Often thought of as the quintessentially British drink, tea has actually only been common in Britain for about 350 years. The purposeful cultivation of tea began in China around 350AD and became firmly established during the Tang dynasty of the 7th to 10th centuries. In Britain, the escalation of the import of tea was matched by the import of sugar, due to the British consumer’s propensity for sweet tea. Both of these imports were controlled by the East India Company. In the modern age, tea is only matched for popularity by coffee, and similarly to coffee, there is a massive variety of teas available to the consumer that you can read about on this page.
A hardy evergreen plant, camellia Sinensis is indigenous to China and India but is currently grown in many tropical and sub-tropical parts of the world. The plant prefers a warm humid climate, with approximately 100cm of rainfall per year. The ideal soil is deep, light, and acidic, with good drainage. If allowed to grow unchecked, the bush will grow to a large size but for ease of cultivation, the plants are kept as bushes. Only the top few inches of the bushes leaves are plucked and dependant on the area, the bushes are picked every 7 to 14 days.
All tea comes from the same strain of plant, and it is the way in which the leaves are processed which determines the variety of tea created. The basics of the process are withering, rolling, oxidation, and firing.
Once the tea is picked, the moisture in the leaves is evaporated using warm air and the leaves start to wither. This process can take 10 to 16 hours. After this the withered leaves are rolled, a process that breaks down the internal cells, in order to release the fragrant oils. It is worth noting at this point that though most quality leaf teas are rolled by machine resulting in larger particles, there is also a method known as CTC, or cut, tear and curl. This method results in much smaller particles and is often used for the teabag market. The rolled broken leaves are then left to oxidize, and the leaves become much darker. Finally, the leaves are fired, meaning they are passed through chambers of hot air, so the rest of the moisture is evaporated.
The method described above results in black tea, which accounts for 80% of all tea sold in the world today. The other main types of tea sold are white, green, and oolong. Other names simply denote a variation on one of these four types.
White tea –
Tea leaves which have been picked before the buds have opened. This type of tea does not undergo rolling or oxidation, resulting in a very mild, light-colored tea, with a sweet, slightly grassy nature
Green tea –
Tea leaves which are withered and rolled, but not oxidized. The leaves are then fired, and the resulting brew preserves the natural elements of the fresh tea leaves. Highly regarded in the East for its antioxidant properties, it is becoming increasingly popular in the West.
Also known as semi-fermented, oolong tea undergoes the same processes as black tea, but the oxidation time is halved to 1 to 2 hours. This results in a full-bodied, lively brew.
The most well-known types come from China, India, and Sri-Lanka.
As mentioned above, somewhere between green and black tea An everyday black tea, with full-bodied richness, a green Assam is also available
The above are some teas most easily available to the consumer, but there are a great many websites offering a wide range of teas from around the world.
Other tea-related products include herbal and fruit teas, which are either combined with leaf tea or simply a blend of dried herbs and fruit. Rooibos is a well known Australian herbal tea, well-liked for its lack of caffeine. Another popular option at the moment is chai, which is an Indian drink based on black tea, but heavily spiced and with milk and sugar added.
‘The agony of the leaves’ refers to the action of the tea leaves uncurling when they are brewed. For the ideal cup of tea, a teapot allows for optimum brewing, and some of the options available will be discussed shortly.
Everybody’s idea of the perfect cup of tea is slightly different, and personal preference has a large part to play. The basics though are that there should be approximately 3 grams of tea to every 6 ounces of water and that the water should be fresh and of good quality. The water should also not be allowed to boil continuously, or be re-boiled, as this reduces the oxygen content of the water, and results in the tea tasting flat. The temperature of the water is also important, as white or green teas require water just off the boil, in order to protect the more delicate flavor elements. Similarly, different teas require different brewing times. White and green teas require between 2 and 3 minutes, whereas black tea requires 3 to 5, and oolong can take up to 7. As mentioned though, personal taste has its part to play here.
With regard to the actual teapot used, though they all obviously do a similar job, there are a few different options to be considered. Most teapots are made from pottery, stainless steel, or glass.
Pottery is the most traditional, and perhaps most elegant, and the only real drawback to it is that staining can occur inside.
Stainless steel teapots are very hardwearing and therefore ideal for the catering trade. Some people would prefer not to use metal, as they believe it can sometimes lend a metallic taint to the tea. A well-made metal teapot is one of the most unlikely to drip though, as the machined spout will usually be more regular than that of a pottery teapot.
Glass teapots are often recommended for white or green teas, as there is no possibility of a flavor taint, which is obviously a more important point for these more delicately flavored teas. Glass teapots nearly always come with a filter or press inside.
In addition to the basic materials, teapots can feature other options such as thermal insulation and an inbuilt filter. Insulated teapots tend to be made of stainless steel, and feature a double wall to keep the tea hotter for longer. An inbuilt filter allows the user to remove the tea leaves quickly and easily from the teapot, preventing stewing.