I just had the opportunity to come to the UK Tea Academy, thanks to Canton Tea, to do the Level 1 Tea Champion course. Two days of intensive tea training, and I’m absolutely stunned. The tea world is so rich, so full of culture and flavour!
The course gives you the basic knowledge of all the 6 tea categories (white, yellow, green, black, fermented and oolong), their sensory specificities, production style and the essential tools to prepare each tea correctly. There is also the essential part of tea history, fascinating to know how tea traveled from one part of the world to another and why.
Short history class
Tea was discovered about 5000 years ago in China, in the Yunnan province. It is said that it was discovered by Shennong, the famous emperor and herbalist, who would boil many different herbs finding out their benefit or harm to the human body. He supposedly had poisoned himself many many times, and the legend states that once he fell in a coma, but luckily enough it was just under a huge tea tree, and at dusk when then dew collected on the leaves, the saturated liquid fell into his mouth and he could wake up.
Remember please, it is essential that when you refer to any beverage as tea, it should be brewed from only what is the tea plant – Camellia sinensis. All other plant and herb beverages are correctly called herbal infusions.
Camellia sinensis is the species of the tea plant, an evergreen shrub, there are two main plants – Camellia sinensis var. sinensis and Camellia sinensis var. assamica. They are distinct in aspect, the terroir they grow in and the sensory characteristics you will perceive in your tea cup.
The six tea types
There are six tea types that can come from any of the varieties or cultivars, it’s just a matter of how you harvest and process the tea leaves.
- White tea – the least processed of all, usually the bud or the bud and first leaves are picked very carefully. That is left to wither to reduce moisture as much as possible and then dried. Some imagine that this will have less caffeine than other teas, but the buds are usually the most concentrated since they have to be most protected from pests, so it’s just a bio response and works as a pesticide.
- Green tea – made without any oxidation, the leaves are withered just slightly and then pan-fired (in a hot wok) (common in China) or steamed (common in Japan), so this denatures the enzymes and oxidation doesn’t take place anymore. Think of what happens when you blanch some broccoli, you throw it in some hot water for a short time, take it out and it will stay nice and bright green.
- Yellow tea – I had never tried this before, but it’s quite interesting. The tea is withered, pan-fired, and then covered in some cloths while it’s still hot, so a non-enzymatic browning happens, something like a slight caramelisation, the pan-firing is done again and it is wrapped in the cloths again, this is repeated for several times until the tea is dried fully.
- Oolong – this is such a special tea category, because there can be such a huge variety. It is an oxidative processing method, so it can be anything between 20% up to 90% of oxidation. It is made differently in different territories, but the leaves are normally bruised for some time for them to get to the desired oxidation level. Oolong, Wu Long in Chinese, actually means Black Dragon. Why? Because the way the tea is produced leaves the shape of the tea leaf dark and sometimes in a dragon-like appearance. A different type, like the jade oolongs, are jade because of their brighter green color, and they are mostly balled leaves.
- Black tea – so black tea, you guessed it, is 100% oxidized, the tea is either made in the orthodox (traditional method) where the leaves are rolled for a long time either by hand or in special machines and is then left to oxidize completely before drying, or it can be made in a faster more industrial way called CTC – that is basically what you usually find in lower grade tea bags, as it is “crush, tear, curl”.
- Dark teas – last but not least, the fermented tea category. Remember that other teas are not fermented because microorganisms aren’t important and don’t participate in their production. In this category, however, they play a fundamental role. Since this category is a bit complex and there is a fantastic history to it, I’ll tell you more about it in my next post.
I hope you are a tea fan, and you still are not, I encourage you to explore this world because it has the most intriguing flavors and stories!