What is tea?

Tea1 is a beverage made from the leaves2 of the tea plant (botanical name Camellia sinensis). After they are plucked, the leaves are processed in various ways and the resulting dried product is infused in water to make tea.3

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Drawing of Camellia sinensis from Köhler’s Medicinal Plants, 1887 {PD – see source}

The tea plant, Camellia sinensis, is an evergreen shrub indigenous to certain regions of China and India. Botanists recognize two varieties of the tea plant: var. sinensis and var. assamica. Over the centuries, tea growers have bred these naturally occurring varieties into cultivars that they have propagated by cloning.

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Like other camellias, tea is a flowering plant, but its flower is quite modest. Here is an example I found in a tea garden near Sidhbari, Himachal Pradesh, India.

Tea is usually grouped into six classes: green, yellow, white, oolong, black (called “red” in China), and dark (e.g. puerh). The method of processing is what differentiates one class from another. In other words, what makes a “green” tea different from an “oolong” tea is how the leaves are processed after plucking.

In theory, the leaves of any tea plant can be processed into any of the above classes of tea. In practice, however, tea makers have preferences regarding varieties and cultivars, growing practices and plucking style, processing methods, and other variables, based on their experience producing a certain class of tea.

In addition to the above, there are many other factors that contribute to the unique flavor profile of a particular tea, such as the “terroir” of the growing region, seasonal variations, and changes to the surrounding ecosystem. Considering all this, it’s not surprising that within the six major classes there are countless different types of tea.

In fact, one could probably spend a lifetime drinking and learning about tea. This blog is my small contribution to our appreciation of the expansive world of tea. As you read, why not sit back, relax…and drink your tea.

Tea tempers the spirits and harmonizes the mind, dispels lassitude and relieves fatigue, awakens thought and prevents drowsiness, lightens or refreshes the body, and clears the perceptive faculties.

-Lu Yu, The Classic of Tea (茶经), 8th Century CE


Notes

  1. We often call other beverages “tea,” for example, infusions of herbs, flowers or other parts of various plants. However, these other beverages are more correctly called “tisanes.”
  2. In addition to the leaves, often the leaf buds and sometimes the stalks are also used.
  3. The notable exception to the above method of infusion is Japanese matcha tea. Matcha leaves are ground into a fine powder that is whisked into hot water, and the resulting frothy mixture is consumed.

     

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