This might shock you but all tea comes from the same plant 

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.

camelia sinensis-sinensis

  • 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.

camelia-sinensis-assamica

  • 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.

Harvesting

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

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.

Tea equipment: the basics for enjoying a good cuppa

As I’ve promised in my last blog post, I’m going to help you discover a whole new world of tea. But before any great endeavour like that, we must first decide what tools we need. An explorer never goes anywhere without a plan!

Teapots

While many of us prepare and drink tea out of the same container (the mug), tea leaves are at their best when brewed in a teapot. The reason for that is that leaves have a bigger surface area so they need more contact with water to develop their full flavour.

Lesson #1: the more space you give tea leaves to unravel and brew, the better taste of tea you’ll get.

Teapots are also a thing of beauty (whether you’re a tea drinker or not), and I have to say that in my experience the shape and material from which they’re made of (generally ceramic, fine bone china, cast iron or glass) do not influence the quality of the brew. It’s true you might to keep some teapots for black tea blends and others for lighter green and white blends, but more on that in a future post.

A good quality teapot should last for many years to come, so make sure you get one to your liking whether you spend £10 or £100. I promise I’ll show you mine in future posts!

Strainers and infusers

We have something to make the tea in, now we need something to separate the leaves from the final result.

There is a myriad of tools at our disposal for that: from novelty infusers like a mini teapot or a manatee to more traditional ones. My personal problem with these is that they are a bit of a faff to clean. Getting wet tea leaves out of any space can be a challenge, let alone a tight one! The more theoretical problem with them is that, like I mentioned above, they don’t give the leaves enough surface area to brew. If you cram a teaspoon of jasmine pearls in a manatee, you’ll prevent the little rolls of white tea from unravelling much. Or any other good quality leaf tea for that matter!

fortnum-and-mason-tea-strainer
Fortnum & Mason

 

duck-tea-infusers
Bored Panda

 

whittard-tea-ball-infuser
Whittard

 

Strainers (like the Fortnum & Mason one above), on the other hand, are posh mini sieves which allow a tea that has brewed directly in the teapot to be separated from the wet blend at the moment of pouring. This allows for the most surface area during the brewing process but you have to be quick to drink it. The more you expose tea leaves to water (past 5 minutes or less with more delicate blends), the tannins will come out and replace the flavour. I’ll explain more about them in a future post, but they are the ones that make the tea bitter and make your mouth clench.

The best way of brewing tea that I have found is using tea baskets, like this one below from Whittard.

whittard-tea-basket

They come included in most modern teapots but if you prefer to make your brew directly in a mug, you can get special baskets for mugs – they’re taller and don’t have the indent for the teapot lid tongue. They’re quite cheap to buy and replace when needed (one above is just £4).

Mug or cup and saucer?

You’ll be happy to know that this is entirely your choice. I personally find that cups and saucers provide a sense of occasion to tea drinking. But I opt for a mug for my daily brew.

The material they’re made of is also a personal preference. Some tea drinkers prefer fine bone china over ceramics, but I don’t find it influences the taste much.

That’s it for now! Until next time x

White, no sugar. But why?

I love tea. I love the way a cup of tea can be something that makes you feel better, something that calms you down, something that wakes you up, something you have every day and something you use to celebrate a particular occasion. Something that goes with breakfast, snacks, lunch and dinner. Something you can safely offer strangers like the plumber and they won’t look funny at you. Something worth colonising a new territory for, and something to sink to make a point to those who colonised you.

But it’s also something we seem to have lost the value of. We scorch a teabag full of dust rather than leaves with hot water, swirl it around twice in the mug, add a drop/splash/generous serving of milk, perhaps a spoonful of sugar and call the job done.

I’m on a mission to make all my readers (no matter how few) fall in love with tea again. To help them discover that there is more than the dust of a teabag behind a satisfying cuppa.

Why? Because I’ve done it before. I’ve helped reluctant builder’s tea drinkers discover the surprising cosiness of a Milk Oolong. And there’s nothing more satisfying to me than seeing their excitement and informed decision-making when faced with a tea menu now.

How? By giving you passionate and genuine reviews and advice. I’m going to share everything I know. I used to work for a famous tea retailer in England and I have an insatiable thirst and curiosity for everything tea. But I also know that those in the know tend to be too stuck up in their descriptions of brews. A bit like wine enthusiasts, I guess.

I promise none of that ‘on the nose’ and ‘on the palate’ nonsense. I promise perhaps subjective, but honest opinions. I promise you’re going to see tea in a whole new light. And you’re going to love it!