As the title (gasp!) reveals, black tea, green tea, white, etc. all come from the same plant: camellia sinensis. Of course, herbal teas like chamomile or rooibos come from different plants, but what we mostly associate with tea is the product of one plant.
Within the camellia sinensis family we have a few varieties:
- sinensis – originated in China, can grow up to 6m and produces lightly scented tea with little body (read as ‘light tea’, not short plant!). This variety is used for most popular teas and it’s what Britain first sampled and fell in love with in 1600s.
- assamica – originated in Assam (India), has a distinct trunk (which made the British believe it’s not tea to begin with when they colonised India) and can grow up to 10-15m. This variety produces a strong, robust tea and it forms part of the English Breakfast blend we all love so much.
- cambodiensis – originated in Cambodia and it’s in between sinensis and assamica, growing up to 6-10m. This is generally produced for cultivars (cultivated varieties that don’t reproduce), rather than for tea production.
Tea is grown on both sides of the Equator, not so much divided by latitudes but by territories. Most tea comes from China and India, but you can get great varieties from Sri Lanka (beloved Ceylon), Taiwan (Oolong), Kenya (Kenyan tea is part of the English Breakfast blend), Japan (Sencha) and more.
Tea harvesting frequency depends on the region it comes from because the soil, climate and weather conditions have great impact on its yield. Hot temperatures and high humidity create more frequent cycles to the point that Darjeeling is harvested on average 42 times per year!
Generally, I found that the early spring and early summer crops are the most well regarded in the tea community, giving the so-called Flushes (= posh word for crop). You might have seen that certain teas are branded First Flush, Second Flush or Third Flush; that’s where the term comes from. Certain fine tea are highly sought after based on when they are harvested like First Flush Darjeeling and Second Flush Assam (more on that later or we’ll be here all day!)
Plucking can be done in one of two ways: manual or mechanical. For fine leaf teas and single-estate teas, plucking is certainly done manually, but also when tea is cultivated on slopes where machines wouldn’t be able to function. The bud and the first two or three leaves are plucked by experienced pluckers (exclusively women in Sri Lanka, India and Japan) who know exactly which leaves are ready. They have great dexterity, impressive speed and a keen eye. In an eight-hour day, they can collect as much as 60kg of tea leaves!
Mechanical plucking is prevalent in areas where the cost of labour is high. Because machines can’t judge what to pick, this often leads to waste as they might pluck leaves and buds which are two young for processing. Personally, I think this also ends up influencing the taste because the value of the crop is lower and is therefore likely to end up in tea bags (we’ll learn more about that when we talk about grading).
Tea is something quite surprising when you start learning more about it. I find it all fascinating and I hope to share my excitement with you! What gives us the different types of tea that you may or may not have been adventurous enough to try (I don’t judge, we’re all here to learn!) is the processing method after plucking.
But I’ll leave that to next time! So come back over the following weeks to read about what gives black, green, white and oolong tea their names.