We at Crucial tend to talk a lot about coffee, mainly because we love the stuff and want to pass on that love to any and all readers. However, there is another caffeinated drink that is extremely popular and we felt it was time to talk about that as well. It’s as versatile as coffee; it has as many different preparations as java for sure, and is just as nuanced in flavors and notes. We are of course, speaking of tea.
Tea is the second most popular drink in the world, falling in line right after water. It has gained popularity in the past decade because of its health benefits and that it doesn’t have the acidity that troubles so many coffee drinkers. Tea does have small doses of caffeine, about one-half of an equivalent amount of coffee, which makes it a more suitable night cap for some. Green tea is high in antioxidants, particularly polyphenols, which helps combat the signs and symptoms of aging. There is also a study that shows that drinking green tea daily helps to lower LDL cholesterol levels.
In general, tea can be broken down into four varieties, with multiple subsets of each variety. These are Black, Green, Oolong, White, and Pu-erh. While there are other drinks that use the same brewing method as tea, they are not properly tea. Tea is made from the leaf of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis; as such, herbal drinks such as chamomile or yerba mate are not proper teas (they’re actually called tisane, which is Greek for “not tea”). Likewise, masala is a way of flavoring tea with spices such as ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and cardamom, so the basic principles of brewing a pot of black tea remain unchanged.
We can’t really talk about the different types of tea without discussing oxidation. Oxidation is an enzymatic process in the leaves that breaks down the chlorophyll and releases the tannins. For many black teas, the leaves are bruised or torn to accelerate the process; this can be hastened even more by curing the tea in a humid environment. The oxidation process is halted by heating the tea slightly, which destroys the enzymes without changing the flavor.
Black tea is the stuff that most of us have grown up with. Whether it’s bags of Lipton that your grandmother turned into dark and pungent sweet tea, or watching Captain Picard order up a cup of “Earl Grey, hot,” this is all black tea. The tea leaves have been fully oxidized during drying, giving the leaves their distinct color.
Green tea, on the other hand, is the least oxidized type of tea. Within hours of the tea leaves being picked, they are heated. In China, this is traditionally done with dry warming in a pan; in Japan, the traditional method is a steam bath.
In the middle of the two types of teas is Oolong tea. The oxidation percentage for oolong varietals varies from 5 percent to 70 percent depending on the color and strength of tea desired. Oolongs are heated in a rolling drum to stop the oxidation, after which the damp leaves are rolled and made into strips. Oolong tea strips are then rolled and shaped into bundles or half spheres for steeping.
White tea undergoes oxidation, and then withered and baked to stop the oxidation process. The traditional Chinese method of making a white tea is to allow full oxidation to take place as the tea dries out in the sun. However, a white tea is formed from new growth, and as such has much less chlorophyll and thus fewer tannins are formed during oxidation.
The last variety is Pu-erh tea and can also include Liu’an or Liubao teas. These teas are oxidized a second time after the tea is heated and formed into compressed discs. The method of producing these teas is a secret held closely by the companies who make them. The tea will actually change flavors as it ages, because some of the enzymes in the leaves are still alive.
Keep in mind that this only scratches the surface of the various teas that are available. Just like coffee or wine, where the tea is grown will affect its flavor as well. Black tea from China tastes differently than an Indian-grown Darjeeling or Nilgiri tea, which have different flavor notes from a Sri Lankan Ceylon tea.
The flavor that a tea has also comes from its cut and how it is steeped. In coffee terms, the cut of a tea is comparable to its grind, and Just like coffee, the time that a tea should steep has much to do with how finely the leaves are cut. In a tea bag, the tea is basically dust, or a fanning cut. This powder makes for a very fast brew, which is convenient. But if you leave the tea bags in too long, the end is a bitter oversteeped brew that is nothing like the real drink (think of using a fine espresso grind in an Aerobie press coffee maker).
To get the most out of tea, ditch the bags altogether and brew loose cut tea. It doesn’t take much to make a good cup (although, just like coffee, you can find very fancy and expensive tea-brewing sets). You need a good kettle to heat water in and a brewing container, such as a pot or a Chinese gaiwan. Alternately, you can use a French Press coffee maker or even a percolator for a black tea. Loose teas come in all manner of shapes, from tightly compressed discs to loose bundles of leaves that can resemble a sachet of lawn clippings. Just like coffee, the different types demand different brewing techniques.
If you’re considering venturing into the world of tea, give yourself and your palate time to adjust to its flavors. Just like wine, coffee, or anything worth tasting, it takes time to be able to suss out the subtleties. Think of the first time you tasted the deep raspberries in a good Chardonnay, or the cocoa notes of a medium roast Sumatra bean; once you learn to detect the subtler flavors of tea, an entire world opens up. Give tea a chance and you’re sure to find something you’ll love.