So what exactly is the world's biggest brewed beverage? Tea is basically the dried and processed leaves of only one species of plant - the aforementioned camellia sinensis. Herbal teas or herbal infusions are not really "teas", simply dried flowers, herbs, roots, spices or other parts of some plants, "tisanes" to be precise. Even though all teas come from only one species, there are 2 major varietals:
- The China: Small leaves and generally thrives at higher altitudes.
- The India (or Assam): Larger leaves and generally thrives at lower altitudes.
Art of Tea
Tea processing is the art of tea where the taste, body, and character are created.
Taking the raw green leaves and deciding whether or not, and how much oxidation (or fermentation) should take place before drying them out.
Tea leaves have enzymes in their veins. When the leaf is broken, bruised, or crushed, the enzymes are exposed to the air resulting in oxidation. The amount of oxidation depends upon the length of exposure. There are four methods of tea processing and each produces a different type of tea:
White Tea Processing
White tea is:
- the least common,
- the least processed and
- the most like fresh leaves or grass.
It also has the lowest caffeine and the highest antioxidants. It's just the tightly rolled buds. To prevent oxidation, white teas are immediately fired or steamed after letting them wither (air dry). No rolling, breaking, or bruising.
Black Tea Processing
Black teas are the most consumed of the four types of tea.
They are the highest in caffeine and lower in antioxidant properties.
The black tea processing goes through the most stages: picked, then left to wither for several hours.
Rolled, then the oils from the leaves brought to the surface.
These aid the oxidation process, which last for several hours.
The last step of tea processing is placing the leaves in an oven of temperatures reaching up to 200 degrees Fahrenheit. When the leaves are 80 percent dry, the leaves complete their drying over wood fires. The resulting product is brownish (sometimes black) in color and is sorted accordingly to size, the larger grade is considered "leaf grade", and smaller "broken grade" are usually used for paper tea bags.
Oolong Tea Processing
Oolong teas are the most difficult of the four to process.
They are somewhere between green and black tea because they are only partially oxidized during the tea processing.
Oolong tea goes through a similar process to black tea: withering and rolling.
Instead of rolling, sometimes shaking is used to bruise the outer edges of the leaves.
The oxidation period for oolong tea is half that of black tea. Once the veins become clear and the edges of the leaves become reddish brown, while the center remains green, the oxidation process is stopped by firing. For oolong tea, the leaves are heated at a higher temperature so that they can be kept longer.
Green Tea Processing
Green tea processing is tedious. Picked, the leaves are placed in a high humidity to maintain quality.
A moist low temperature keeps the leaves fresh.
Then light steaming to set the color and quality of green teas.
The length of which determines the taste, aroma and color.
Extra steaming equals deep murky green liquid but the color of the tealeaves become bright and the level of astringency and aroma are reduced.
After cooling, tealeaves are pressure rolled while dry in hot air. Removing moisture from the leaf's surface improves color and aroma. After scattering, the leaves are pressed and rolled and hot air is again used on the dry leaves. This process softens the leaves and reduces the level of moisture further.
Then the leaves are gathered together and pressed and rolled without heat. Leaves not rolled enough earlier in the process are rolled again. This process levels off the moisture content of the leaves and destroys the tissue. This allows the substances within the tea to easily emerge when brewed.
Some teas are flavored with oils or scented with flower petals during the processing stage. Some are blends of the four main types.