While it is stating the obvious that careful and selective picking of tea leaves by hand will always give you better quality tea, the case is now being made for mechanical plucking methods.
The best tea is produced by careful picking by hand of two leaves and the bud from the new growth or ‘flush’.
However continued rising costs and the growing of tea in new regions, as against the traditional tea growing countries of China, India and Sri Lanka, have opened up tea plantations to mechanical harvesting of the tea leaf.
The issue with mechanical or ‘lawn mower style’ harvesting is that it also picks up lesser quality leaf and stalk, which adversely affects flavour.
Mechanical harvesting can also be only carried out on tea plantations that have been developed on relatively flat terrain and cannot be used on hilly or undulating plantations – where generally the best teas are cultivated.
The proliferation of tea bag use also hides the sins of lesser quality leaf that may also contain stalk which adds to the weight of the crop but reduces its flavour content.
Good quality tea and good water are the essentials for a great cuppa.
However to brew the best cup of tea the quantities used, as well as the brewing or steeping times, are crucial.
The table below will give a guide to the amount of tea to be used as well as the optimal brewing time.
Water temperature is also important:
Black Teas – 100 degrees C – water just at the point of boiling.
Green Teas and White Teas – 90 degrees C
Herbal Infusions – 100 degrees C
However in domestic or commercial situations it is not always easy to ensure the exact and correct temperature, though recently available variable temperature equipment will enable this to be done.
The safest option is to use water at the point of boiling. Do not let the water boil for too long as this adversely affects the flavour of the tea or infusion.
Single Estate Teas are teas produced from a single plantation or even from a particular garden (sometimes referred to as a division) within a particular plantation.
These teas will vary in flavour depending on the time of the year in which the tea is harvested, the particular weather patterns prevailing at the time and also the processing method or technique employed.
Darjeeling teas from one of their reputed plantations can therefore be:
- First Flush – teas harvested in spring, the new growth, just after the cold winter months
- Second Flush – harvested usually in the summer months and finally, autumnal teas
Each of these teas will have distinctive flavours and characteristics, although the tea is produced from the same plantation.
The flavour of the teas can also vary from year to year as it is a truly agricultural product which is affected by that particular season’s terroir.
Connoisseurs of tea often seek out single estate teas and enjoy the natural variations of appearance and flavour.
Blended teas on the other hand are the product of many teas, usually but not always, from the same region or country. The teas are blended by expert tea blenders to give a consistency of appearance and flavour, so that teas harvested, blended and packed throughout the year can be as closely produced as possible.
Some blends can have as many as 30 teas in the blend recipe, which can be varied to suit the teas available at that particular time. Blending of teas is used by tea companies to produce consistency for tea drinkers who are not seeking natural flavour variations.
Altitude, soil, rainfall and climate collectively referred to as ‘terroir’ in wine growing and tea production also determine the flavour, appearance and quality of the tea.
High grown teas generally have a distinctly lighter, subtle flavour and quality in comparison to the denser and more liquory low grown teas.
There are also mid grown teas which have their own flavour characteristics.
While high grown teas such as Darjeelings from India and Dimbulas from Sri Lanka are much sought after and therefore higher priced, low grown teas are popular in the heavy tea consuming areas of the middle east where tea consumption is an important staple of the diet.
Teas from various regions all play their part in the diversity of appearance, flavour and quality of this interesting beverage which is the second most consumed beverage in the world – next to water.
Three billion (think of it – three thousand million) cups of tea are drunk each day throughout the world.
White tea is so named because of the whitened or silver colour of the leaves.
In ancient China, because of its scarcity, only the nobility were permitted to drink it. Legend has it that the buds of the unopened leaves were picked at sunrise from selected bushes using golden shears by maidens wearing gloves. The buds were then put into muslin bags untouched by the hands of commoners and processed for the pleasure of the privileged few.
Thankfully white tea, in its many forms, is now readily available – though the good quality product is scarce because of the tedious gathering, careful separating and natural processing required. It is therefore comparatively expensive and teas that are stale, too dry or dusty should be avoided. Good quality white teas give a clear yellow-gold infusion with a distinctive grassy muscatel aroma and a smooth, elegant and mild flavour.
It has less caffeine than black or green teas.
The best white teas are from the Fujian Province in China, Darjeeling in India and specialist plantations in Sri Lanka. Silver Needles (Yin Zhen), Golden Tips, and Pai Mu Tan are the best known, though quality can vary depending on the brand.
Many white teas sold in teabags are of inferior quality, thus lessening the experience.
White Tea is best brewed in clear glass teapots and drunk from good quality white or glass Chinese style cups.
But beware – this tea which is the choice of royalty, rock stars and tea connoisseurs can become addictive!
Many countries grow tea, mainly for domestic consumption.
Indonesia is a large producer of quality black tea mainly used in teabags.
Taiwan is famous for its quality semi processed Oolong teas.
Turkey, Russia, Iran, Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea, Nepal, Vietnam, Argentina, Brazil and Malaysia also produce commercial quantities.
Russia was a relatively large producer but its tea crops were destroyed by the Chernobyl nuclear fallout!
Even the USA, New Zealand and Britain have small plantations though these are more of novelty marketing value rather than large commercial export enterprises.
Australia produces a small quantity of tea and contrary to many claims made (Australian Grown), a majority of its tea is blended with imported Ceylon Tea.
It may surprise you to know that Kenya which produces 8 per cent of the world’s tea, which is the third largest producer behind China and India, it is also the largest exporter of tea in the world.
The strong and liquory teas that are produced by the CTC method (crush, tear, curl) as distinct from the orthodox manufacture used in India and Sri Lanka are used mainly for teabags.
The tea growing areas are Nandi, Kericho and Nyeri and many of the plantations are owned by large multinational companies such as Liptons.
Other tea growing countries on the African continent include Malawi, Mauritius, Rwanda, Cameroon, Burundi, Zaire, South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
However the quantity of tea produced, with the exception of Malawi, is relatively small.
Probably producing the best black tea in the world, when Ceylon changed its name to Sri Lanka in the early 1970s it chose to retain the Ceylon Tea branding for which it had become famous.
A country blessed with fertile soil and its weather governed by regular monsoon rains, agricultural produce such as grains, spices, rubber, tea and coconut are produced in abundance.
However when it was colonised by the Portuguese, Dutch and British it was sugar and coffee plantations that were established.
Unfortunately the coffee plantations were destroyed by a blight in the 1860s and they were replaced by fledgling tea plantations, which were planted with cuttings from Assam in India.
In the 1880s, Sir Thomas Lipton was sailing to Australia and his ship docked in Colombo the capital of Sri Lanka. He was told of the plantations and the opportunity to purchase land cheaply for tea cultivation.
He took a train to the up country, fell in love with the beauty of the country and saw a potential business opportunity.
He proceeded to buy plantations which would produce quality tea for his supermarkets in Ireland and the UK.
The rest is history… Liptons Tea was established and he never did get to Australia!
Producing close to 8 per cent of the world’s tea, Sri Lanka exports over 90% of its production to the established tea markets of the world. The highest standards are therefore imposed on its exports.
Most of the tea on the island is grown in the central highlands and the differing characteristics of the tea produced is generally governed by the altitude, terroir and rainfall of the area where it is grown.
High Grown (Dimbula, Uva, Nuwara Eliya) Mid Grown (Kandy, Pusselawa) and Low Grown (Ratnapura) teas all have their distinctive flavours, appearance and aromas.
Ceylon Tea is generally produced by large expertly managed plantations with unionised work forces. Most of the tea is sold through a well established auction system.
Matcha is a finely powdered green tea used in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony CHANOYU.
Tea bushes which produce Matcha are covered with bamboo mats prior to being picked.
This produces a slightly darker leaf and is said to increase the quality of nutrients, giving rise to many claims relating to its health benefits.
The Japanese Tea Ceremony is slow and formal and performed with deliberate purpose.
However, Matcha can be drunk by adding it to very hot (not boiling) water which is then whisked into a frothy drink.
Matcha is considered a modern super food because of its health benefits, although it has been used by the Japanese people for centuries!
Apart from being a drink which has a cleansing flavour and grassy overtones, it is now added to smoothies, lattes, biscuits, sweets, cakes and ice cream.
Japan has a very old and established history of tea. However almost all tea produced in Japan is consumed domestically.
Tea is grown mainly in the Southern prefectures (regions) such as Kagoshima, Shizuku and Kyoto.
Sencha teas where the harvested leaves are steamed to enhance flavour and appearance, make up almost 80 per cent of teas produced in Japan.
Matcha tea, a bright green powdered tea used in the famous Japanese Tea Ceremony (Chanoyu) is also sought after. Bancha is another style of Japanese tea.
The highest quality of Japanese tea is Gyokuru tea, where the plants are shaded for weeks before picking and processing. Gyokuru is a rare tea which produces a pale green infusion.
Genmaicha, a green Sencha tea with the interesting addition of roasted rice (popcorn) has a distinctive and nutty flavour.
Among the flavoured teas, Sakura (Cherry Blossom) is a popular blend due to its refreshing and crisp taste.
India is the second largest producer of tea with about 23% of the world’s production.
Again like China most of its production is consumed locally.
The teas from Darjeeling, in the foothills of the Himalaya are known as the champagne of teas and its first flush teas are highly sought after, particularly in Europe.
Assam teas from the Bhramaputra Valley in the North East of the country make up almost half of the tea produced in India.
Assam teas are known for their fine colour and malty flavour. Floods and employee unrest have been an issue recently.
The other tea growing regions are Nilgiri in the south of the country and Kangra in the North.
The Indian word for tea is Chai, which is why it was called Char in Britain.
However the spiced Indian tea (the flavours and ingredients of which vary from region to region) is generally referred to as Masala Chai.
This and the next few articles will familiarise you with the major tea growing countries and regions which are mostly in the Indian Ocean rim.
It is essentially the same botanical source, but the differing tea products and flavours are created by the terroir, weather, method of processing and the expertise of the manager of the tea garden as well as the tea blender.
Let us start with the biggest producer China, who grows almost 37% of the world’s tea production.
However as most of China’s tea is consumed domestically it is not the world’s largest exporter, which is Kenya.
Tea has been a central part of life and culture in China for thousands of years for social, medical and meditative purposes.
The major provinces in China that produce tea are in the south of the country: Sichuan, Fujian, Yunnan, Hunan, Zhejiang and Anhui are the most famous.
The tea from each province has its own distinctive character, appearance and flavour.
Green tea (all provinces), Black tea (Keemun from Anhui, Yunnan), Oolong (Fujian), and Puerh (Yunnan) are the most well known.
It is essential that China tea is bought from reputable outlets to ensure authenticity, purity and quality.