Friday, July 5, 2013

Teaology 101: What the heck is tea anyway?

Tea is a subtropical plant that goes by the botanical name of Camellia sinensis.  It is an evergreen that produces small white flowers.  These plants will grow into trees if left on their own, but for commercial purposes, they are pruned to waist height to make plucking the leaves much easier.

There are several varieties of Camellia sinensis, with the two main ones being Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, used mainly for Chinese teas, and Camellia sinensis var. assamica, used mainly for Indian teas.  However, either variation can be used to make any type of tea.  This versatility is what I found the most fascinating when I was taking my tea courses, and still do; that ALL teas -- white, green, yellow, red (black), oolong, pu-erh -- come from the same plant.  That’s right!  In its simplest form, tea, the kind you drink, is any beverage using the processed leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, and infusing them in hot water.  How cool is that?

Tea plantation in Cameron Highlands Malaysia
The composition of tea includes:

  • Essential Oils: these provide tea their flavour and aroma

  • Polyphenols: these are antioxidants that carry the health benefits.  It also provides tea its briskness and astringency
  • Theanine: this is the caffeine that gives tea its natural energy boost

The composition of tea can change in chemistry as they go through the manufacturing process.  For example, epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) is an antioxidant that is found only in green tea.  Water temperature and brew time may also change the chemical makeup of your tea.  You don’t want to be pouring scalding hot water over some delicate white tea leaves!  This will make you tea taste bitter and you could lose the health benefits this tea has to offer.  There have also been studies done that say adding milk and sugar to your tea can change its health benefits, BUT, these were not very extensive studies and depending on your research and which articles you read, some of these studies have been proven false.  Therefore, more studies on this debate are required before coming to a conclusion.  So, for those who enjoy their tea with milk and a sweetening agent, go for it!  Sugar is likely the only additive you might want to re-think putting into your cup.


Two leaves and a bud!

Where the plant originated will affect the flavour, aroma, and characteristics of the tea.  This is called terroir; the altitude, soil type, plant variety and age along with other factors will all go into creating a unique tea experience.  How the leaves are processed and manufactured will add an even greater dimension to the tea!  I’ll tell you all about it.  Stay tuned!

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