.
Green Tea: Steamed (Sencha) or pan dried (gunpowder). The purest form of tea and globally the most widely drunk in various styles.
Oolong: Semi processed. Many varieties produced depending on the country of origin. Sometimes called blue tea because of it’s appearance.
White Tea: Rare and expensive. Mainly the unopened bud, air dried naturally such as Silver Needles.
Yellow Tea: From the high mountain regions of China.
Pu-erh: Generally from the Yunnan Province. These teas can also be aged.
Of course tea readily absorb flavours, which is why there are so many flavoured teas such as Earl Grey or Moroccan Mint. But that is another story…
There is a myth being circulated by some marketers of tea that large leaf teas are always better than small leaf tea. This is not so.
The truth is that there are some teas, particularly those which are strong and aromatic, that are enjoyed better as a small leaf size (or to use the terminology of the tea trade, a broken grade).
This is particularly true of teas to which milk is generally added.
After tea is processed it is separated into leaf size by vibrating sieves, so larger leaf sizes and smaller leaf sizes are produced by the same process and at the same time.
What is true is that the larger leaf teas are more subtle, not stronger or better, than smaller leaf teas.
As a general rule the smaller the leaf size, the stronger and quicker the infusion.
Storage of tea in clear glass jars, especially if they are kept outside of pantry cupboards, results in the tea leaves ‘breaking down’ and losing their quality.
Proper storage of tea is important if you want the tea to retain quality, aroma and character.
The natural enemies of good tea are moisture, air and light.
It is quite simple – always use a dry spoon and store your teas in an airtight metal or ceramic storage canister. Another good habit is to occasionally shake the canister.
Follow these rules even for storage of your teabags.
While the ideal water temperature for different types of tea varies, the practical reality is that in everyday situations such a level of perfection may be hard to achieve.
However, as general rule, whatever the tea being infused, the temperature should never be more than the immediate point of boiling (approx. 95C).
Water temperature that is higher than this will scald the leaves, destroy the aroma and the tea will taste bitter. So do not overboil the water.
Conversely if the water is not hot enough it will prevent the leaves from releasing their full flavour.
Green and white teas are best infused with water that is just before the point of boiling.
Water quality is a major contributor to an enjoyable cup of tea.
The water should be clear and free of any sediment and minerals. It also should be freshly drawn because the oxygen content of fresh and running water is high and contributes to the enhancement of tea quality.
Unfortunately a lot of tap water has minerals and additives so filtered water (never distilled) is best.
The kettle for boiling the water should be emptied after use as stale or reheated water will diminish the quality of the pleasing cup.
Any tea supplier who packs teas in pyramid shaped teabags and calls them silk or silken is stating an untruth, in short they are lying!
In reality the material used is nylon, most of it not biodegradable.
If a tea supplier can deliberately lie about the material they use for their teabags then what does it say about the integrity and quality of the actual tea used? Is it just a ruse to charge the consumer more?
Using full leaf tea or herbal infusions in pyramid shaped bags will not give a strong full bodied infusion. Broken grades (smaller leaf size) can be infused for a shorter period of time and give a quicker and more intense result – that is a reality.
Pyramid teabags may well eventually go the way of other gimmicks – circular teabags, draw string teabags, teabags with holes in it, triangular teabags etc.
We wait with bated breath for the next great new invention thought up by the marketing gurus seeking a sales advantage on the crowded shelves of the supermarkets.
In reality the quality of the tea obtained from the teabag depends on the quality of the tea or herbal infusion inside it.
Elmstock do a pyramid teabag in response to requests from some distributors. Our single estate large leaf pyramid bags are also biodegradable.
However we are adamant that the resultant beverage, while possibly being more subtle, is not as intense (flavour) as regular double chamber paper (unbleached of course) teabags.
While tea grew wild in parts of China and India before organised cultivation of the crop took place, it was drunk in the monasteries by monks as an aid to meditation.
Tea was introduced to the British Royal family by a Portuguese Princess ‘Catherine of Braganza’ who married into the royal family in the sixteenth century. Included in her dowry was a chest of tea!
Queen Elizabeth enjoys specially supplied Darjeeling, Earl Grey and Yunnan tea. We know that Prince Charles is an avid tea drinker and favours a variety of white tea.
The world’s most famous monk the Dalai Lama continues the priestly involvement with tea as is shown in the accompanying photograph.
The Beatles were known to enjoy a cuppa and many well known singers drink tea as a part of their pre-show ritual – perhaps it improves their vocal chords!
And what test cricket match would be complete without a cup of tea for the players at the ‘tea interval’?
Tea is hygroscopic, which simply means it readily absorbs any flavours and aromas introduced to it or placed close to it.
If you store opened tea or teabags close to strong flavoured items such as coffee or onions, you will have coffee or onion flavoured tea within a day or two.
This is why storage of tea in dry, airtight containers (preferably not clear glass) is important. Moisture, air and light are the enemies of tea and cause the tea to ‘break down’ and lose its particular flavour, aroma and character.
Earl Grey tea is generally black tea flavoured with essence of Bergamot. A milder version is Madame Bergamot which adds cornflowers and lemon.
There are thousands of flavoured teas, black, green or white, some flavoured with actual fruit, flowers, berries or herbs with or without the addition of flavoured oils or other flavouring.
But be warned. Because flavouring can mask the actual tea quality some flavoured teas use poor quality tea. It is recognised that the highest quality flavoured teas come from Hamburg in Germany.
Flavoured teas are best enjoyed and appreciated without milk.
Tea is usually classified as Black e.g. English Breakfast, Green e.g. Sencha, Oolong e.g. Ti Kwan Yin (Iron Goddess of Mercy) and White e.g. Silver Needles.
However Chinese teas have two additional classes which are Yellow tea e.g. Huo Shan Huang Ya from the Anhui Province and Red tea e.g. some Keemun teas.
While all these teas come from the same plant source, they differ greatly because of the method of processing. Black teas are fermented and go through a drying, withering and rolling process while green and white teas are produced by natural drying or pan firing and sometimes steaming. Oolong teas are semi fermented.
All teas except black teas should be drunk with without milk. Even black teas, particularly the better quality teas should be drunk without milk, as the true flavour, aroma and the unique subtlety of a tea can be best enjoyed without milk. However old habits die hard and milk is often added, either before or after tea is poured.
Milk was first introduced into tea to mask the mustiness of teas after their long sailing voyage from China. It is a particular English habit which has spread to all parts of the Old Empire.
Try drinking your tea without milk. Brew it with less strength if you must and enjoy it’s real flavour.
Tea which is derived from the Chinese word t’e, pronounced tay, only refers to beverages made from the leaves and buds of the Camellia Sinensis or Camellia Assamica plant. Drinks made from herbs or fruit such as peppermint, camomile, mixed herbs, mixed fruit, rosehip and lemongrass are referred to as infusions or tisanes, never as tea.
Tea comes in many forms and from many and varied sources (more about that later as we continue our journey through the ‘tea lands’ of the world).
Our consumption of tea is increasing on a global scale. It is the most consumed drink next to water and over three billion (think of it, over three thousand million) cups of tea are drunk every day!
It is drunk in the drawing rooms of the wealthy, the boardrooms of the powerful and the thatched huts of the impoverished – from the peaks of the majestic Himalayas to the parched deserts of the Sahara, from the grand tea salons of Paris to the humble wayside shops of China.
It is a mystical and often venerated beverage and the source of wonderful historical tales and fables. Over the centuries, wars have been fought over it, people have been exploited by it, fortunes made from it – and yet today because of its variety and health benefits, its popularity continues to grow.